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Friday, 16 February 2007

Webcams fuel furor over Jerusalem site

Muslims vow more protests near mosque

BOSTON GLOBE | February 16, 2007

By Matthew Kalman, Globe Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- Israel activated webcams yesterday at the site of a controversial building project in Jerusalem's Old City as part of an effort to refute accusations by Muslims that the work is threatening the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, who was visiting Istanbul yesterday, also agreed to allow a Turkish technical team to inspect the site.

Islamic leaders denounced the streaming video as "cosmetic," and said they would organize massive demonstrations in Jerusalem after prayers today.

Riots erupted at the site last week after archeologists began excavating a centuries-old ramp leading from the Jewish prayer plaza at the Western Wall up to the Temple Mount compound, known to Muslims as the Haram Al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and the site of two landmark shrines -- the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest site, and the golden-capped Dome of the Rock.

The holy site is in East Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War and then annexed. Most countries do not recognize Israeli sovereignty in the area.

Muslim leaders accuse Israel of trying to destroy the mosque by undermining its foundations. In a fiery sermon in Al-Aqsa last Friday, Sheik Ekrema Sabri accused Israel of desecration and said the Israelis were planning "attacks against the mosques."

But the ramp is outside the exterior wall of the Temple Mount compound and ends several yards from the Mughrabi Gate, which leads into the area holy to Jews and Muslims alike.

Part of the ramp collapsed after a snowstorm three years ago, and last week the Israeli government ordered that a bridge be built in its place.

The archeological dig that triggered the demonstrations is the first stage before construction of the bridge allowing access to the Mughrabi Gate, which is about 30 yards above the ground outside the wall.

Earlier this week, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski suspended building work until all parties, including Muslim leaders, had been consulted. But he said the archeological dig would continue.

Yechiel Zeligman, the Israel Antiquities Authority archeologist overseeing the excavation, said the three webcams would broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the authority's website, antiquities.org.

The live feed from three cameras shows workers from the Antiquities Authority digging to uncover ancient buildings and artifacts hidden beneath the surface.

"Really, we don't have anything to hide," Zeligman said as he supervised 40 workers at the site yesterday. "We hope the presence of the cameras will show people that nothing here is threatening the mosques and things will quieten down so we can continue our work.

"The ramp ends more than 5 meters from the wall and the gate into the mosque compound, so we are nowhere near the Al-Aqsa Mosque and nothing we are doing here poses any threat to it," he said.

But Sheik Raed Salah, a leader of the radical Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, remained defiant yesterday as he appeared in a Jerusalem court on charges of stirring public unrest and spitting at a police officer during disturbances at the site last week.

"An Israeli court has no authority to rule on issues connected to Al-Aqsa Mosque," Salah said. "Thus any decision made by this court over keeping me away from Al-Aqsa is null and void."

Israeli archeologist Meir Ben-Dov, an expert on the site and a strident critic of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the protests could have been foreseen and prevented.

In 1996, the opening of a centuries-old underground complex of tunnels running 50 yards alongside the Western Wall triggered similar accusations, sparking riots in which more than 90 Palestinians were killed.

Ben-Dov said the Israelis should have consulted with Muslim authorities and agreed on the work, just as he did when the other side of the ramp faced collapse 15 years ago.

"I have been warning the government for nearly two years, but no one would listen," Ben-Dov said.

"The bridge is nowhere near the Al-Aqsa Mosque and does not threaten it physically, but the whole matter has been handled with complete lack of sensitivity for the feelings of the Muslims," he said.

Ben-Dov has been working at the site since 1968 and wrote the standard work on the excavations. He said the new bridge was unnecessary because the ramp could have been repaired easily.

The ramp was created when Ben-Dov and his colleagues excavated on either side of the path leading to the Mughrabi Gate, digging down until they came to the Roman-era road that once skirted the huge Herodian walls of the Temple Mount compound. In 1992, Ben-Dov's group reinforced the southern side of the ramp with a modern wall built from the same Jerusalem stone as the ancient buildings.

"We had a problem, but through discussion and cooperation with the Muslim authorities we managed to overcome it," Ben-Dov said.

Yousef Natshe, chief archeologist at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, said the new webcams did nothing to allay Muslim fears.

"It's a cosmetic act designed to draw away the attention of the people who are concerned about this," Natshe said. "Putting this online doesn't give Israel any legal rights -- the act itself is illegal."

"For two years we have been writing to the Israeli police, to the mayor of Jerusalem, expressing our concern about this planned bridge, but they didn't even acknowledge our letters," he said.

Natshe conceded that the Israelis were probably not excavating underneath the mosque, but he accused them of continuous encroachments.

" This work is being carried out on the approach to one of the historic gates entering the Haram. . . . Maybe it is not physical damage, but it is cultural damage. It is distorting the site," he said.

To view the Israeli webcam, go to antiquities.org.il/home_eng.asp

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