By Martin Asser
BBC News, Jerusalem
A group of Israeli archaeologists is protesting about fresh excavations at Jerusalem’s holiest religious shrine, saying it threatens priceless relics.
Muslim authorities at al-Aqsa mosque, also venerated by Jews as the Temple Mount, are digging a 150-metre trench for water pipes and electricity cables.
Israeli critics say the work is causing irreparable damage, indiscriminately piling up earth and carved stones.
Mosque officials insist it is urgent infrastructure work doing no damage.
The Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount compound is the Middle East’s most sensitive disputed religious site.
Competing claims have been a catalyst for violence in the recent past and determining its fate lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Jewish tradition reveres the area as the remains of King Solomon’s temple, while Muslim tradition has it as the location of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascent into heaven.
With the rest of east Jerusalem the shrine was occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Now the compound is run by the Muslim Waqf authorities under Israeli security control.
The Waqf resumed working this week, using a mechanical digger on a metre-deep trench, cutting through the subsoil and piling it up beside the trench.
Israeli archaeologists say such material should be carefully sifted and documented, as it would be even at sites of far less significance than this most sensitive cultural and religious location.
Gabriel Barkai of the Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount calls it an act of barbarism.
“They are digging in the most crucial and delicate point of the Temple Mount – of the whole country,” the Bar-Ilan University senior lecturer told the BBC.
“They should be using a toothbrush, not a bulldozer.”
Dr Barkai identifies the area currently under excavation as the outer courts of the Second Temple, built by Herod the Great in the First Century BC.
He maintains it is where the best preservation of antiquities was anticipated, since other parts of the compound are built on exposed bedrock.
He accuses the Islamic authorities of wanting to “show who is the boss” by destroying Jewish remains in al-Aqsa mosque.
He also lambastes the Israeli Antiquities Authority, meant to supervise any work at archaeological sites, for apparently giving the work legitimacy.
Yusuf Natsheh of the Islamic Waqf dismisses such claims, saying the area has been dug many times and arguing that remains unearthed would be from the 16th or 17th century Ottoman period.
He says the work is urgently needed to maintain the al-Aqsa compound as an important religious institution.
Saturated by history
“We regret some Israeli groups try to use archaeology to achieve political ends,” Dr Natsheh told the BBC.
“But their rules of archaeology do not apply to the Haram (compound); it is a living religious site in an occupied land.”
The Israeli Antiquities Authority has not commented on the issue. “They filled their mouths with water,” as Dr Barkai puts it.
“The earth here is saturated by history. All we can do is alert the world to what is happening and try to stop the next disaster,” he says.
As far as Dr Natsheh is concerned the Israeli government has no authority over what is happening, as the Muslim authorities do not recognise its legitimacy in the occupied territory.
“We inform the Israeli police about what we intend to do, and then go ahead, so they have no excuse to prevent us,” he says.
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