Israel's government is under pressure to intervene, after warnings that a wall of the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem is in danger of collapse. There are fears that damage to the site could spark violence across the Middle East.
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert says the southern wall of the Temple Mount complex is in danger of collapse. He says the problem is a bulge in the wall, which holds up the southeastern corner of the compound.
Mr. Olmert says the danger increases when thousands of Muslim worshipers gather at the site, in Jerusalem's walled Old City. He says he is worried that during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the wall could collapse and many people could be buried in the rubble.
The Temple Mount is holy to both Muslims and Jews and has become one of the core issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says a select group of his cabinet ministers is to investigate the matter urgently.
Muslim officials in charge of the site insist that the wall, which holds the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosques, is stable. They accuse Israel of attempting to exploit the situation to increase its supervision over the area.
The director of the Waqf or Islamic Trust at the site, Adnan Husseini, says the compound remains safe. "First of all, there is really a technical problem. Unfortunately, the Israeli side tried to make from this problem, a dangerous political issue," he charged. "There is a bulge in the southern wall. This bulge is under our monitoring since the '70s. There is no increase in this bulge. It is stable. I do not feel there is any dangerous situation, but [nonetheless] during the last 10 years, we started to renovate and restore all the walls of the mosque [compound]."
Israeli archeologists are calling for the area to be closed immediately, to allow for renovations in a safe and controlled manner.
"As a result of the illegal activity, building activity, construction activity of the Islamic authorities inside the Temple Mount for several years now, it has resulted in this severe situation, that the southern wall of the Temple Mount is about to collapse," said Eilat Mazar from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The Jewish Holy Temples stood at the site in biblical times, making it the holiest place in Judaism. For centuries, it also has been home to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques, making it the third most sacred place in Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Sharon visited the area in September 2000, when he was opposition leader. In the following days, violent clashes with Palestinians ensued and have continued until now.
Although Mr. Sharon said that he was attempting to prove that Jews could visit the area freely, the Waqf since then has barred the entry of non-Muslims. Mr. Sharon, acting on the advice of his security advisors, has not challenged the decision, fearing that change in the current climate could spark more violence.
But Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert says that the government no longer has any choice but to intervene and prevent what he says is a potential "human and historical disaster."