Western Wall Heritage Foundation holds tour of tunnels in attempt to ward off Muslim claims that al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger of collapsing. Waqf refuses offer for similar tour for Muslims, saying 'settlers won't give us approval to enter a Muslim-owned area'
Excavation works being held near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem have sparked uproar in the Muslim world in recent years. Recent riots in the capital were allegedly sparked by a repeated Muslim claim that the Jews are attempting "to take over" the Temple Mount mosques or damage them through the digs taking place in tunnels within the mount.
According to the Muslims, the digs are taking place under the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and are threatening to collapse them.
Initial photos obtained by Ynet show the excavation works along the tunnels, as photographed during a tour held in the area about two weeks ago, which was attended by several officials and organizations from all parts of the political spectrum.
Following the tour, its participants said they did not witness attempts to dig under the mosques' plaza.
Within the tunnels. Important archaeological remains from the First Temple
The digs begin on al-Waad Street in the Old City's Muslim Quarter and connect to the Western Wall tunnels under the ground. The works began more than four years ago, and have since caused angry responses in the Muslim world, which is finding it difficult to receive a clear picture of the dig, due to the discrete manner in which it is are being led by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
One of the claims is that the dig is endangering the buildings located above it and damaging the heart of the Muslim heritage. The fears are also related to the fact that many of the members of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation are also members of the Ateret Kohanim association, whose goal is to see Jews settle in the Old City's Muslim and Christian quarters.
The tunnels are expected to be open to the public in the future, but today they remain closed until the excavation works will be completed. In light of the many claims, however, the Foundation decided to invite several officials to tour the area.
The tour's participants included the Foundation's executive director Mordechai (Sullie) Eliav, Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, Jerusalem Council Members Members Meir Margalit (Meretz) and Rabbi Yossi Deutsch (United Torah Judaism), and representatives of left-wing organizations.
12 meters deep
The tour's participants spoke to the excavation workers, who told them that the digging is currently 12 meters (39 feet) deep. According to estimates, the final dig will be 16 meter deep, where the workers will reach an impenetrable rock layer.
According to the participants, the workers uncovered important archaeological remains from the First Temple during the excavation.
It should be noted that the tour's participants testified that in some of the places, improvised reinforcement works were being conducted to support the walls and ceiling, in a manner which raises fears that there is indeed a danger of collapse, or at least a danger that the land above may sink. The picture brought here support this claim.
Arab diplomats seek solution
"I don't support digging in sensitive places, and I understand the Muslims' fears," said Margalit. "However, in the name of intellectual integrity, I did not see any attempt to dig under the mosques' plaza. I cannot guarantee that such a thing will not happen in the future, but it's clear to me that in the meantime there were no signs testifying that this is in fact taking place.
"It's important for me to say this because I am very concerned about what may happen following the wave of rumors and speculations running around this city," he added, "and everyone must contribute as much as they can to calm things down."
Margalit in one of tunnels. Very concerned
Ynet has learned that the Western Wall Heritage Foundation is now planning to conduct another tour, which will be attended by a professional Muslim delegation, in order to refute the accusations.
Margalit has even approached representatives of the Jerusalem Waqf with an offer to tour the area, but they have rejected it for now, claiming that "we will not receive approval from settlers to enter a Muslim-owned area."
Diplomats from an Arab country arrived in Jerusalem on Thursday in an attempt to come up with a creative solution which would allow a Muslim delegation to tour the area. A third party is now trying to mediate between the Foundation and the diplomats in a bid to organize such a delegation, which will be comprised of representatives from Arab countries.
However, in light of the recent political tensions, which have led to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' announcement that he would not run for president in the upcoming elections, it appears that such a tour will not be made possible for the time being.