RAMALLAH: Palestinians are outraged by the Israeli government’s move to hold a weekly Cabinet meeting on May 21 inside the tunnels it has dug under Al-Aqsa Mosque.
On Tuesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called on UNESCO to take note of the Israeli excavations in East Jerusalem.
For decades, Israel has been excavating under Al-Aqsa as part of a vague, historically motivated search for “Solomon’s Temple” in an attempt to justify the occupation through archeology.
However, after years of digging, Israelis, who claim they can trace their heritage to the land of Palestine, have found nothing linking their history to the Al-Aqsa region.
Palestinians fear that digging tunnels will expose Al-Aqsa to the threat of collapse in the event of a slight earthquake.
Ibrahim Melhem, the spokesman for the Palestinian government, told Arab News that the Cabinet meeting under Al-Aqsa “does not give Israel legitimacy to control and own the mosque or East Jerusalem.”
Melhem said the Palestinian government asked UNESCO to send experts and delegates to examine the dangers threatening the mosque.
“The Israeli extremists do not hide their intention to demolish the most sacred mosque to erect Solomon’s Temple on its ruins,” Melhem said.
By targeting Al-Aqsa, Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been facing widespread opposition protests, is responding to the blackmail of his extremist allies, notably Internal Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, Melhem said.
Palestinians warn that targeting Al-Aqsa Mosque will transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from political to religious, dragging the region into a spiral of violence.
The second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, began after then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound with more than 1,000 heavily armed police and soldiers on Sept. 28, 2000.
The storming of Al-Aqsa became a tactic for extremist leaders to gain electoral mileage during the last Israeli parliamentary elections in November.
Dozens of far-right Israelis visit the Al-Aqsa compound daily to show defiance and provoke Palestinians.
In July 2017, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee issued a decision affirming that Israel has no sovereignty over the city of Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in 1967. It condemned the excavations carried out by the Israeli Antiquities Department in the city.
Ikrima Sabri, a preacher at Al-Aqsa Mosque, said that Israel was carrying out comprehensive excavations in the entire area, including the surroundings of Al-Aqsa.
Sabri said the main objective of these excavations “is to search for antiquities belonging to the Jews, but they have not yet found any antiquities or stones related to ancient Jewish history, despite the extensive excavations that have been taking place since the city’s occupation in 1967.”
He added: “The excavations carried out by the Israeli authorities have caused many cracks in Palestinian properties above the tunnel, which was opened in 1996 along the western wall of Al-Aqsa Mosque, starting from the Omariya School on the Mujahideen Road to the Al-Buraq Wall area.”
Palestinians believe the excavations also consolidate Israeli control over the land and further the Zionist project of Judaizing the region.
About 12 tunnels have been dug under Al-Aqsa, some reaching 450 meters in length. The excavation has led to the systematic destruction of many antiquities above and below the ground from all periods — from the Umayyad to the Ottoman.
Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest mosque for Muslims worldwide after Makkah’s Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah.