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Temple Mount to be reopened by Friday

Nearly three years after Jerusalem's Temple Mount was declared off limits to non-Muslims visitors, Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi reiterated Tuesday that the bitterly contested holy site will be reopened to Jewish and Christian visitors by Friday.

"By the end of the week, the Temple Mount will be reopened as I promised," Hanegbi said Tuesday at a youth meeting with police in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem police have declined comment on the precise timing of the expected reopening of the ancient site, but security officials said Tuesday afternoon that the mount was be reopened either Wednesday or Thursday morning.

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 in June, the 34 months since then have been the longest period the Judaism's holiest site has been closed to Jews and Christians since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967.

Hanegbi had said last week that the mount would be reopened this "week with or without" the accord of the Wakf which administers the site.

The head of the Wakf, Adnan Husseini, affirmed again Sunday, that the Islamic Trust is inclined to agree to reopen Jerusalem's Temple Mount to non-Muslims visitors "very soon," echoing recent statements made by Israeli officials that an agreement to reopen the ancient holy site is likely to be reached by mid-week.

Last week, Deputy Internal Security Minister Ya'acov Edri said that he was "is "almost absolutely certain" that an agreement will indeed be reached with the Islamic Trust to reopen the ancient holy site this week.

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 selective visits were abruptly ended last month amidst concern over new Palestinian violence at the site, in the wake of scathing criticism of the unilateral move by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, who warned of "grave consequences" if Jews continued to visit the compound.

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.

Security officials have previously noted that the Wakf was feeling the economic burden of the loss of tourist dollars -- a large source of their income -- by the steep admission the Islamic Trust charges to gain entry to the mosque and shrine at the compound.

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