Gate of Mercy
Gate of Mercy Reuters

The Muslim foundation which runs the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Waqf, said Tuesday it will defy an Israeli court order barring access to part of the flashpoint holy site.

There have recently been scuffles between worshipers and police there over the use of a side building called the Golden Gate, closed by Israel since 2003.

Arguing there was no longer any reason for it to remain shut, Arab officials reopened the building last month and crowds of worshipers prayed inside despite the Israeli closure.

A Jerusalem court this week gave the Waqf until March 10 to explain why the closure order should be lifted, Israeli watchdog group Ir Amim said in a statement.

"As the Waqf does not formally recognize the Israeli court system, it is unlikely to issue a formal response, in which case the court is expected to approve closure of the building," the NGO said.

"It is anticipated that a forced closure by the police will trigger significant numbers of Palestinians rallying or breaking the closure."

That, it said, was liable to lead to "a harsh police reaction" at the Temple Mount.

Asked to confirm the latest ruling, a justice ministry official told AFP details of the case were "confidential".

"The decisions of the courts do not apply to the mosque of Al-Aqsa," Sheikh Abdel Azim Salhab, the leader of the Waqf council, said in a video clip published on Tuesday.

"It is our right, religious and contractual, to access the Golden Gate and keep this door open for Muslims to pray," he said.

Salhab and his assistant were briefly detained last week for what police said was violation of an order preventing entry into a prohibited area of the holy site.

They were released later the same day but the arrest drew condemnation from Jordan.

Waqf spokesman Firas al-Dibs said that since the latest dispute erupted Israel had arrested nearly 130 Arabs in Jerusalem, including senior Muslim officials.

It has temporarily barred more than 60 people from the compound, he said.

Access to Golden Gate was closed by an Israeli court order in 2003 during the second Intifada over militant activity there, police say.

Waqf officials argue that the organisation that prompted the ban no longer exists.

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