Israeli excavation in Jerusalem stirs Muslim anger

By Jonathan Saul
Tuesday, February 6, 2007; 3:58 PM

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Palestinians warned Israel on Tuesday that a ceasefire deal in Gaza would unravel if Israeli excavation work near a compound housing al-Aqsa mosque damaged Islam's third holiest shrine.

Israel said the excavation work, which began on Tuesday when bulldozers started breaking paving stones outside the compound, would not cause harm to the site in Jerusalem's walled Old City, the heart of Arab-Israeli conflict.

But President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction said any damage to al-Aqsa would release Palestinian militant groups from a ceasefire with Israel in the Gaza Strip.

The governing Hamas movement said "any assault" on the mosque "will lead to a termination of the limited ceasefire" declared in November and would spark "a volcano of anger."

Israel's Antiquities Authority said it was searching for artefacts at the base of the compound known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount, before construction of a pedestrian bridge to replace a ramp leading up to the complex.

Israel's opening of an entrance to an archaeological tunnel near Haram al-Sharif in 1996 triggered Palestinian protests and led to clashes in which 61 Arabs and 15 Israeli soldiers were killed.

Two bulldozers began breaking up parts of the pavement at the foot of the ramp, damaged by a snowstorm and an earthquake in 2004, to clear the way for what the authority called a "salvage excavation."

After an all-clear that no artefacts remain, plans can be finalized for the 100-meter (yard) bridge to the Mughrabi Gate entrance to Haram al-Sharif, which overlooks Judaism's Western Wall.


Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said before leaving for unity talks with Fatah in Mecca that Israel was out to cause "direct harm" to al-Aqsa.

"I appeal to all our Palestinian people to be united and to rise up together to protect al-Aqsa," he said.

Jordan's King Abdullah said the Israeli action was "a blatant violation that is not acceptable under any pretext," the state news agency Petra reported.

Morocco's King Mohammed urged Israel to halt immediately the work which "is aimed at distorting the hallmarks and the symbols of Islam and civilization," the state news agency MAP said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Israeli authorities should have consulted Palestinian parties.

Israel said the excavation work, some 50 meters (yards) from the existing ramp, would do no damage to al-Aqsa or the Dome of the Rock mosque which is also located on the hilltop compound where the two biblical Jewish temples once stood.

"The activities being carried out do not harm ... and will not harm any of the holy places," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said, accusing Israel's enemies of exploiting "every opportunity to stir the most radical emotions."

Israeli police, stationed in alleyways of the Old City to head off any violence, arrested 11 people during protests in Jerusalem but said there were no major confrontations.

In Bethlehem, crowds of Palestinians threw stones at Israeli soldiers outside Rachel's Tomb, a holy site at the entrance to the West Bank city. The soldiers responded with tear gas.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 conflict in a step that has not been recognized internationally. Palestinians want the eastern part of the city as the capital of a future state.

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