March 2, 2001

Jews believe Jerusalem's Temple Mount was where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac in a test of his obedience. To Christians, it is where Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers and was finally tried by the chief priests. For Muslims, it is where Mohammed ascended to heaven. It is now embroiled in the struggle between Jews and Muslims for the future of the divided city.

Some Israeli archaeologists support a claim that the Muslim religious council (Waqf) has dug excavations and built two mosques from existing underground structures without regard for the Mount, its underground reservoirs and an ancient drainage system.

The allegations bring the dispute over the status of the area to a head, and are a challenge to the 1967 decision by the Israeli government to ban Jewish worship and to hand over the area to the Waqf.

Critics claim that the Waqf has consistently ignored history prior to the Islamic period. "They deny that the Jewish temple ever existed," said Eilat Mazar, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University. "At first, we thought that the Waqf's plan to build the largest mosque in the world, by uniting the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Solomon's Stables and the Golden Gate, was a Muslim extremist dream. However, aerial photographs show that this plan is rapidly becoming reality."

Relying on police accounts, Gideon Avni, head of the excavations division of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said: "There is no doubt that a great deal of damage was done in the southeastern corner of the Mount in November 1999. But a group of archaeologists protested at the time, and we have no proof that huge damage has been done (since)."

Adnan Husseini, director of the Waqf, claimed that concerned Israeli archaeologists had become caught up in a "political issue". He said: "This place belongs to the Muslims, and we will safeguard every piece of Islamic history. We are not doing any excavations. We are not trying to do any damage. The conflict is not archaeological."

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