Tunnel raises tensions in Israel Tourist attraction near Jewish, Muslim shrines sparks protests

September 25, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- When the Jerusalem city government unsealed a tunnel yesterday that chronicles 2,500 years of history, it enhanced a tourist attraction but also provoked the latest Arab-Israeli dispute over the future of the city.

Workmen unsealed the exit of a 500-yard-long tunnel that runs along the edge of the Temple Mount -- where the Jewish Temple once stood and now the site of two of Islam's holiest shrines -- and a crowd of Palestinians responded by throwing stones and bottles at police.

Police cleared Jewish worshipers from the area until calm was restored.

The tunnel, about a yard wide, runs the length of the Western Wall -- the only remnant of the Jewish Temple that was destroyed in A.D. 70.

With both ends of the tunnel now open, tourists can walk its entire length, from the plaza in front of the Western Wall to the Via Dolorosa, the route that according to tradition was traveled by Jesus on his way to be crucified.

The mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, proclaimed the tunnel "one of the most exciting, interesting sites in Jerusalem" and said that its completion had no political significance.

But to many Arabs, the tunnel restoration represented an improper Israeli expansion in the possible future capital of a hoped-for Palestinian state.

Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian authority, condemned the work as "a big crime against our religious and holy places."

Orient House, the Palestinian center in Jerusalem, issued a statement that said Israel was "crossing the 'red lines' in the city by practically changing the status of holy sites there."

The Palestinian authority called for strikes in Jerusalem this morning and protests in Palestinian territories in the afternoon.

According to the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, the final status of Jerusalem is to be decided through negotiations.

But those negotiations have only recently resumed, after the United States urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to return to the table.

Since entering office in May, Netanyahu's government has angered Palestinians by approving plans for expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, closing Palestinian offices in East Jerusalem and demolishing Palestinian homes.

Israeli and Muslim authorities also have disputed renovations at al-Aqsa mosque, one of the Islamic shrines on the Temple Mount.

Although Israeli officials insisted yesterday that the unsealing of the tunnel merely completed an 11-year project, they had recognized the possible impact of the work.

The work began at midnight and under heavy police guard and continued past dawn.

Netanyahu consulted with Mayor Olmert, the tourism minister and the public security chief about the tunnel opening and gave the order for the work to be done.

But Israeli officials maintained that the tunnel was strictly a tourism matter.

They said the tunnel would increase tourist traffic to 400,000 people a year from 60,000, bringing more business for Arab merchants in the Old City.

"The fact that the Palestinian authority is trying to inject some political flavor into it doesn't make it anything else," Olmert said at a briefing for reporters.

Olmert said the city's Muslim leadership knew of the tunnel work when it was under way in January.

They recently toured the tunnel and saw that the work did not compromise any religious site, he said.

If the tunnel opening was to convey any message to the Palestinians, Olmert said, it was this:

"We are not playing games here. We will not agree that everything that happens in Jerusalem will [be brought] into negotiations.

"This is the authority of the sovereign of the city.

"We are the sovereign of the city.

"There is one city of Jerusalem.

"One authority for Jerusalem.

"It can't be divided."

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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