Despite recent accusations to the contrary, the chief site engineer for the Western Wall tunnels declared on Thursday that Israeli archeological excavations were not being done under the Temple Mount, were in no way detrimental to the structural stability of the mount or its surroundings, and were actually improving such stability "tenfold."
"There's been a lot of talk about instability [based on ongoing archeological excavations in the area], and let me reassure you, we have improved the structural stability here tenfold over the last few years and have actually strengthened areas where there was danger of further collapse," the chief engineer, Ofer Cohen, said during a Government Press Office-sponsored tour of the tunnels on Thursday afternoon.
Standing in a section of the tunnels known as the "Hall of Ages" - so named because the archeological and subsequent reinforcement work there spans from the First Temple period until today - Cohen and the tour's participants were dwarfed by a series of huge steel beams that had been set up to prevent the walls from caving in.
"To those who say that our work here is causing structural instability, the exact opposite is true," Cohen asserted.
Both the tour and Cohen's comments came on the heels of simmering tensions in Jerusalem that began some three weeks ago, when Palestinian clerics and Arab MKs made a flurry of accusations regarding Israeli archeological work around and, according to them, under the Temple Mount. This sparked days of unrest and violent confrontations between Arab rioters and police.
Some of the most vocal accusations came when a delegation from the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, accompanied by a number of Arab MKs, toured the Aksa Mosque on October 7, during the height of tensions in the area, and spoke to reporters near one of the entrances to the Temple Mount.
"There are official Israeli diggings under the Temple Mount [which could pose] a danger to al-Aksa if there [were to be] an earthquake, for example," MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad) claimed at the time.
He was not alone. Sheikh Raed Salah, from the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, along with other Palestinian clerics, claimed at the time - and continue to claim - that the Israeli government has nefarious plans to destabilize the structural foundations of buildings on the Temple Mount, build a synagogue there or stage a military invasion of the Aksa Mosque.
Confronting such accusations head-on, the chief rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz addressed reporters during Thursday's tour, reiterating comments he had made some two weeks ago in which he cited the Halacha clearly prohibiting any Jew from entering the Temple Mount compound.
"You've seen a lot of new discoveries here today, all which have been outside of the Temple Mount," Rabinovitz told the tour's participants. "And that is not because of political concerns, but because Jewish law strictly forbids Jews from entering the Temple Mount."
He added that "according to Jewish law, we are forbidden from even touching the mount, much less entering it, and anyone who says [that we are digging under the mount] is like someone who calls night day and day night. They are absolute lies."
Rabinovitz also laid the onus for preventing further provocations in the area on religious leaders, saying, "This should not be an issue for the police; it shouldn't come to that. Religious leaders should be the ones preventing these things from happening."
He added, "If I saw a Jew coming to pray with a bundle of stones to throw at Muslims, I would send him away immediately" - referring to a number of wheelbarrows filled with stones that police discovered on Temple Mount nearly three weeks ago, which led them to shut the compound down temporarily before reopening it only to men over the age of 50 and women.
The unrest that followed that week was the worst in Jerusalem since riots broke out in the capital's eastern neighborhoods during Operation Cast Lead in January, and before that, the second intifada.
Government Press Office spokesman Danny Seaman told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that the tour, which saw the participation of dozens of foreign and local journalists, was an effort to combat the wide array of rumors concerning Israeli archeological efforts in the area, and bring a sense of transparency to the work that was actually being done.
"We felt that now that the tensions had died down, and the story was out of the news cycle, it was a good time to bring reporters on this tour," Seaman said. "In my opinion, an educated journalist is a better journalist, and will be able to distinguish between the accusations."â€¢