JERUSALEM, Jan. 3 (UPI) -- Muslim leaders Tuesday accused Israel of digging underneath Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem. The site, one of Islam's holiest, is in danger, they said.
Israeli officials categorically denied the claims and this reporter who visited the alleged underground site saw no evidence of a dig towards the mosque.
The issue is potentially explosive. Muslim leaders' claims that Israel dug a tunnel under Al Aksa compound led to clashes in September 1996 in which some 70 Palestinians and 16 Israelis were killed.
Four years later Israeli opposition leader, now Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, visited the plaza which for the Muslims is Al-Aksa area, or the Haram e-Sharif, and for the Jews the Temple Mount, their holiest site. Sharon did not enter any mosque, but his appearance sparked riots that launched the second intifada that so far cost the lives of some 4,750 Palestinians and Israelis.
At a press conference in Jerusalem, Tuesday, the Al Aksa Foundation presented a file and discs containing pictures and a film of "Excavation being done underneath the Aksa Mosque."
Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, the Mosque's director, told the conference that the Israeli government has endorsed the excavation and that Israel is planning to destroy Al Aksa Mosque and replace it with the third Jewish temple. Ekrima Sa'eed Sabri, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, declared the works violate Al Aksa's sanctity that stretches from the bottom of the land to the sky above it.
"Al-Aksa is at risk ... a non-stopping danger," warned Sheikh Ra'ed Salah.
The pictures and film the organizers provided did not prove works were under the mosque. They were pictures taken in the Western Wall Tunnels that run beside the half a kilometer long Western Wall. The tunnels are open to tourists.
The film showed an official placing a model of a temple at the site of the Dome of the Rock and said that indicated Israel's plans to replace the mosque with their temple. They showed a door open to allow a worker leave with a ladder and close immediately. Another picture showed people working behind a closed door, one of them holding wires. They took it as proof of digging behind. One picture was described as a tunnel leading into the mosque area.
This reporter joined a small group of soldiers guided through part of the tunnels. The mockup described at the press conference as a model of the third temple was actually an artist's reconstruction of the Second Temple King Herod had built in 516 BC and the Romans destroyed in 70 CE. That is 568 years before the Muslims arrived. It was part of a talk on what happened on that mount.
The alleged tunnel was actually a glass-topped shaft showing how deep the wall goes.
After the tour this reporter went, unaccompanied, up to the northern edge of the tunnel. He saw a small dark dig behind a black-padlocked iron gate door but the works there seemed to support the overhead construction and lead north, along the ancient wall, not east towards the Temple Mount/al Aksa area.
The path skirted what emerged as cave. A climb to the entrance showed two ladders and an empty water bottle but no works leading across the wall. At another spot this reporter climbed over a barrier to a plank leading to a lower level but there, too, there was no signs of penetration eastwards.
An employee accompanied this reporter to a southern, closed section, where workers were replacing the floor tiles. Usually worshippers prayed there, facing the Western Wall. Through a hole in a door he saw part of the tunnel he had visited moments earlier and was convinced he had covered the entire length of the wall.
The Israel Antiquities Authority categorically denied any digging under the Temple Mount/Al Aksa. "There never were, nor are any digs there," stressed Jerusalem District Archaeologist Yuval Baruch.
All the gates to the Temple Mount compound
were blocked by massive construction in historical times, he said. "The only gates open today are the official ones -- they are open to Muslim worshippers and visitors -- and they are under the control of security officials and (Islamic) Wakf representatives."
The Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites in Israel, Shmuel Rabinowitz, told United Press International the Muslim leaders' claims were, "Lies...without an ounce of truth. There are no works under the Temple Mount. It is forbidden according to Jewish law."
The Muslim leaders might have been aware of the Jewish law. In the front row they hosted anti-Zionist ultra-religious Rabbi Moshe Hirsch and several supporters. Hirsch told UPI they had been the Mufti's guests at his home, Monday, because they would not set foot on the holy mount.
Why then did the Al Aksa Foundation call the press conference?
Speaking through an interpreter Sabri stressed the works at the Western Wall tunnels were continuing and going under Al Aksa Mosque. "It's Wakf land, not theirs (meaning Israel's) to do whatever they want," he added.
The timing coincides with the official opening of the Palestinian election campaign. Jerusalem is high on the agenda.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath, of Fatah, have threatened to cancel elections if East Jerusalemites are not allowed to vote there. Mustafa Barghouthi, who heads he Independent Palestine List, Monday held a press conference at the Kalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem complaining he was not allowed into town. Israeli police Tuesday broke up a rally with Hannan Ashrawi of the Third Way, near the Old City's Damascus Gate.
Yohanan Tzoreff, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya suggested that claims of digging under the mosque are made when leaders want to mobilize people. An Israel Radio reporter noted a Hamas candidate Mohammad Abu Ter among the audience.
A Hamas website subsequently talked of, "A Jewish synagogue under the Aksa Mosque ... that threatened collapse of the holy sanctuary."
It quoted a 'responsible source" as saying ""The Israeli occupation government will shoulder the sole responsibility for any adverse repercussions resulting of its heinous crimes against the Mosque as we call on our Palestinian people to sacrifice everything precious in defense of the Aksa ... We will spill blood and offer souls in defense of the Mosque," it added.
It seemed that in the absence of hard facts rumors might do.