Israelis dig tunnel near Temple Mount

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Angry Muslims fear a subterranean takeover of the old city, writes Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem

Palestinians in the old city of Jerusalem expressed anger yesterday after Israeli workers were discovered digging a tunnel under the Muslim quarter, just to the north of the Temple Mount.

The tunnel was found late on Wednesday when shopkeepers on the Via Dolorosa - down which Jesus is believed to have carried the cross - heard digging underneath a stone ramp leading to the entrance of the ancient Umariyya boys' school. "People heard sounds," Khalid Dweik, who owns a shop near by, said. "They took stones out of the side of the ramp. Four people who were working there ran away."

A team of Israeli workers, guarded by a squad of soldiers, was working hurriedly yesterday to cement back stones removed the night before. At first they refused to speak. Their leader, wearing a blue shirt, said: "I have no interest in talking to you."

Later Amnon Lorch, an Israeli lawyer who is chairman of the East Jerusalem Development Association, confirmed his men are excavating a tunnel connecting with another Israeli-built tunnel that runs north from the Western Wall along the side of Temple Mount. The discovery is arousing fears among Muslims that Israel is conducting a subterranean takeover of the old city of Jerusalem.

Adnan Husseini, director of the Waqf religious endowment, which owns much of the property in the city, said yesterday: "Officials had told us digging had stopped. They want to take over everything." He said Israelis were applying chemicals to the bed rock to make it easier to excavate.

The issue is so sensitive because the new tunnel extends the network of underground tunnels dug by Israel in the Eighties - and now open to the public - beneath Palestinian houses and institutions standing along the Western Wall or Haram al-Sharif.

On the great 34-acre masonry platform, once the site of the Jewish Temple, now stand the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, making it the second most important place of pilgrimage in the Muslim world.

Mr Lorch says the Israelis are excavating a tunnel which is 2,100 years old and was originlly discovered by a British archaeologist, Charles Warren, in the last century. He added, however, that he did not know who had built the original one and it might be a natural formation. He also criticised local people for removing stones from the side of the ramp which "doesn't belong to the people".

Mr Husseini says he cannot find out who is behind the excavation because "the decision-makers hide in their houses".

The East Jerusalem Development Association is two-thirds owned by the Ministry of Tourism and one-third by Jerusalem Municipality.

An existing tunnel caused the front steps of the al-Waqf building itself to subside several feet, according to Mr Husseini. Another tunnel dug into Temple Mount itself was discovered when the Muslim authorities found water had drained out of an ancient cistern.

Last night the Ministry of Tourism categorically denied there are plans to open the tunnel, but said that it had been there for millennia. A spokeswoman, Orly Doron, said: "I read about it in Josephus. The Crusaders blocked it." She said agreement was reached yesterday with all parties, including the Waqf, to reseal the tunnel and that it would not be used by tourists in the foreseeable future.

Mr Lorch said: "Nobody has any intention other than increasing tourism." He denies there is any threat to the Haram. Razi Sa'adi, a Palestinian from elsewhere in the old city who was taking photographs of the tunnel being resealed, said: "People are scared. Now they [the Israelis] will say `we are living on part of Temple Mount which is underground'."

Other Palestinians say that since, after more than 3,000 years, Jerusalem is honey-combed with old drainage channels, water conduits and built-over passages, they fear any excavation beneath their homes can be justified.