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Temple Mount reopened to Jewish visitors

Nearly three years after Jerusalem's Temple Mount was declared off limits to non-Muslims visitors, the bitterly contested holy site was reopened to Jewish and Christian visitors Wednesday, without the explicit approval of the Islamic Wakf which
administers the compound.

Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levy said that "several hundred" Jewish and Christian visitors toured the area during the two hours it was open to the public on Wednesday morning without any reports of violence.

However, for reasons that were not immediately clear, journalists invited to a briefing with the police chief at the Western Wall plaza Wednesday morning, were not allowed into the Temple Mount.

Wakf director Adnan Husseini said Wednesday that "no agreement" had been reached between the two sides to reopen the mount to non-Muslim visitors, despite weeks of high-level contacts between the sides. As such, it appeared that the reopening was a unilateral Israeli move, similar to Israel's reopening of the site to selected visitors for several weeks starting in June.

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.

Internal Security Minister Tzahi 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.

Hanegbi said Wednesday in a statement that "from now on the Palestinians will not have to right to veto the entry of non-Muslims to a site holy to all religions."

The Internal Security ministry did not explain, however, why journalists were not allowed to enter the site.

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

But backtracking for earlier positive statements of a possible agreement -- including a suggestion that the reopening was made at the behest of economically hard-hit east Jerusalem Arab merchants who were yearning for the return of tourists to the Old City - Wakf director Husseini insisted Wednesday that no accord had been reached with the Israeli authorities to reopen the site. His remarks came in the wake of stinging condemnation of the move by the PA-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem, Ikrema Sabri.

For his part, the Jerusalem police chief said that the decision to reopen the mount to visitors on Wednesday was made before Tuesday night's Palestinian suicide bombing in Jerusalem. He declined to say whether the move was coordinated with the Wakf.

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 Waruntil 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

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.

Security officials said Wednesday that the real test measuring the success of the mount's peaceful reopening would likely come on Friday, after Muslim

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