Israeli archaeologists said on Wednesday, August 29 that they fear priceless relics could be damaged by a mechanical digger being used by Muslim caretakers to carve out a utility trench at one of Jerusalem's holiest shrines.
The work is being carried out on the plaza revered by Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and by Jews as the Temple Mount.
"It is appalling that in one of the most important archaeological sites in the country, heavy machinery is used in a barbaric way to dig a ditch 120 meters long and 1.5 meters deep," said Gabriel Barkay, an archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
He and other members of the Israeli-based Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, have criticized Israel's Antiquities Authority for allowing the Waqf, the Muslim caretakers of the site, to conduct the work.
Dalit Menzin, a spokeswoman for the Antiquities Authority, an Israeli government agency, declined to comment.
Sheikh Abdel al-Azeem Salhab, president of the Waqf Council, which is charged with day-to-day administration of the compound, denied the digging would cause any archaeological damage.
The trench is being dug to replace decades-old electric wiring at the complex, which now houses the al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock Mosques and was the site during biblical times of two Jewish Temples.
"I assure you that the area where the electrical cables are being extended was excavated in the past and there is nothing of value in it that can be damaged or destroyed," Salhab said.
Barkay said earth from the trench contained pottery shards dating to the Byzantine period. He cautioned that more relics still underground could be harmed.
Still harsher criticism came from Rabbi Chaim Richman, international director of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem. He claimed that "the Waqf is deliberately excavating these areas with an eye to destroying historical evidence of the Temple's existence. A spiritually bankrupt government is allowing Judaism's holiest site to be trashed because of political agreements to officially hand over the Temple Mount to the Palestinian Authority."
The Temple Institute's ultimate goal, according to its own official website, is "to see Israel rebuild the Holy Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, in accord with the Biblical commandments."
With Richman and his organization issuing these statements, it should come as no surprise that Muslim leaders have felt that their centuries-old presence in the compound is being threatened.
"Israel is conspiring to encroach on the Temple Mount to build a Jewish temple near the Al-Aqsa mosque," Sheikh Raed Salah, the head of the Islamic Movement northern branch, said on Thursday, August 30.
Salah called on Arab and Muslim nations to "prevent the division of the Al-Aqsa by Israel." In a letter to Arab kings and leaders of Muslim countries, Salah urged all Muslims to torpedo "Israel's plan that aims at dividing the Al-Aqsa Mosque between Muslims and Jews whereas in the Jewish part it plans to build its imaginary temple."
Torah-true Jews reiterate the statement of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld in 1929: "The Jews do not want, in any way, to take that which isn't theirs. And they certainly don't want to contest the rights of the other inhabitants to the places held by them in which they regard with honor and consider holy. And in particular there is no foundation to the rumor that the Jews want to acquire the "Temple Mount". On the contrary, from the time that, because of our sins, we were exiled from our land, and our Holy Temple was destroyed, and we have been lacking the purity required by the Torah, it is forbidden for any man of Israel to set foot upon the grounds of the "Temple Mount", until the coming of the righteous messiah, who with the spirit of the L-rd, which will hover over him, will rule righteously, for the good of all creation, and will return to us the purity required by the Torah."
These irresponsible statements about rebuilding the Temple now come from a small faction of Zionist extremists who in any case have no power to put their ideas into practice. It is no coincidence that members of this same group are the most vocal critics of the Islamic Waqf's right to conduct repairs on the compound as they see fit. Torah-true Jews do not seek to control the compound or any other part of the Holy Land.
For the record, no Jewish authority in history has ever sanctioned the Jews rebuilding the Temple on their own. The Talmud (Bava Kama 60b) says that the future Temple will come down in fire from Heaven, pre-built by G-d. Rashi (Succah 41a) rules accordingly. The Rambam (Maimonides) says that only the messiah may build it, after he is recognized by the entire world as G-d's messenger based on clear criteria. But there is no opinion that holds that Jews will at any time force the building of the Temple on any other people.