Holy-site wall collapses

24/09/2003 10:17 - (SA)


Jerusalem - An interior wall has collapsed at a hotly contested Jerusalem holy site, and an Israeli archaeologist warned it could lead to a chain reaction of destruction in the biblical-era structure, setting off religious-based violence.

Reflecting the strong emotions and politics surrounding the site - Islam's third-holiest and Judaism's holiest - the two sides blamed each other for the damage.

The wall that fell on Tuesday is near the Islamic Museum on the hilltop in Jerusalem's Old City, where the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock stand on the ruins of the biblical Jewish Temples.

The wall was relatively modern compared to the rest of the site, parts of which are thousands of years old.

Although the collapse was relatively minor, it was just the latest structural fault to afflict the shrine.

Several months ago, Jordanian engineers were called in to help repair a huge bulge in an outer wall.

In the present charged political atmosphere, its collapse could trigger a full-scale religious war.

The shrine is Islam's third holiest - after Mecca and Medina - and is known to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary.

Warns of chain reaction

The Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque were built in the 7th and 8th centuries, hundreds of years after the Jewish Temples were destroyed by invading armies.

Eilat Mazar, an Israeli archaeologist and Temple Mount expert, said she visited the site shortly after the wall collapsed.

"It looks terrible," said Mazar, a leader of the committee for preventing the destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount, a group of archaeologists that opposes "unsupervised" work being done by the Waqf.

"This collapse can cause more collapses and it can be a terrible chain," Mazar added.

Mazar warned that although no one was hurt on Tuesday, further such cases could cause widespread damage and casualties, which were likely to spark a new round of violence.

Adnan Husseini, the Waqf's director in Jerusalem, said the wall collapsed "as a result of Israeli interference in our work and preventing us from fixing this wall after we had found that it needed urgent work to prevent it from collapsing."

However, Gil Kleiman, a police spokesperson, said Israeli police were not involved.

"In the clearest terms possible, no request was made to the Israel police by anybody in the Waqf regarding restructuring or rebuilding that wall.

Sharon visit sparked present violence

"We were not requested, we were not asked and we did not stop them," Kleiman said.

The shrine is one of the most hotly contested in Jerusalem and is at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The latest round of violence erupted three years ago after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - then opposition leader - visited the site escorted by hundreds of security guards, saying he was bolstering Israel's claim to the site.

The following day, clashes between police and Palestinian worshippers erupted, spreading to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel captured the site, along with the rest of east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem, declaring the entire city its unified capital.

The site was one of the greatest obstacles during United States-mediated peace talks in 2000, which collapsed without a deal, with both sides demanding sovereignty of the shrine.