New Jerusalem Tunnel Will Damage Temple Mount, Palestinians Say

Despite Israeli claims to the contrary, parts of tunnel pass just meters from the Western Wall.

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The tunnel leading from the City of David in Silwan to beneath the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority and announced to media fanfare Sunday, is drawing fire from Palestinians who claim it will damage the Temple Mount.

Parts of the tunnel come within just a few meters of the Western Wall, contrary to Antiquities Authority claims yesterday, but officials stress that the religiously sensitive parts of the tunnel were not dug by the agency. They were dug out many years ago, and were merely reexposed by the project, they say.

An Israel Antiquities Authority official showing visitors around the new tunnel in Jerusalem on January 25, 2011..Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Concerns about possible riots in East Jerusalem yesterday over the tunnel turned out to be unfounded, and the public debut of the Second-Temple era passageway went off without a hitch.

Visitors are now able to walk from the center of Silwan to the Western Wall plaza within several minutes, via a shaft that researchers believe was used for drawing water from the tunnel. The shaft is in the area of the Davidson Archaeological Park and Center, between the southern wall of the Temple Mount and the Dung Gate, and when the work is completed it will serve as the entrance to the tunnel.

The tunnel, which is tall enough throughout its length to permit an adult to walk without having to bend over, is lit by electric lights that show off the thousands of pottery shards in the mud that serve as mortar between the large stones making up the wall.

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who administers Muslim holy places, yesterday said the ultimate goal of the tunnel is the Temple Mount, on which the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock sit. "We warn against any damage to Al-Aqsa, and the excavations represent obvious violation of the mosque, the holy places and the city in general," he said.

Fatah Revolutionary Council member Dimitri Diliani accused the Jerusalem municipality of Judaizing East Jerusalem and said the digging constituted a "direct danger to al-Aqsa."

The Palestinian Authority organized a demonstration of a few hundred supporters in protest of the tunnel excavation yesterday.

The rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, yesterday called the Palestinian claims about the threat to Al-Aqsa posed by the tunnel a "crude lie."

"It's the opening of a drainage system that was discovered back in the 19th century by the English archaeologist Charles Warren and whose exposure is being completed now," Rabinowitz said yesterday. "The system is to the side of the Western Wall, outside of the Temple Mount. The Western Wall itself is surrounded by stone walls weighing tens of thousands of tons and no one is digging through them underneath the Temple Mount, both because of the explicit religious prohibition and because it's simply not possible."

He called on Palestinian leaders not to damage relations among the religions in Jerusalem.

"While the excavations in the Old City do reveal our roots in Jerusalem, they are not intended to hurt other religions," he said.

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