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The excavation of a tunnel under Jerusalem's City of David has gone on for months without a license from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), as required by law.

In addition, there is no operative plan for developing the site by the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA), which legally administers the area.

Nevertheless, no steps are being taken against the two IAA archaeologists who violated their license; instead, they are being allowed to dig in an area extending another 100 meters, to "explore" the site.

The archaeologists, Professor Gabi Reich and Eli Shukrun, began the dig in the area of the village of Silwan a few months ago, following the discovery of part of a road that may have been Jerusalem's main street in the Second Temple era. The dig is being financed by Elad, an association that, inter alia, works to settle Jews in East Jerusalem.

Late last year, the archaeologists showed senior government officials a plan to continue tunneling under Silwan to the Old City's Dung Gate, some 600 meters away, and perhaps even as far as the wall around the Temple Mount.

The goal, they said, was to expose the entire length of the Roman road, on the assumption that it originally led from the Silwan spring to the mount. Shukrun told Haaretz last week that the project would take about three years.

This is a very sensitive region for a dig. Should it approach the Temple Mount wall, it will certainly elicit angry reactions from the Muslim Waqf (religious trust), which has repeatedly accused Israel of trying to excavate under the holy places on the mount.

Moreover, most of the excavation site is inhabited by Palestinians, and thus far, no effort has been made to get their permission, as required by law, for digging on and under their property.

But on top of all that, it recently emerged that the dig violates the terms of the license that the archaeologists received in January 2006, and has not been approved by the INNPPA.

Dr. Gideon Avni of the IAA discovered this situation when he visited the dig in December. The current excavation, he wrote the archaeologists, "is not included in any way" on their license application. "Therefore, this is an unlicensed excavation."

At about the same time, Dr. Zvika Tsuk, the INNPPA's chief archaeologist, informed the IAA that the dig had received no permit from his organization. "In 2004, you received a permit, but never submitted a report," he wrote. "In 2005, you received a permit, but never filed a report, and in 2006, you have been digging in the City of David without a permit. I demand that the excavations be halted immediately."

Senior archaeologists told Haaretz that usually, archaeologists who violate the terms of their license are punished by being denied the right to continue excavating. But in this case, the IAA decided to extend Reich and Shukrun's license to dig in Silwan.

IAA spokeswoman Osnat Goaz said that following a "comprehensive inquiry," and in light of "the INNPPA's intention to develop the site being excavated for tourism purposes, the area of the dig was enlarged in the license granted for 2007."

But INNPPA spokesman Moshe Gabay said that there is currently "no operative plan" to develop the area for tourism, nor did the organization approve an expanded dig. Instead, he said, it approved only an "exploratory dig" of 50 to 100 meters, after which a decision will be made.

Hamas: Israel 'playing with fire' by digging near Al-Aqsa mosqueThe exiled political leader of Hamas on Sunday condemned excavations by Israeli archaeologists near Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque and warned they were "playing with fire."

"I have a stern warning for the enemy," Khaled Meshal said at a news conference in the Syrian capital.

"Sharon's desecration of the Aqsa sparked the 2000 uprising. The Israeli leadership must learn from this lesson. We have confidence in our people, its masses, all of its groups and military wings," he added.

A Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000 after a visit, condemned in the Arab world, by then opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the mosque compound in East Jerusalem, which Israel conquered in the 1967 Six Day War.

"Israel knows what its violation of the holy Aqsa will bring. It is playing with fire," Meshal said.

The exiled Hamas leader accused Israel of exploiting internal Palestinian strife, saying, "We are facing a dangerous action. Jerusalem's Muslim and Christian holy sites are dear to all Palestinians. Israel is trying to take advantage of the Palestinian internal conflict to commit its crimes," Meshal said.

The Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques sit above the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in an area referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the al-Haram al-Sherif.

The Aqsa Mosque is Islam's third holiest shrine and has been a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian fighting in the past.

In the 1980s, Israel uncovered a plot by a group of Jews to blow up Aqsa in the hope that a new Jewish temple could be built at the site.

Muslim scholars say the excavations violate Aqsa's sanctity. Israeli officials say the work would not harm the structure of the mosque, which dates from the seventh century.