Arabs Discuss Protecting Jerusalem Religious Sites

Experts from 10 Arab countries met Tuesday to discuss what they say are Israeli threats to Islamic religious and cultural monuments in east Jerusalem. 

Speaking at the start of the four-day conference, Arab League Deputy Secretary General Saeed Kamal accused Israel of attempting to transform Islamic sites in east Jerusalem and other West Bank cities into Jewish sites. 

"Israel is trying to steal the past and the present of the Palestinian people through Judaizing its heritage and its history," Kamal said. 

Zahi Hawas, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and the conference's chairman, said Israel was digging under Al-Aqsa Mosque, part of the compound in Jerusalem known to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as the Temple Mount. 

Israelis and Palestinians are in a bitter dispute over control of the holy site. Jews believe that their biblical Temples stood at the spot, where Muslims, pointing to the presence of millennium-old mosques at the site, believe the Prophet Muhammad later ascended to heaven. Jews worship at the Western Wall, the last surviving remnant of the biblical period, part of the original retaining wall around the compound. 

Jews say the Waqf, the Muslim council that oversees the compound, has carried out excavations that have put a bulge in the Wailing Wall. 

In Israel Tuesday, Jon Seligman, Jerusalem's regional archaeologist, called the Arabs' charges in Cairo "nonsense." 

No excavations have been allowed under the Temple Mount by Israel, Seligman said. Doing so would go against rabbinical edicts preventing anyone but priests from stepping on the holy ground. 

"In truth the work of the Waqf over the past three years within the Temple Mount has been a major cause of destruction of Muslim antiquities in Jerusalem. And maybe these experts should turn their attention to preventing any repeat of this in future," he said. 

In 1996, Israel's opening of an exit to a tunnel just outside the compound — not under it — set off riots that killed 58 Palestinians and 15 Israelis. 

In Cairo, the experts from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen are meeting at the Arab League's headquarters in Cairo to iron out an Arab presentation to be made at the World Heritage Conference, which opens June 24 in Budapest, Hungary. 

The Arab League's Kamal said Arabs will urge the conference to set up an international committee to investigate "Israel's crimes against Palestinian heritage." 

Israel annexed east Jerusalem after its army captured the ancient city from Arabs in the 1967 Middle East war and later declared the whole city its capital. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem as their capital.