JERUSALEM, (AP) – The site of an Israeli archaeological dig that has sparked angry Muslim reaction worldwide contains what could be a Muslim prayer room, an Israeli archaeologist said Sunday.
Muslim leaders and critics of the work said the announcement of the find, three years after it was discovered, confirmed their fears that Israel’s Antiquities Authority is intent on hiding Muslim attachment to the site.
Israeli archaeologists began nearly two weeks ago a preparatory dig, prior to renovation work, on a ramp leading to a disputed holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The site is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel says the project is needed to repair damage to the ramp caused by a 2004 snowstorm, and the dig won’t affect Muslim holy sites on the nearby hilltop compound. However, Muslim leaders accuse Israel of plotting to destroy Islamic holy places.
In an article published recently on the Antiquities Authority’s Web site, Jerusalem district archaeologist Yuval Baruch described the ruins that were discovered after the snowstorm three years ago, prior to the start of the current dig.
“In 2004, when the Mughrabi ramp collapsed, a small room was discovered which contained an alcove covered with a dome, a kind of Muslim prayer niche, facing south,” Baruch wrote. “Some suggest that these are the remains of a prayer room that was part of a madrasa (a Muslim religious school) which operated near the Mughrabi gate.”
Authority officials said the article was published earlier this month, around the time the dig began.
Adnan Hussein, chairman of the Muslim council that oversees affairs at the holy site, expressed anger that Israel withheld news of the discovery for three years. “We didn’t hear anything about this,” he said. “They are always hiding things.”
Reached by The Associated Press, Baruch said the authority decided not to reveal the existence of the room sooner since it still is not clear what it is. He said finds in and around the room need further research before authorities can say exactly what the room was used for.
The archaeological dig is taking place about 60 yards away from the hilltop compound, home to the Al Aqsa Mosque and gold-capped Dome of the Rock. The area is the third-holiest site in Islam.
Built on the ruins of the biblical Jewish temples, the compound also is the holiest site in Judaism. For centuries, Jews have gathered to pray outside the compound at the Western Wall.
The renovation has for two weeks sparked nearly daily protests by Palestinians, and generated fierce criticism from throughout the Muslim world. There has been no serious violence so far, but the site has been the focus of deadly fighting in the past and its status constitutes one of the main obstacles in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Activists for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem said the delayed publication of the archaeological find proved the Antiquities Authority has not been truthful.
“This coincides with the way they act,” said Amos Gil of Ir Amim, an Israeli group that promotes coexistence in Jerusalem. “They don’t want to find all the ruins, just the Jewish ones.”