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A month-old Islamic dig on Jerusalem's Temple Mount to replace faulty electrical cables has damaged an ancient wall that is likely a remnant of the Second Temple, Israeli archaeologists said Thursday.
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 independent Israeli archaeologists, who are calling for its immediate halt.
"The Israeli Government is lending a hand to the destruction of one of the most important archaeological sites in the world," said Bar-Ilan University archaeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkai at a Jerusalem press conference.
Barkai said the dig, which involves tractors and other heavy construction equipment, has created a 400-meter-long and 1.5-meter-deep trench on the site, destroying layers of ancient remains.
Among the antiquities that have been damaged are a 7-meter-wide wall that apparently dates back to Second-Temple times and was likely part of the Temple courts, according to Israeli archaeologists from the nonpartisan Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount.
"This is the first time in the history of archaeological excavation in Israel that we have remains that could have been part of the courts of the Temple itself," Barkai said.
He added that it was unfathomable that Israel's top archaeological body was turning a blind eye to archaeological destruction at Judaism's holiest site. "All civilized people should stand up and protest this barbaric act," he said.
The committee, which plans to appeal to the High Court of Justice next week to stop the dig, noted that the work was also being carried out at night, when proper archaeological inspection was impossible.
Antiquities Authority spokeswoman Dalit Menzin declined comment. Islamic officials have said the trench was necessary to replace decades-old electrical cables, and have denied any antiquities have been damaged.
The Israeli archaeologists said the Antiquities Authority has refused to discuss the issue with them, while both Olmert and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter have turned down requests for a meeting.
The Antiquities Authority's Jerusalem regional archaeologist Jon Seligman was at the site on Thursday, eyewitnesses said.
Seligman has long been accused by members of the committee, which was established seven years ago following massive destruction on the Temple Mount by Islamic officials, of failing to protest the damage done in the late 90s at an underground compound of the Temple Mount known as Solomon's Stables.
Hebrew University archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar said that the Temple Mount had become "one big construction site," and blasted the government for authorizing "rampant barbarism and vandalism" there.
According to decades-old regulations, Israel maintains overall security control at the site, while the Wakf, or Islamic Trust, is charged with day-to-day administration.
Wakf director Azzam Khatib said that the work followed an electrical shortage in Al-Aksa Mosque, and denied that any antiquities were being damaged.
The Islamic infrastructure work comes just months after an Israeli excavation outside the compound ahead of a now-nixed plan to build a new bridge to the Mughrabi Gate led to low-level Arab violence.