JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel has opened to the public an underground archaeological exhibit near Jerusalem’s most sensitive shrine, drawing fire from Palestinians who say the project endangers the foundations of the holy site.
Israel’s opening of an archaeological tunnel near al-Haram al-Sharif, the site of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque where the biblical Jewish Temples once stood, sparked Palestinian anger in 1996. Sixty-one Arabs and 15 Israeli soldiers were killed in clashes.
The “Chain of Generations Center” took over 10 years to construct and recently opened its doors to visitors for the first time. Among the attractions is a Jewish ritual bath dating to the 1st century which was discovered during building work.
The site runs parallel to Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall, in the Israeli-annexed Old City of Jerusalem. Palestinians have long opposed Israeli excavations in the area, asserting it could weaken al-Haram al-Sharif’s foundations.
An organisation created by the Israeli government said the centre was founded to highlight Jerusalem’s central role in over 3,000 years of Jewish history. The display uses glass sculptures and a light and laser show.
Arieh Banner, an official with Israel’s Western Wall Heritage Foundation which runs the site, said: “It is the first discovery of a ritual bath from the Second (Jewish) Temple in the area of the Western Wall.”
The remains of Crusader walls and an ancient aqueduct, also unearthed during building work, are part of the exhibit.
“Such archaeological finds have not been discovered so close to the Western Wall before,” Banner said.
Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it, a step that has not been recognised internationally. Palestinians want the eastern part of the city as the capital of a future state.
OPPOSITION TO SITE
The Waqf, the Islamic Trust in Jerusalem administering al-Haram al-Sharif, voiced opposition to the new exhibit.
“These excavations are illegal,” Waqf director Adnan Husseini told Reuters. “They are doing these things through power and force.”
“They (the Israelis) are weakening the foundations of the mosque and they are doing much damage to the buildings above the tunnels,” he added.
Husseini did not rule out the possibility of the site, which is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, fuelling controversy.
“Any reaction is possible,” he said. “It is enough that things are already unacceptable (in Jerusalem).”
Banner said the whole site, including ritual bath, did not run under al-Haram al-Sharif or endanger the shrine.
“We have not done any work in the direction of the Temple Mount,” he said. “No damage can be caused as the site is at least 20 to 30 metres (65 to 95 feet) from the Western Wall.”
“Everything we have done is legal and we have received permits from every authority for the centre.”
Visiting the centre, Jonathan Lapides, 46, an American-Israeli currently living in France, said the excavations were an important find.
“It is good to dig out history,” he said. “It is an important part of Jewish culture and history and it is necessary to ensure the link.”
Admiring the new site, Jony Orenstein, a 56-year-old engineer from the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, said: “I have a soft spot for Jerusalem because of its holiness, its legacy. We (Jews) are part of it. We are here to stay.”