*UPDATES WITH CONDEMNATION FROM JERUSALEM ISLAMIC WAQF
By Abdul Raouf Arnaout
JERUSALEM (AA) – The Jerusalem Municipality has approved a plan to expand the mixed-gender prayer area of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Israeli daily Haaretz reported Monday.
The plan was approved by municipal officials following pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to Haaretz, the scheme won approval under a special regulation that created a fast-track process authorizing the municipal engineer to approve work to make a site handicapped-accessible.
The plan also includes expansion of the mixed-gender prayer area and its entrance.
The mixed-gender prayer area is inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, where male and female Jews perform rituals together, a move opposed by Ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The expansion plan quickly invited condemnations from the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, a Jordan-run organization responsible for overseeing the city's Islamic sites.
“This is a blatant attack on the endowment of Muslims,” it said in a statement, going on to call on UNESCO to intervene to stop Israeli Judaization measures in the area.
“This proves that these Judaization projects…are meant to drastically change the religious and historical status quo in Jerusalem,” it warned.
For Muslims, the Al-Aqsa represents the world's third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. Jews, for their part, refer to the area as the "Temple Mount", claiming it was the site of two Jewish temples in ancient times.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem — in which the Al-Aqsa is located — during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, annexing the entire city 13 years later in a move never recognized by the international community.
In late 2000, a visit to Al-Aqsa by controversial Israeli politician Ariel Sharon sparked a years-long popular uprising against Israel’s decades-long occupation in which thousands of Palestinians lost their lives.