By Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem
7 February 2007
Israeli archaeologists began digging up a stone ramp near
the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City yesterday,
bringing immediate protests from Palestinians and
condemnation from the king of Jordan.
The work is the first stage in a scheme to build a new,
raised walkway up to the site, which is known as the Haram
al-Sharif to Muslims and the Temple Mount to Jews. Next to
the walkway is the Western Wall, which dates from the time
of the Second Temple and is the holiest site in Judaism.
Israeli archaeologists say the work is necessary on safety
grounds, but Muslim leaders fear damage to the foundations
of the site.
Archaeological work in Jerusalem's Old City is frequently
contentious and has triggered violence in the past.
The second intifada erupted after the then Israeli prime
minister, Ariel Sharon, walked on to the Haram al-Sharif
Experts from the Israel Antiquities Authority are also
excavating at three places to the south-west corner of the
site in what is now the Jerusalem Archaeological Park,
where engineers plan to install a series of pylons to
support the proposed new walkway.
Dozens of armed police stood guard yesterday as two
mechanical diggers began taking up the stone ramp. Large
numbers of police kept Palestinian men under the age of 45
away from the site, but there were at least three protests
elsewhere in Jerusalem.
King Abdullah of Jordan, whose family has custodianship of
the Muslim shrines, condemned the work as a "blatant
violation" and a "dangerous escalation".
"These measures will only create an atmosphere that will
not at all help in the success of efforts being undertaken
to restore the peace process," he said.
At the site, Dr Gideon Avni, director of excavations and
surveys at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said there
would be no damage to the mosques or the site. "The claims
about damage to the stability of the Temple Mount we
believe are baseless because we are working only outside
the walls of the Temple Mount in a very limited area," he
The work was first planned after a storm three years ago
damaged the stone ramp leading up to the Mugrabi gate of
the holy site, an entrance generally used by tourists. An
engineering survey declared the ramp unsafe and a
temporary, wooden walkway was built next to it on stilts.
Eventually the wooden structure will be removed and
replaced by the new 100 metre-long raised walkway.