Under a heavy police presence, Israeli archeologists are removing tons of rock and debris from a site that lies next to a walkway leading to Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. VOA's Jim Teeple reports the dig has infuriated Muslims who say it could damage Islamic holy structures.
Tensions were high in Jerusalem's old city as bulldozers began removing debris from the base of a wooden pedestrian ramp that allows people to walk from near the base of the Wailing Wall up to the compound of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosques.
Israeli archeologists want to replace the wooden pedestrian ramp with a new more permanent ramp. But the project involves the removal of tons earth and archeological debris that lie under a section of a centuries-old walkway to the Dome of the Rock compound that is no longer used. Islamic clerical authorities say the excavation will destroy the old walkway, which they say belongs to the mosque complex, and could result in damage to the structure of the al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam's holiest shrines.
Gideon Avni, the director of excavations for Israel's Antiquities Authority, says the work now being carried out is more than 50 meters away from the Dome of the Rock compound and there is no danger of the al-Aqsa Mosque being damaged in the process.
"This is not the first time that such an allegation has been made," he noted. "For the last 40 years all the archeological excavations that were conducted around the Temple Mount, not in the Temple Mount, were accused of damaging the walls of the temple. These walls were constructed 2,000 years ago by King Herod. They are firmly based on the bedrock. Nothing on earth except a huge earthquake will damage them."
The massive wall that buttresses the Dome of the Rock compound is the Wailing Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. The Dome of the Rock with its two mosques is where Muslims believe the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. Jews venerate the site as the Temple Mount, the location of their two biblical temples.
Israel captured the entire area from Jordan in the 1967 war, but allowed Jordan to maintain its role as custodian of the two mosques. Jordanian authorities have expressed concerns about the excavation as well.
Ibrahim Sarsur, the Head of the Islamic Movement in Israel and a former member of Israel's parliament or Knesset, says the current excavation is designed to diminish the Muslim presence in Jerusalem.
"The excavations are continuing. The destruction of Islamic sanctuaries in this holy place is continuing," he said. "What they are doing here is a part of what the Israelis really want to achieve in this place, which is to simply demolish the Islamic identity of this place."
The office of Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a statement saying the construction of the new pedestrian bridge would have no impact on the holy site.
Palestinians clashed with Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Bethlehem and there were scuffles between Israeli police and Moslem residents of East Jerusalem as the excavation took place.
More than 2,000 police were stationed at key points in Jerusalem's old city to prevent outbreaks of violence. Ten years ago, when Israeli archeologists opened a tunnel that runs alongside the compound, 80 people were killed in subsequent rioting. In 2000, a controversial visit to the al-Aqsa mosque by Ariel Sharon led to widespread rioting which subsequently developed into the second Intifada.