UNESCO to Call for Immediate Halt to Temple Mount Dig

NEW YORK - The special UN team investigating the excavations near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem has determined that the works carried out by Israel comply with international standards for culturally significant sites. However, the report includes a call on Israel to halt excavation, which caused disappointment in the Foreign Ministry.

The Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) team will publish the conclusions in its report due today. Reports concerning the findings suggest the experts have come to agree with the Israeli stand, maintaining that no damage had been caused to the Temple Mount parameter and that the excavations pose no threat to the stability of the holy compound.

The experts' panel, headed by Director of UNESCO's World Heritage Center, Francesco Bandarin, does however reserve criticism for Israel. The report suggests Israel should have included international organizations in the renovation project near the Mugrabi Bridge. The panel goes on to call on Israel to halt excavations in the compound so as to allow international parties to become involved in the project and observe the situation more closely.

In addition, the panel recommends that Israel from now on consult the Islamic Waqf authorities in Jerusalem as well as the Jordanian Authorities in decisions regarding building projects near the Mugrabi ramp. Diplomatic sources said that for Israel to do so would be tantamount to admitting that it did not possess full sovereignty over the Temple Mount compound.

The Foreign Ministry had been hoping the report would clear Israel of all allegations regarding the Mugrabi affair. Diplomatic sources yesterday expressed disappointment with the report, saying it would make it difficult for Israel to prevent the emergency meeting of UNESCO's administrative committee planned for next month at the request of the Arab nations.

Bandarin and the other three experts of the panel reached their conclusion after recently visiting the site of the excavations, and meeting with officials in the Jerusalem Municipality, the Antiquities Authority and the local Waqf.

UNESCO became involved with investigating the Mugrabi affair as the global watchdog and financier of world heritage sites, and of their care and maintenance.

The excavations, which began in early February, touched off protests by Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and raised Muslim fears that the compound housing the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock could be undermined.