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Israeli archaeologists have finished work on a tunnel which starts at a site near the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque

The tunnel so far can only be accessed from the Silwan side

Head of Jerusalem's Islamic Waqf insists digging in Jerusalem's Old City is contrary to international law.


By Majeda El Batsh - JERUSALEM

compound inside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, officials said on Tuesday.

The controversial 600-metre (-yard) tunnel, originally built as a drainage channel during the Second Temple period, starts at an archaeological site just south of the area known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, which houses the third holiest site in Islam.

"After works which lasted seven years, the last part of the tunnel, which is 600 metres (yards) long and was used for draining rainwater during the Second Temple period, has been cleared," an Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) spokesman said.

He said the project was "purely archaeological" and that the tunnel "does not go under the Temple Mount" -- the Jewish term for the site which formerly housed the Second Temple but is now the site of the mosque plaza.

The tunnel leads to the City of David, an archaeological site run by ideological Jewish settlers located in the volatile neighbourhood of Silwan which lies just outside Dung Gate, immediately south of the Old City walls.

The project, started in 2004, has sparked controversy due to its proximity to the mosque compound and its funding from Elad, a hardline settler group which seeks to expand Jewish presence in occupied and annexed east Jerusalem.

"Over the years, the tunnel was partially opened to the public. Soon it will be completely opened," the spokesman said.

The tunnel so far can only be accessed from the Silwan side, but there are plans to create an exit at the other end in the coming months.

Uzi Dahari, the IAA deputy director, told public radio there was "no intention of igniting inter-religious tensions" and that it was "an archaeological project which shows how the city used to work."

But Azzam Khatib, head of Jerusalem's Islamic Waqf, which oversees Islamic heritage sites, criticised Israel for the project and UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) for failing to act.

"We are worried by every Israeli action inside Jerusalem and particularly by excavations in the Old City or near or underneath the Haram al-Sharif," he said.

"Digging in Jerusalem's Old City is contrary to international law," he said, noting that UNESCO has listed it as a world heritage site since 1982.

"I am very surprised because UNESCO is not doing its work, it is not writing reports, and it is not making any strong statements about the excavations that are changing the character of the city."

Israel settlement watchdog Peace Now warned that the work was likely to prompt an angry response from Palestinians concerned over its proximity to the mosque plaza.

"They want to open the tunnel for touristic reasons but they don't see the consequences of what they are doing," said Peace Now's Hagit Ofran.

"The problem is that no-one is sure that they are not going to dig under Haram al-Sharif, and when you dig in that context, you risk causing an explosion."

Israeli construction work in the Old City often stirs controversy, particularly around the Western Wall which backs onto the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, one of the most contentious sites in the Middle East conflict.

In 1996, during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's first term of office, more than 80 people were killed in three days of riots after he authorised a new opening into an ancient tunnel along the mosque compound's western flank.

Huge protests also erupted when Israel began repair work on a damaged stone ramp leading to the compound, enraging Muslims around the world.

Israel occupied and later annexed east Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, during the 1967 Six-day War and considers it to be its "eternal and indivisible capital."

But the Palestinians oppose any extension of Israeli control over the city's eastern sector which they want as the capital of their future promised state.

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