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Jerusalem dig completes tunnel under Old City wall

Jan. 25, 2011 6:24 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 26, 2011 8:02 P.M.)
By Majeda El Batsh

JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israeli archaeologists have finished work on a tunnel which starts at a site near the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound inside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, officials said on Tuesday.

The controversial 600-meter tunnel, believed to have been originally built in 500 BC as a drainage channel, starts at an archaeological site just south of the Haram Ash-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, which houses the third holiest site in Islam. Israeli archaeologists said the tunnel was a remnant of what Jews call the Second Temple period.

"After works which lasted seven years, the last part of the tunnel, which is 600 meters long and was used for draining rainwater during the Second Temple period, has been cleared," an Israel Antiquities Authority spokesman said.

Palestinians called the dig an attempt to take further control of the holy area, and said the underground work caused the collapse of several Palestinian buildings in the Old City as it progressed.

The Israeli spokesman said the project was "purely archaeological" and that the tunnel "does not go under the Temple Mount" -- the Jewish term for the site of the mosque plaza, which Jews believe formerly housed the Second Temple.

The tunnel leads to an archaeological site run by ideological Jewish settlers located in the volatile neighborhood of Silwan which lies just outside Dung Gate, immediately south of the Old City walls. Plans to connect the site with the tunnels have been called an Israeli attempt to bifurcate the Palestinian community in East Jerusalem.

The project, started in 2004, has sparked controversy due to its proximity to the mosque compound and its funding from Elad, a hardline settler group which seeks to expand Jewish presence in occupied and annexed East Jerusalem.

"Over the years, the tunnel was partially opened to the public. Soon it will be completely opened," the spokesman said.

The tunnel so far can only be accessed from the Silwan side, but there are plans to create an exit at the other end in the coming months.

Uzi Dahari, the IAA deputy director, told public radio there was "no intention of igniting inter-religious tensions" and that it was "an archaeological project which shows how the city used to work."

But Azzam Khatib, head of Jerusalem's Islamic Waqf, which oversees Islamic heritage sites, criticized Israel for the project and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation for failing to act.

"We are worried by every Israeli action inside Jerusalem and particularly by excavations in the Old City or near or underneath the Haram Ash-Sharif," he told AFP.

"Digging in Jerusalem's Old City is contrary to international law," he said, noting that UNESCO has listed it as a world heritage site since 1982.

"I am very surprised because UNESCO is not doing its work, it is not writing reports, and it is not making any strong statements about the excavations that are changing the character of the city."

Israel settlement watchdog Peace Now warned that the work was likely to prompt an angry response from Palestinians concerned over its proximity to the mosque plaza.

"They want to open the tunnel for touristic reasons but they don't see the consequences of what they are doing," said Peace Now's Hagit Ofran.

"The problem is that no-one is sure that they are not going to dig under Haram al-Sharif, and when you dig in that context, you risk causing an explosion."

Israeli construction work in the Old City often stirs controversy, particularly around the Western Wall which backs onto the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, one of the most contentious sites in the Middle East conflict.

In 1996, during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's first term of office, more than 80 people were killed in three days of riots after he authorized a new opening into an ancient tunnel along the mosque compound's western flank.

Huge protests also erupted when Israel began repair work on a damaged stone ramp leading to the compound, enraging Muslims around the world.

Israel occupied and later annexed east Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, during the 1967 Six-day War and considers it to be its "eternal and indivisible capital."

But the Palestinians oppose any extension of Israeli control over the city's eastern sector which they want as the capital of their future promised state.
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