By John Russell, AFP
JERUSALEM (1431 GMT) — Muslim leaders and Arab politicians Tuesday urged Palestinians to rush to the flashpoint Jerusalem mosque compound to protest against Israeli works that they charge threaten the siteâ€™s foundations.
The Waqf religious trust said that the works, being conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority under heavy police protection, endanger the foundations of the Al Aqsa mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam.
The work was being carried out by what police said were two tractors. A witness saw a small bulldozer digging up a path next to Dung Gate that leads to one of the mosque entrances, near the Western Wall, Judaismâ€™s holiest site.
The Waqf said that two underground rooms connected to the mosques lie under a mound, which is at the focus of the works, and that leveling the mound would threaten the foundation of the Al Aqsa compound.
The Israel Antiquities Authority said that the work was being carried out to strengthen an access ramp to Dung Gate for the â€œbenefit and safety of visitorsâ€ after damage caused by an earthquake and snowstorms in February 2004.
Tayssir Al Tamimi, head of religious courts in the Palestinian territories, declared on Arabic news channel Al Jazeera that â€œthe occupation bulldozers are headed [to the mosques] to destroy the historic route from Dung Gate.â€
He urged Palestinians to go immediately to the mosque compound to â€œprotectâ€ the site from the Israeli works.
The mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, has also denounced the â€œaggressionâ€ against the mosques.
Speaking to reporters before leaving the Gaza Strip for crisis talks in Saudi Arabia, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, whose Islamist-led government is boycotted by the West, called on â€œall the sons of the Palestinian people to unite and rise up en masse to protect the Al Aqsa mosque.â€
Israeli foreign minister Tzippi Livni said that there was absolutely no basis for Muslim accusations that holy sites would be harmed.
â€œThe works are not intended to harm any of the holy sites. On the contrary, the purpose is to maintain the sites because of some erosion that happened in the past,â€ she said after talks with her British counterpart Margaret Beckett.
The mosque compound, which houses both Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, is where the second Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000 following a controversial visit by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon.
The site is also revered by Jews as the site of their ancient temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
Several hundred police were deployed throughout the Old City and restrictions imposed on access to the mosque compound to prevent disturbances, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Eleven people were arrested for throwing stones in sporadic disturbances in occupied and annexed East Jerusalem, but none in the Old City, said Rosenfeld.
Only men aged over 45 with Israeli identity cards and women are being allowed into the mosque compound, which is also being closed to non-Muslims.
In Gaza City, dozens of Palestinians marched to the rallying cry of Hamas and of rival Islamist group, Islamic Jihad, to denounce the â€œIsraeli aggression.â€ A similar protest was held in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
Islamic Jihad also claimed that a rocket attack on southern Israel – which caused no casualties or damage – was â€œin response to the criminal Zionist aggression against the Al Aqsa mosque.â€
Despite the protest calls, only a few dozen Palestinians gathered at Dung Gate, among them the head of the Islamic movement in Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah.
â€œWhatâ€™s happening here is criminal and it could reach into the depths of the Al Aqsa mosque,â€ he told reporters.
In a statement, former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei accused the Israeli government of â€œplaying with fireâ€ and claimed that its behavior could â€œstart a new intifadaâ€ or Palestinian uprising.