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(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is being called some of the most extensive work on the Temple Mount in more than a decade. The two-month-old dig on the Temple Mount is being carried out by Islamic officials - with Israeli approval - as part of infrastructure repair, to fix faulty electrical lines on the ancient compound.
A group of independent Israeli archeologists has petitioned the High Court of Justice to stop it, however - something that has received scant coverage in the international press.
The work, which is being carried out with the approval of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the state-run Antiquities Authority, has been repeatedly condemned by local archeologists, claiming that antiquities are being damaged, and calling for its immediate cessation.
"The Israeli government is lending a hand to the destruction of one of the most important archeological sites in the world," said Bar-Ilan University archeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkai.
Barkai said that the dig, which is being carried out with tractors and other heavy construction machinery, has created a 400-meter long and 1.5-meter deep trench on the site, destroying several layers of ancient remains.
Among the antiquities which have been damaged is a seven-meter-wide wall which apparently dates back to the Second Temple, and is likely to have been part of its courts, he said.
Islamic officials have said that the digging of the trench was necessary to replace decades-old electrical cables, and deny that any antiquities have been damaged.
Wakf director Azzam Khatib said that the work followed an electrical shortage in the Aksa Mosque.
"There is no damage to antiquities here," he said.
Islamic officials routinely deny that the ancient Jewish Temples even existed at the site, while Antiquities Authority spokeswoman Dalit Menzin has repeatedly declined to comment on the issue.
Jerusalem police have said that, in coordination with the Antiquities Authority, they had given Islamic officials approval for the work. Officials said that the controversial work has been approved by the "highest political echelon," a common code name for the Prime Minister's Office.
WITH no response from the government, members of the non-partisan Committee against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount this week petitioned the High Court of Justice to stop "work which is causing irreversible damage to antiquities and archeological artifacts of the greatest importance."
The petition against the premier and the Antiquities Authority, which is signed by the cream of Israel's archeological community, is largely symbolic, however, since the court has never intervened in the goings-on at the Temple Mount or ruled against the government on the supersensitive issue.
Still, the petition - which has been signed by such heavyweights as author A. B. Yehoshua; former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat; executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Hoenlein; prominent archeologists Ephraim Stern, Amihai Mazar, Ehud Netzer, Israel Finkelstein, Moshe Kochavi, as well as Barkai and leading Temple Mount expert Dr. Eilat Mazar - carries moral weight if nothing else.
"The excavations were carried out in an area where the bedrock is sometimes at a depth of only half a meter," the petition states. "Therefore, massive digging to a depth of a meter and a half entails damage to ground layers, some of which may have been in place since the First Temple stood there 3,000 years ago. Excavating with heavy equipment and tractors severely damaged the ground and directly caused the destruction of ancient stones and other artifacts."
The group of archeologists and intellectuals from across the political spectrum has previously lambasted the Antiquities Authority for permitting the work at the site, but the recent damage prompted them to issue their harshest criticism of the state-run archeological body to date.
Mincing no words, Eilat Mazar, of the Hebrew University, accused the authority of "taking part in an archeological crime" by "pretending to supervise the work, when in fact it is bearing witness to an archeological crime. How is it that the Antiquities Authority can be so strict about other places - and rightly so - yet when it comes to the Temple Mount it turns a blind eye to the goings on at the site?"
ACCORDING to decades-old regulations concerning the Temple Mount, Israel maintains overall security control, while the Wakf, or Islamic Trust, is charged with day-to-day administration.
The Antiquities Authority, which by law is charged with supervising archeological sites, has in the past been criticized by the apolitical group of archeologists for overlooking large-scale Islamic construction on the Mount, which resulted in massive archeological damage, due to the political sensitivities involved.
The infrastructure work on the Temple Mount comes just months after an Israeli excavation outside of the compound ahead of a now-nixed plan to build a new bridge to the Mughrabi Gate led to low-level Arab violence in Israel and the region.
That work - and the violent reaction it provoked - received major international attention.