Archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) were told by the cabinet on Sunday to resume their excavations at the Rambam (Mughrabi) Gate leading to the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, with all due haste.
They were also told to work with "full transparency" and in coordination with "relevant bodies" so as to complete construction of a new permanent foot bridge to the Western Wall as soon as possible. The bridge is to be used by visitors and also by police. Work being carried out to replace the current walkway, which partially collapsed in a storm in 2004, was halted in June in response to rioting by enraged Muslims who claimed the work was a plot to weaken the foundations of the Al Aqsa mosque.
The construction site is located 60 meters away from the mosque and was found by numerous Israeli and international engineers to be no threat to the structure. Nonetheless, a new plan was proposed by Jerusalem planning officials that called for a shorter bridge along the existing route, and which would require less excavating and fewer pillars. A budget of NIS 3.5 million has been allocated for the project.
In the wake of the Muslim riots, UNESCO investigators were sent by the United Nations to inspect the repair work being carried out on the broken footbridge
IAA archaeologists uncovered earlier this month a large-sized house from the Second Temple Period, several dozen meters south of the Temple Mount. The large edifice was overlain with remains dating to later periods - Byzantine, Roman and Early Islamic - while below it there are remains from the Early Hellenistic period, and even artifacts from the time of the First Temple.
In comparison to the careful methods used by IAA professionals to preserve relics uncovered during construction on the foot bridge, workers from the Muslim Wakf began in August to dig a trench more than 400 meters long, without IAA supervision. Noted archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar noted with dismay that Israeli police officers watched without saying a word or taking action against Arab workers who indiscriminately tore up the ground without regard for priceless relics that lay beneath.
Mazar spoke with Arutz-7's Hebrew news magazine about the desecration. "Irreversible destruction is going on there," she said, adding that the site is only slightly above the original Temple Mount platform, which might contain remnants of the First Holy Temple.
A policeman trying to stop an Arab tractor engaged in illegal Temple Mount excavations was assaulted, one witness said - and the police chief who arrived on the scene arrested no one.
The status of Jerusalem and its holy sites has become a major sticking point in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, which has insisted Israel hand over half of the city – including the area being excavated -- for use as the capital for a new PA state.