PM Decides J'lem Dig at Mugrabi Gate to Continue

An archaeological dig near the Temple Mount's Mugrabi Gate will continue despite the demonstrations of the past few days and the fear of violent confrontations, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided yesterday.

The dig was approved two weeks ago as a necessary precursor to replacing a ramp that provides access to the gate. The ramp collapsed three years ago, and was replaced by a temporary structure, but plans have since been approved for a permanent replacement, and by law, any construction work in the Old City must be preceded by a salvage dig. The dig is taking place in the Jewish Quarter, outside the Temple Mount, but the Islamic Movement in Israel has accused it of being meant to undermine the Temple Mount.

According to a government source, defense officials told Olmert they do not foresee escalation beyond the current protests being waged by Israeli Arabs. However, the police will increase their presence in the Old City today for fear of disturbances, especially during noon prayers at the Temple Mount mosques.

The police has also raised its level of alert in the rest of the country, for fear that the tension over the dig might prompt terror attacks.

To reduce the risk of disturbances at the mount today, police have forbidden Muslim worshipers under age 45 from praying there and barred Israelis and tourists. These steps were put in place as soon as the dig began a few days ago.

However, police sources said, the police is preparing for the possibility that young Muslims forbidden entrance will clash with police forces. A few such clashes took place in East Jerusalem earlier this week.

According to a a government source, the government is also considering stationing Web cameras at the scene of the dig, "to show everyone that we are not approaching the Temple Mount."

Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, for his part, tried to open an unofficial channel of communications with the head of the Muslim waqf [religious trust], which controls the mount, in order to ease tensions. The waqf refuses to recognize the Israeli government, but it sent a letter to Lupolianski a few days ago complaining about the dig. However, associates of the mayor said they believe the chances that Adnan al-Husseini, who runs the waqf, will respond to Lupolianski's overtures are slight.

The northern branch of the Islamic Movement yesterday urged imams to devote part of their Friday sermons to the dig "and the damage to the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque." It also urged Muslims from around the country to visit the mount and get a first-hand view of Israel's "crime." Today, the movement plans a demonstration against the dig in Nazareth, and tomorrow, the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee will meet to plan its own protest against the dig.

Yesterday, some 150 Muslims demonstrated against the dig near the Old City's Dung Gate. The protest was organized by the Islamic Movement.

According to a government official, the dig's use of machinery will end in a few days, after which the work will continue by hand.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Municipality is still waiting for AG Menachem Mazuz's decision on the legality of the permit that the city issued for construction of the bridge that will replace the collapsed ramp. The bridge may require a change in the city's master plan - a potentially lengthy process. Mazuz is due to issue his opinion soon, but ruled that the dig could meanwhile continue since the dig, as opposed to the construction, requires no permit.