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Hanegbi: Temple Mount reopening with or without Wakf agreement

Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi said Monday that Jerusalem's Temple Mount will be reopened to non-Muslim visitors by next week with or without the consent of the Islamic Wakf which administers the bitterly contested holy site.

"The Temple Mount will be reopened to non-Muslim visitors with or without agreement," Hanegbi told the a special Knesset committee called to discuss the nearly three year closure of Judaism's holiest site to Jewish and Christian visitors, and, specifically, the ban's application to Israeli legislators as well.

Hanegbi added that police were giving the Islamic Trust one final week to agree to reopen the site to non-Muslims this week, but said that failing an expected accord with the Wakf, Jerusalem police would reopen the gates to the ancient compound next week. "This week will be the test, it is the last week of waiting. We expect that by the weekend an agreement [to reopen the mount] will be reached," Hanegbi said. "But after that, it is not desirable to wait any more, and we will act unilaterally to restore the status quo that existed at the site for over thirty years," he said.

Fearing renewed Palestinian violence, police have barred non-Muslims from entering the Temple Mount since Ariel Sharon's controversial visit in September 2000. Aside from a brief reopening last month, the 33 months since then have been the longest period the Mount has been closed to Jews and Christians since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967.

Wakf director Adnan Husseini did not return calls for comment Monday, and shut off his cellular phone. In a first Arab response, the PA-appointed Jerusalem mufti, Sheikh Ikrema Sabri, said Monday that a decision to reopen the mount was "dependent on the Wakf and the Wakf alone" and was not a matter to be decided on by either the Jerusalem police or the Internal Security Ministry.

Sabri, who serves as the chief Muslim cleric in Jerusalem, has been questioned by police for incitement against Jews, as well as his alleged involvement with an Israeli Arab movement suspected of funneling funds to Hamas.

The police minister's unequivocal statements regarding the mount's reopening came as Wakf officials have stated that they are deliberating whether to agree to reopen the site to visitors, and just ten days after police abruptly announced on July 30 that they were suspending recently renewed selective visits by non-Muslims to the ancient hilltop due to concern over renewed violence at the site. As such, police had barred non-Muslim visitors -- including right-wing legislators -- from ascending the site last Thursday, as the nation marked Tisha Be'Av, the day the ancient Jewish temples at the site were destroyed.

Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levy told the Knesset committee Monday afternoon that there had been "almost certain danger" that violence would have broken out at the site had the Knesset members entered it that day. "Had the Knesset members entered the Temple Mount it is fair to assume that there was an almost certain danger that a large scale event would have happened at the Temple Mount, and I do not know if the event would have spread to other parts of the state, and beyond," Levy said, when pressed by the MK's at the session why police had banned legislators from entering the site. Neither Levy or Hanegbi would say if that same danger would not be present if Israel reopened the site without Wakf approval, and a closed door hearing was scheduled with the two men at the Knesset committee within two weeks time.

Starting in June, in what police termed the beginning of a process to gradually reopen the Temple Mount, small groups of Jewish and Christian visitors were allowed to enter the site under police escort, in an attempt to revert back to the status quo that existed for more than three decades since the Six Day War until the eruption of violence. That 33-year-long status quo had allowed non-Muslim visitors to enter, but not conduct public prayer, at the holy site, a right that was reserved for Muslims only.

The unilateral decision to allow groups to reenter the site - taken as the road map was being launched - was made with the approval of Sharon, Hanegbi, and Israel Police Chief Insp.-Gen. Shlomo Aharonishky. The initial move toward reopening the site followed the unanimous agreement by Israeli security officials, including the heads of police and the Shin Bet, that Israel was setting a dangerous precedent by keeping the site closed for so long.

Over the last month, more than 400 Jewish and Christian visitors have visited the Mount under police escort, without going into any of the Muslim holy sites, police said. There was no violence during the visits. At the same time, officials from the Islamic Wakf have expressed ongoing opposition to the reentry of the Jewish visitors, especially in light of the condemnation of the move by Arafat, who warned of "grave consequences" if the non-Muslim visits resume.

The decision to close off the Mount comes as Wakf officials are slated to meet this week to discuss the possibility of allowing the reentry of visitors. Until now, the Wakf has opposed such a move, and have put off a high-level meeting until now. Just Thursday, as a Likud MK was physically blocked by police from ascending the site, the Wakf called on Muslims to protect the Arab mosque built on the site from "Jewish extremists". But in the Knesset session Monday, which was called at the initiative of MK Yuli Edelstein, Hanegbi endorsed the words of former Jerusalem police chief Aryeh Amit, who termed Israel's decision to close the Mount nearly three years ago to non-Muslims a "major strategic error," which has succeeded in directly playing into Arafat's hands. Hanegbi said the decision to close off the mount to non-Muslims in the fall of 2000 was based on Arafat's "diktat."

Amit had said the decision to close off the site again last month, even after it was partially reopened, was yet another mistake, made again at Arafat's whim. As usual, the Knesset meeting Monday was not without its stormy moments.

This time it was Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen who set off a furor by repeating and supporting Palestinian claim that it was Ariel Sharon's visit to the site that ignited the last 34 months of violence in the country. That remark, rebuffed as a "blood libel" by Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar and condemned by every other MK present, set off a huge ruckus, with Likud Knesset members present noting that "it was no coincidence" that the Shas MK did not make such a remark when his party was part of the government.

Sa'ar, who served as Sharon's former cabinet secretary, accused the Shas MK of promoting a "blood libel," which Israel's enemies will exploit.

After Cohen continued to make asides and repeatedly interrupted the session, he was ejected from the session after being called to order three times by the Likud's committee chairman Roni Bar-On.

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