UNESCO inspects Old City dig

Police shut down Hamas-based protest of Mughrabi excavation.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
A team of experts from UNESCO on Wednesday toured the Antiquities Authority's archeological dig near Jerusalem's Temple Mount that has triggered protests across the Arab world. The routine salvage excavation that began last month in the archeological garden adjacent to the Western Wall precedes the planned construction of a new bridge to Temple Mount's Mughrabi Gate. The four-member UNESCO team was invited as part of efforts to maintain "full transparency" regarding the dig, Antiquities Authority spokeswoman Osnat Guez said. The dig has triggered low-level Arab violence in Jerusalem following assertions by Islamic leaders that the work, which is taking place dozens of meters outside the Temple Mount, could damage the compounds's Al-Aksa Mosque. The UNESCO team was also shown the 24-hour video system set up at the site, which can be viewed in real-time on the Internet. The group made no statement after the visit. Their tour will continue on Thursday with meetings with Antiquities Authority officials. The mission, which is being led by the director of UNESCO's World Heritage Centre, Francesco Bandarin, and includes the director-general of the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, Mounir Bouchenaki; the president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, Michael Petzel; and V ronique Dauge of the World Heritage Center, will report back to the director-general of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsuura, on their return to Paris at the end of the week. UNESCO spokesman Roni Amelan said the group's findings would only be made public after their return to France. UNESCO, which had previously condemned the Israeli dig, had never spoken out against construction by the Wakf (Islamic trust) of a new mosque on the Temple Mount itself over the last decade, which the Antiquities Authority has termed an "unprecedented archeological crime" for its massive destruction of archeological remains. Last month, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also agreed to a visit to the site by a delegation from Turkey, although no date has been set. The dig began after a decades-old stone walkway leading to the Mount was deemed unsafe after it was damaged by a snowstorm and a minor earthquake in 2004. The law requires an archeological excavation before any construction in Israel. Meanwhile, Jerusalem police on Wednesday banned an east Jerusalem press conference directed against the construction because it was organized by Hamas. Police went to the Commodore Hotel and delivered an order canceling the event, Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said. The organizers, who included the leader of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, Sheikh Raed Salah, then tried to move the event to the nearby Ambassador Hotel, but the gathering was stopped by police. The event was sponsored by the Aksa Foundation, which Israel says is linked to Hamas. "We strongly condemn this juvenile behavior," Salah said. "This behavior does not protect security. It actually makes the security situation explosive." On February 12, a Jerusalem court issued an order barring Salah from coming within 150 meters of the Old City walls for 60 days, after he scuffled with police at the site. Salah previously served a two year sentence for a series of security offenses, including financing Hamas activities.