Israeli Excavations at Al-Aqsa Mosque Could Widen Conflict in the Region


(Los Angeles - 2/9/07)—The Muslim Public Affairs Council today warned that Israeli excavations at the Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which make up the third holiest place of worship for Muslims, could escalate violence in the broader region. The latest crisis began when Israeli authorities started rebuilding and extending a pedestrian ramp which rises to the Mughrabi Gate, without the express consent of the Islamic board which governs the mosque.

Around 200 Israeli police officers stormed the holy site today as Friday congregational prayers (jumaa) concluded. Men under the age of 45 were refused access to Friday prayers, further exacerbating the perceptions of Muslim religious rights being violated. The arrival of the police and their massive military presence inside the compound sparked fighting in the streets outside and caused around 150 worshippers to barricade themselves inside the mosque. Demolition, which started on Tuesday, continues despite various Israeli and Palestinian calls for work to be suspended or abandoned. An additional 2,500 officers were deployed on the streets of the Old City, where they used tear gas and stun guns against protestors.

SEE: “Violent Clashes at Key Jerusalem Mosque on ‘Day of Anger’” (Times of London, 2/9/07)

“The excavation coupled with the the massive police presence at the doors of the mosque are throwing oil on the fire of religious intolerance and polarization that plague our world today,” said MPAC Senior Advisor Dr. Maher Hathout. “On top of that, the timing of the excavations could lethally undermine efforts to revive the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which has seen a glimpse of hope recently.”

Palestinians say the elevated tunnel is built over a hill under the jurisdiction of the Waqf Authorities (the Islamic endowment that oversees the compound), under which there are Islamic archeological ruins. The Palestinians also claim the bridge is being built in order to give Israeli police and the army direct access to the Al-Aqsa Compound to enable them to raid the area with more ease. The dirt hill, which is being torn down by Israeli authorities is also a main supporting wall to the compound, say Waqf officials and therefore weakens the foundation of the Al-Aqsa mosque.

According to Israeli officials, the work consists of routine renovations of a bridge constructed at the Mughrabi Gate that connects the Western Wall to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. However, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz this week called for the work to be halted since it can be viewed as a volatile religious issue, particularly with tension running so high between Israelis and Palestinians.

Peretz cited an opinion written by the head of the political-military bureau at the Defense Ministry, General Amos Gilad, who said the repair work was causing damage to the site, that the construction would create havoc in the Arab world, and that it was important to consider the international political ramifications of continuing the activities. Gilad noted that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh were close to an agreement in Mecca on a unity government, and that an Olmert-Abbas summit is to take place in about two weeks. He also mentioned the planned visit to the region of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Gilad also expressed concern that the project had not been coordinated with Jordan. This week’s conflict over the holy sites comes on the heels of a unity government agreement reached between Hamas and Fatah officials in Mecca. For many, the excavation evokes the dark memory of Ariel Sharon’s 2000 “visit” to the compound—accompanied by more than 1,000 Israeli soldiers—which was viewed as a provocation and triggered the second intifada. Concerns over excavations near the al-Aqsa compound caused serious riots in 1996 that led to the deaths of 80 people.