JERUSALEM – An Israeli archaeologist said the site of an archaeological dig outside a disputed holy compound in Jerusalem might contain a Muslim prayer room, and the work drew renewed condemnation Sunday.
Muslim leaders and critics of the dig said the announcement of the find, three years after it was discovered, confirmed their fears that Israel is intent on hiding Muslim attachment to the site. Israeli officials denied that.
Two weeks ago, Israeli archaeologists began a salvage dig ahead of the construction of a new pedestrian walkway up to the disputed hilltop compound 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.
The dig, outside the compound's Mughrabi Gate, is meant to ensure that no valuable archaeological finds are damaged by the construction. But it has ignited a long-standing feud over who controls the site, and drawn Muslim charges that Israel is planning to damage Islam's holy places. The new report of the find provided more fuel for those allegations.
The Israel Antiquities Authority, which is running the dig, said Sunday that the room might not be a prayer room at all, and that archaeologists would know only after research was complete. If it was found to be a prayer room, a spokeswoman said, it would be carefully documented and left in place.
"If it's found to be important, it will be preserved and will remain as part of the archaeological park" outside the holy compound, the spokeswoman, Osnat Goaz, said.
The existing Mughrabi Gate walkway, leading up an embankment of earth and ancient ruins, partially collapsed in a 2004 snowstorm. Israel says the collapse made the new ramp's construction necessary.
After the collapse, archaeologists discovered a small room that was part of the embankment, according to an article published on the Antiquities Authority's Web site prior to the start of the current dig by Jerusalem district archaeologist Yuval Baruch.
"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." It was not known yet to which era the room belonged.
Authority officials said the article was published earlier this month, around the time the dig began.
Adnan Husseini, 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."
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."
Reached by The Associated Press, Baruch said the Antiquities Authority decided not to reveal the existence of the room sooner because further research is required before scholars can discern its purpose.
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.
The compound housed the biblical Jewish temples and is Judaism's holiest site. Jews have gathered for centuries to pray outside the compound at the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient compound.
Since early this month, the Israeli work has sparked protests by Palestinians and generated criticism 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 disagreements over its status have been a central obstacle in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.