Jerusalem Muslim leader calls for halt to Israeli excavation project

In 1996, Palestinians rioted after Israel opened an archaeological tunnel by the compound
OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — The top Muslim cleric in the holy land on Tuesday called on Israel to halt work on an archaeological project near a disputed holy site, saying continuing the dig would inflame tensions in the region.

Israeli authorities recently unveiled an underground site that strengthens Jewish ties to the hilltop compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary.

The compound was the site of the biblical Jewish temples, and is considered so holy that many observant Jews will not go there for fear of defiling it. It currently houses Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques and is revered by Muslims as the place where Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.

Israel has conducted archaeological digs near the compound since it captured the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast War. The digs infuriate the Palestinians and the Islamic Trust that oversees the mosque complex. The competing claims to the site have often acted as a catalyst for Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

In September, Israel unveiled a tourist centre at the underground site near the compound that details the Jewish connection to the site. The centre showcases a ritual bath from the period of the second Jewish Temple, destroyed in 70 AD, and a wall archaeologists say dates to the first Jewish Temple, destroyed in 586 BC

The top Muslim clergyman, or mufti, of Jerusalem, Ikrema Sabri, called the archaeological project an “aggression” that threatened the mosque compound and demanding an immediate end to the digs.

“These violations and aggression lead to tension in the region,” he said on Tuesday. In 1996, Palestinians rioted after Israel opened an archaeological tunnel alongside the compound. Eighty people were killed in the violence.

In September 2000, then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the mosque compound. The next day, violence erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, evolving into a nearly five-year Palestinian uprising that killed more than 3,500 people on the Palestinian side and more than 1,000 people on the Israeli side.

Sabri and other local Muslim leaders also accused Israel of opening a synagogue in the newly opened site, which they considered a challenge to their own claims to the compound.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the chief rabbi of the Western Wall, said there was no new synagogue at the site and the digs did not go into the compound.

“It’s lies and there is nothing behind what they are saying,” he said.

Sheikh Raed Salah, a radical leader of Israel’s Islamic Movement, called the excavations a “black stain” on Israel and accused the government of plotting to destroy the mosques to build a new temple.

“You are inviting an uprising against you just to stop your attack on the mosque,” he said.

Israel has repeatedly denied any plans to damage the mosques and has stopped several attempts by Jewish extremists to destroy the shrines.

“The third temple will not be built by people. As we know in the Jewish faith it will be built by God,” Rabinovitch said.

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