NEW YORK, Jan. 3 (UPI) -- Are Palestinian administrators of the al-Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem's sacred Temple Mount discarding and destroying archaeological material important to the Jewish and Christian aspects of the site where the First and Second Temples once stood and Jesus taught?
Eric Cantor, a first-term Republican Congressman from Virginia, says they are, and he has proposed legislation that would cut off Congressional aid to the Palestinian Authority unless Muslim officials stop excavating and building on the 45-acre Temple Mount site. This would deprive Yasser Arafat's nominal government of some of the $400 million voted it by Congress in 2000 over a three-year payout period.
The bill was submitted last summer with the names of 34 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors on it, and Cantor currently is pressing for a hearing by the Middle East subcommittee of the International Relations Committee, of which he is a member. A spokesman for his office in Richmond described the proposed legislation to UPI as "very pertinent" in view of developments regarding terrorism in Israel.
Observers on Capitol Hill say the bill has little chance of ever coming to a vote unless it is can be folded into a larger bill. To begin with, many Israelis oppose it because it transforms a political problem into part of a historical and religious conflict. Yael Dayan, a member of the Israeli Knesset and daughter of the late Moshe Dayan, is one of its severest critics.
"It's nobody's business outside of Israel," said Dayan, whose warrior-statesman father was a collector of Israeli antiquities, in a recent newspaper interview. "It's not something that should be the subject of another country's legislation. Eventually we will come to an agreement with the Palestinians on this issue."
She pointed out that plans to enlarge the al-Aqsa Mosque, which has brought the issue to a head, were approved by Israeli authorities and official permission given.
Cantor has said he became aware of the problem when he visited Temple Mount last July and found that the al-Aqsa Mosque's basement area was being enlarged to provide space for 15,000 Islamic worshipers below the original gold-domed mosque building which accommodates only 10,000. He claims that earth containing important antiquities is being excavated and disposed of at a nearby Kidron valley dumpsite.
"I met Israeli archaeologists who showed me evidence of ancient material being unearthed by the construction work, and the more I looked into the situation, the more shocked I became," Cantor said in an interview, adding that discarded earth had been found to contain shards of pottery from the First Temple, paving stones, and a silver Crusader's ring.
Cantor has accused the Palestinian authority of trying to eliminate all historical evidence of Jewish activity on Temple Mount, thereby "jeopardizing the ability of Americans to understand and promote their Judeo-Christian heritage.
"Taxpayer money should not support the desecration of that heritage," he asserted.
The Waqf, a religious organization that has administrated the mosque since the 15th century, claims the basement is necessary because the mosque is visited by so many more Islamic pilgrims than it used to be. The site has been closed to Israelis and foreign visitors, including reporters, since the controversial visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last year, so that the extent of the excavation has not been verified, although it has been described as 18,000 square feet.
"The Waqf never gave details on how extensive the excavations would be, and suddenly we have the largest mosque in Israel," said Eilat Mazar, an archaeology professor who heads the private Committee for the Prevention of Destruction of Antiquities on Temple Mount.
Mazar said he was particularly outraged because the Israeli government has not even protested the situation in spite of a 1993 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that the Waqf's excavation work violated numerous Israeli laws. In response the Waqf issued a public statement describing the excavations as "routine," a claim supported by the Palestinian Department of Antiquities.
"We, too, are concerned about archaeological remains, so we sent someone in to observe the Waqf without their knowledge, and we found no evidence of any damage," said Hamdan Taha, director of the department.
Other sources say that most of the artifacts found in the excavated soil, such as mosaic fragments and 16th century mosque tiles, are Byzantine or Islamic in origin and that perhaps only 20 to 30 percent is Jewish material. That does not, of course, satisfy Cantor or the Israeli critics of Waqf, which is not about ready to let any non-Muslims inspect the excavation site.
Cantor's bill probably has little chance of passing into law, if it ever comes up for a vote, but the Congressman does have a point.
If Jerusalem ever becomes an open city in some future political resolution that would set up a Palestinian State, then the Temple Mount with its Jewish Wailing Wall, its Dome of the Rock from which Muslims believe Mohammed was transported to Paradise, and its memories of Christ driving the money changers from the Second Temple must be placed under the control of a new non-political administrative body reflecting Jewish, Islamic and Christian interests.
In the meantime, it would appear that the Israeli government would do well to insist that it have an inspection team at the site so that archaeological material unearthed can be properly dated and preserved. It would seem that even the Waqf, which professes to have archaeological concerns, would be willing to make a concession that would put the concerns of the involved scientific interests -- not to mention the religious interests -- at rest.