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Israel Completes Controversial Tunnel Near Holy Sites

September 24, 1996

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Palestinians hurled stones at Israeli police today after Israel secretly broke through the last stretch of a tunnel that runs along the Western Wall and the Al Aqsa Mosque compound _ the fault line of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The 500-yard tunnel, which connects Christian and Jewish religious sites, was completed after midnight Monday, the end of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Israel radio reported today.

Palestinians have opposed the project for years because they feel it violates the compound Muslims call Haram as-Sharif, which is the third holiest site for Muslims and includes the Al Aqsa Mosque. The area is known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

When news of the midnight tunnel work spread, hundreds of Palestinians rallied at the compound.

Officers on foot and in jeeps chased Palestinian stone-throwers as clashes erupted in several areas of east Jerusalem, including the Al Aqsa compound and the Salah Edin shopping street.

Troops ringed Al Aqsa where hundreds of angry Palestinians gathered when word spread of the work on the tunnel. Police deployed reinforcements throughout east Jerusalem.

The work was ordered personally by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert looked on as workers, guarded by police, broke through the last 1 1/2 feet of stone.

An angry Yasser Arafat said today the tunnel work was a ``crime against our religious and holy places and is completely against the peace process.″

Arafat warned that the Palestinians ``will not stand by quietly.″

Islamic clergy ordered Jerusalem merchants to close their shops in protest for four hours Wednesday.

For 12 years, Israel has been working to complete the tunnel connecting the Western Wall _ Judaism’s holiest site _ with the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus was said to have walked before his crucifixion.

The tunnel would be a major tourist attraction, running past religious and historic sites, including a Hasmonean water system carved in the 2nd century B.C. and a Herodian street.

Tourism Ministry officials estimated the new exit will allow them to increase the number of visitors to the underground sites from 70,000 to 400,000 a year.

Tourists enter the tunnel at the Western Wall plaza, and until now had to return the same way because there was no exit at the other side.

Earlier today, hundreds of Palestinians marched through the Old City’s cobblestone alleys to the tunnel’s new exit.

Israeli workers, guarded by dozens of border police, welded into place a gray iron door.

When a Muslim prayer leader, Sheik Jamal Rifai, walked through the new iron door to inspect the tunnel, a police officer shouted at him: ``You can’t go in there.″

Rifai, wearing a white turban and carrying a wooden walking stick, glared at the policeman. ``This is theft,″ Rifai said of the secret digging. ``Those who destroy what is underneath (the compound) will eventually destroy what is above.″

Muslims complain that the tunnel violates their rights to the holy sites, and many fear Israel will eventually try to force them out.

Muslim clergy have been autonomous in running the Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques since Israel captured the compound, along with the rest of east Jerusalem, from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War.

Under an arrangement struck by then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Jews are not allowed to pray in the compound, but only at the Western Wall that runs alongside it.

The Western Wall, the last remains of the Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., is Judaism’s most sacred site. The Al Aqsa compound is the third holiest shrine of Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

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