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Israeli digging angers Palestinians

February 07, 2007

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JERUSALEM, Feb 6: Muslim leaders and Arab politicians on Tuesday urged Palestinians to rush to the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound to protest against Israeli works they charge threaten the site’s foundations.

The Waqf religious trust said the works, being conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority under heavy police protection, endanger the foundations of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam.

The work was being carried out by what police said were two tractors. A reporter saw a small bulldozer digging up a path next to Dung Gate that leads to one of the mosque entrances, near the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site.

The Waqf said two underground rooms connected to the mosques lie under a mound, which is at the focus of the works, and that levelling the mound would threaten the foundation of the Al-Aqsa compound.

The Israel Antiquities Authority said the work was being carried out to strengthen an access ramp to Dung Gate for the “benefit and safety of visitors” after damage caused by an earthquake and snowstorms in February 2004.

Tayssir al-Tamimi, head of religious courts in the Palestinian territories, declared on Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera that “the occupation bulldozers are headed (to the mosques) to destroy the historic route from Dung Gate.” He urged Palestinians to go immediately to the mosque compound to “protect” the site from the Israeli works.

The mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, has also denounced the “aggression” against the mosques.

Speaking to reporters before leaving the Gaza Strip for crisis talks in Saudi Arabia, Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniya, whose government is boycotted by the West, called on “all the sons of the Palestinian people to unite and rise up en masse to protect the Al-Aqsa mosque”.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said there was absolutely no basis for Muslim accusations that holy sites would be harmed.

“The works are not intended to harm any of the holy sites. On the contrary, the purpose is to maintain the sites because of some erosion that happened in the past,” she said after talks with her British counterpart Margaret Beckett.

The mosque compound, which houses both Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, is where the second Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000 following a controversial visit by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon.

The site is also revered by Jews as the site of their ancient temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

Several hundred police were deployed throughout the Old City and restrictions imposed on access to the mosque compound to prevent disturbances, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

Eleven people were arrested for throwing stones in sporadic disturbances in occupied and annexed east Jerusalem, but none in the Old City, said Rosenfeld.

Only men aged over 45 with Israeli identity cards and women are being allowed into the mosque compound, which is also being closed to non-Muslims.

In Gaza City, dozens of Palestinians marched to the rallying cry of Hamas and of rival Islamist group, Islamic Jihad, to denounce the “Israeli agression”. A similar protest was held in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Islamic Jihad also claimed that a rocket attack on southern Israel -- which caused no casualties or damage -- was “in response to the criminal Zionist agression against the Al-Aqsa mosque”.

Despite the protest calls, only a few dozen Palestinians gathered at Dung Gate, among them the head of the Islamic movement in Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah.

“What's happening here is criminal and it could reach into the depths of the Al-Aqsa mosque,” he told reporters.

In a statement, former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei accused the Israeli government of “playing with fire” and claimed that its behaviour could “start a new intifada” or Palestinian uprising.

ACT CONDEMNED: The Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (Isesco), an offshoot of the Organisation of Islamic Conferences (OIC) based in Rabat, called in a statement on member states to bring pressure “to put an end to these criminal acts.” It accuses Israel of “wanting to hand over part of the Jerusalem Mosque to Jewish extremists”.

Isesco also charged Israel and the Jewish association Ilaad of having jointly drawn up a plan to buy houses in the Silouad quarter of Old Jersusalem “to judaise” the old city.—AFP