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Friday, 3 December, 1999, 14:56 GMT
Mayor halts Temple Mount dig

Temple Mount prayer hall site The site is sacred to both Islam and Judaism

The mayor of Jerusalem has ordered a halt to digging at the site of an underground prayer hall on the Temple Mount because he believes archaeological damage is being done.

Defying an Israeli government decision to allow excavations at the site, Mayor Ehud Olmert said work on a new exit from an underground mosque on the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, must stop.

The underground structure is known as the Marwani mosque to Muslims and King Solomon's Stables to Jews.

Mr Olmert charged that by approving the work, the government was showing irresponsibility over "the most sensitive issues".

Work has been underway at the site for about a year, but controversy arose when construction of the new exit began.

Mr Olmert said the new gate was not a small emergency exit.

"It is a fancy new entrance to Solomon's Stables, and part of the systematic alteration of the status quo there," he told Israel radio.

The Israeli Antiquities Department says the building work has damaged Islamic remains dating from the 8th century Umayyad period.

"In the past we agreed to the work in order to avoid trouble, but it was understood that it would be carried out in coordination with the Department of Antiquities, and that has not been done," said Moshe Debi, spokesman for Israel's public security ministry.

US visit

Ehud Olmert Jerusalem's mayor says site is being damaged

The Temple Mount is home not only to the al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, but also according to Jewish belief, to the foundations of the original Jewish temples.

The hill inside the Old City of Jerusalem was the site of the two Jewish Temples, built by King Solomon and King Herod.

Herod's Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the first century.

The Western Wall, Judaism's holiest place, was a retaining wall of the ancient Temple Mount.

According to Muslim belief, it is also the site from where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.

Mr Olmert's action comes shortly before a visit to the region by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

She will visit Jerusalem on Tuesday to discuss the peace treaty negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The future of Jerusalem is one of the touchiest issues to be discussed in talks for a peace treaty.

Both the Palestinians and the Israelis believe that it is rightfully their capital.


The government has tried to keep out of the dispute over the current work on the Temple Mount.

But other Israeli hardliners appear keen to use the issue to underline Israel's claim to sovereignty, a potentially explosive tactic.

Three years ago when the former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu opened a tunnel near the site, it sparked riots in which around 80 people were killed.
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See also:
22 Jul 99 |  Middle East
Jewish activists barred from al-Aqsa
11 Nov 99 |  Israel elections
Barak: The unknown soldier
03 Sep 99 |  Israel elections
Israel: History of conflict

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