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Israel Completes Controversial Tunnel Near Holy Sites

September 24, 1996

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Asserting its claim to all of Jerusalem, Israel broke through the last stretch of an archaeological tunnel Tuesday that runs along the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest site.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat denounced the tunnel work, carried out just after midnight under heavy police guard, as a ``crime against our religious and holy places.″

Palestinians threw stones at Israeli police from the mosque compound, known in Arabic as Haram as-Sharif, or ``noble enclosure.″ Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall below were briefly ordered by police to step back when stones started flying.

The violence at one of the most sensitive spots in the Israeli-Arab conflict illustrated how easily the two sides can collide in the city claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians.

Israel claimed the narrow pedestrian tunnel would be a boon to tourism because it links the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, to the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus was said to have walked before his crucifixion.

But the 12-year-old project was completed only on the personal orders of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who intended to send a message to the Palestinians that Israel is the only sovereign in Jerusalem.

``The government says, `Hey guys, we are not playing games here,‴ said Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert. ``We will not agree that everything that happens in Jerusalem will be subject to negotiations.″

Olmert was present early Tuesday when workers broke through the last stretch of the tunnel _ a wall about 1 1/2 feet thick.

Netanyahu said Tuesday that he visited the tunnel last year and was moved. ``Without exaggerating, we are touching a rock of our existence,″ Netanyahu said during a trip to Britain. ``Jerusalem is important.″

Haram as-Sharif is referred to by Jews as Temple Mount, site of the Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. The mount houses the Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques. The Western Wall, the last remains of the Temple and Judaism’s holiest site, runs along one side of the compound.

Muslim clerics claimed Tuesday that the 500-yard-long tunnel excavated by Israel runs underneath Haram as-Sharif and has endangered the stability of the buildings above. They also said they feared the tunnel was a first step by Israel to tear down the mosques and rebuild the Temple.

``Those who destroy what is underneath (the compound), will eventually destroy what is above,″ said Sheik Jamal Rifai.

Olmert dismissed the Muslims’ charges as ``ridiculous.″ The tunnel runs alongside, but not underneath the compound, and Israel respects Muslim administration of the holy sites, he said.

The Palestinians want to establish a future capital in east Jerusalem, the sector Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War. The Muslim shrines are in east Jerusalem.

Netanyahu has said he would never relinquish sovereignty over all of the city, and that its future was not negotiable _ despite a promise by Israel’s previous government to the Palestinians that the status of Jerusalem would be discussed in peace talks.

The tunnel starts to the left of the Western Wall plaza, the first 200 yards consisting of medieval and Roman halls on various levels. That is followed by a 300-yard-long, five-foot wide tunnel built by the Hasmoneans about 2,200 years ago to channel water to the Temple Mount. At the end of the water tunnel, a few steps lead up to the Via Dolorosa.

For the past two years, tourists have been able to walk along most of the tunnel, but then had to return the way the came because there was no exit. Tourism Ministry officials said the new exit will allow some 400,000 people to visit each year, instead of 70,000.

Olmert said Palestinian shopkeepers along the Via Dolorosa would benefit most from an influx of tourists. Palestinian leaders ordered those shopkeepers to observe a four-hour protest strike Wednesday.

In Tuesday’s protests, seven Palestinians were arrested in stone throwing clashes at Al Aqsa and in Salah Edin, the main shopping street of east Jerusalem. Protesters also burned an Israeli car and a truck parked in the street.

Olmert said Israel’s previous government and the Muslims clerics at Haram as-Sharif had reached a tacit understanding earlier this year that the Muslims would not oppose the tunnel opening if they, in turn, would be able to construct a new prayer area at Solomon’s Stables inside the compound.

In an apparent attempt to soothe Palestinian tempers, Olmert said Tuesday that the new construction did not violate zoning regulations. This was a change from the city’s position earlier this month, when it said the construction at Solomon’s Stables was being done without a permit and must stop.

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