Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Amid an ongoing storm over an Israeli archeological excavation near Jerusalem's Temple Mount, a top Islamic official declared Thursday that all digging in the city should be stopped - but an Israeli archeologist pointed out that the biggest excavation in the entire area has been carried out by Muslims, unauthorized, underneath the Mount itself.
Reacting to an Israeli dig near the Temple Mount, Islamic and Arab leaders have accused Israel of carrying out work that would endanger the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, which is located atop the platform.
The Mount - the location of the biblical Temples - is Judaism's most revered site, but although Israel maintains overall sovereignty of the area, it allows an Islamic authority, the Waqf, to administer the site.
Below and to the west of the Mount, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) is conducting excavations, about 100 meters (325 feet) from the mosque.
The IAA says the work is taking place now because archeologists want to recover artifacts before construction begins on a new bridge leading up to the Mughrabi Gate - the only entrance used by non-Muslims to access the Temple Mount. (Muslims use other entrances.)
The bridge is replacing a ramp, which had been there for centuries but partially collapsed following an earthquake and snowstorm several years ago. Once building begins on the bridge, the archeological opportunity will be lost, the IAA says.
Last Friday, clashes erupted on the Temple Mount as Muslims protested the dig after noonday prayers. Israeli police have boosted security ahead of this week's Friday prayers in the hope of preventing a recurrence.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 3,000 policemen will be deployed in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, and entry to the Temple Mount will be limited to women and to men over the age of 50.
The IAA has now installed video cameras at the site, broadcasting live footage of the excavation work on its website in a bid to counter what it says is a politically motivated inaccurate portrayal by Muslim leaders and media of the location and effect of the dig.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday also agreed to allow a delegation from Turkey to inspect the ongoing work.
Olmert, who is on an official visit to Turkey, showed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan photographs of the site, but Erdogan was reportedly not convinced that the excavation would not harm the Islamic site.
Saying Israel has "nothing to hide," Olmert then agreed to Erdogan's suggestion that a Turkish technical team be sent to inspect the site.
But Adnan Husseini, director of Waqf, said a visit by a Turkish delegation would not be enough.
Husseini said in a telephone interview the authority that he heads wants to see the area of the dig restored to its former state - with the old ramp leading to the Mount.
Furthermore, he said, all archeological digging in Jerusalem should be halted, because it is destroying the city and making it unstable in the case of another earthquake.
Israeli archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University said it was "cynical" for Husseini to call for all digging in the city to cease, as Muslims themselves have dug extensively beneath the Temple Mount.
In the late 1990s, the Waqf received a permit to open an emergency exit from a subterranean mosque below the Temple Mount. Instead, the Muslim authority carried out a massive building project, creating what has been called the largest mosque in the Middle East, the al-Marwani mosque, located beneath the Mount itself.
During that process, there was no archeological supervision, and tons of dirt containing artifacts from previous generations was dumped, archeologists said at the time. Israel chose not to intervene for fear of setting off a worldwide Islamic backlash, but many experts fear the unauthorized work may have destabilized the platform.
"What is astonishing is that the very same people that are responsible for the destruction of the antiquities are the same people that dare to blame Israel," Mazar said.
She said the current IAA dig was "very important," having already yielded items dating back some 3,000 years to the first Jewish Temple period and going through the early Islamic period in the 7th century.
Building the bridge was necessary, Mazar said, because the damaged ramp was structurally unsafe, and it was worthwhile carrying out a proper archeological excavation there beforehand.
According to the IAA, this is in common with IAA practice at locations across Israel.
"Each year, some 300 salvage excavations are conducted in Israel with one goal, documenting and rescuing antiquities prior to construction operations," the IAA's Dr. Gideon Avni says in an article on the authority's website.
"Most of these excavations conclude with documentation of the archaeological findings, publication of the findings in professional literature and then continuation of the construction and development work in the area," Avni said.
"On rare occasions, an item of supreme archaeological and historical importance is discovered, which necessitates a change in the construction plans and conservation of the archaeological finding at the site," he added.
Avni took a swipe at the critics and questioned their agenda.
"Unfortunately, and not for the first time, it is very convenient for various entities to connect these professional archaeological activities with the national and political dispute in Jerusalem and to exploit archaeology for their own ends."
Palestinian and other Arab and Muslims officials have long disputed the existence of a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount.
(CNSNews.com Managing Editor Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)
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