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Israeli Archaeologists Say Muslims Damaged Relics at Jerusalem Holy Site

Ancient artifacts are at the heart of a fresh dispute between Jews and Arabs at a hotly contested holy place in Jerusalem. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, the dispute points to the simmering religious tensions behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli archaeologists accuse Islamic authorities of damaging artifacts from Biblical times at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The mosque sits on a plaza, which Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary. The al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site for Muslims. As the site of the two Biblical temples, the Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism. The area is a focal point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trouble began when the Wakf, the Islamic Trust that administers the site, brought in a tractor to dig a trench. The Wakf said it was replacing a 40-year-old electrical cable, but Israeli archaeologists were furious.

"In the last week, the Islamic Wakf authorities on the Temple Mount have carried out a barbaric act of excavating illicitly," said archaeologist Gabi Barkai.

He told a news conference that the digging of the 400-meter long channel has harmed relics from the time of the Temples.

"This channel destroyed several layers of ancient remains upon the Temple Mount," he added. "The trench encountered also a built wall which could have belonged to the outer courtyards of the Temple itself."

Muslim authorities have denied the allegations, describing them as "sheer propaganda." They say they respect antiquities, and the infrastructure work did not cause any damage.

Palestinian worshipper Ismael Ramadan told VOA that Israel has no right to interfere in what happens at a Muslim holy place.

"I grew up and I see [with] my eyes and I see this is [a] mosque. I don't see [a] temple," he said.

Like many Palestinians, he believes the temples never existed.

"It's not true," he said. "No Temple."

For years, Israeli archaeologists have accused Islamic authorities of systematically destroying Temple artifacts in an attempt to erase any Jewish connection with the holy place.

But the accusations go both ways. Earlier this year, an Israeli archeological dig next to the plaza sparked protests by Muslims who feared the al-Aqsa mosque would be damaged.

Israeli authorities said they were salvaging artifacts before construction work on a walkway leading to the plaza.