OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — As Israel resumed its excavations near Al-Aqsa Mosque on Sunday, February 11, Palestinian leaders vowed to pursue massive protests to halt the Israeli diggings at Islam’s third holiest shrine.
"We have a full program of protests for the coming weeks in order to stop the Israeli crimes against the Al-Aqsa mosque," said Sheikh Raed Salah, the head of the Islamic movement in Israel, reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"Continuing the work will increase the tension and anger among Palestinians and in the Arab-Islamic world," he added.
Cashing on world silence, Israeli bulldozers started Tuesday, February 6, demolishing a wooden bridge leading to the Al-Maghariba Gate of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and two underground rooms, sparking widespread protests in the Palestinian lands and Muslim countries.
Dozens of Palestinian demonstrators marched in front of Al-Maghariba Gate on Sunday to protest the Israeli diggings.
Two protestors were arrested by Israeli police.
The Islamic Movement in Israel vowed to press ahead with its protests until the Israeli excavations are halted.
"We’re just here to defend our mosque," said Saleh Nutfi, a spokesman for the Islamic Movement. "This is clear oppression by the occupier."
Israeli forces stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on Friday, February 9, and attacked worshippers protesting the Israeli diggings.
The Waqf religious trust says Israeli excavations endanger the foundations of the Al-Aqsa compound.
The compound, known as Al-Haram Al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), houses the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Al-Aqsa Mosque is the Muslims’ first Qiblah [direction Muslims take during prayers] and its the third holiest shrine after Al Ka’bah in Makkah and Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Madinah, Saudi Arabia.
Its significance has been reinforced by the incident of Al Isra’a and Al Mi’raj — the night journey from Makkah to Al-Quds and the ascent to the Heavens by Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings be Upon Him).
This represents the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict as Jews claim that their alleged Haykal (Temple of Solomon) exists underneath Al-Haram Al-Sharif.
In an attempt to confront Israeli schemes threatening the mosque, the Waqfs Ministry released some one million copies of an electronic guide about the mosque and its compound.
But despite the street protests and dissent from some Israeli government members, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed to continue the excavations near the holy Muslim place.
"Work will continue because it is a question of fixing a dangerous situation," he said at the weekly cabinet meeting, according to army radio.
"The building site is not on the mosque compound and does not offend the sensitivities of Muslims."
Israel claims the excavations pose no risk to the holy site and only aim to strengthen an access ramp for the "benefit and safety of visitors" after an earthquake and snowstorm damaged a historical route in 2004.
Dissent from within the Israeli government has been rising over the ongoing Israeli digging near the holy site.
Leaders of Israel’s left-leaning Labour party called Saturday for halting the excavations.
"We must reconsider this issue, even if we are right from a legal and archaeological point of view," Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said.
Israeli Defense Minister sent a letter to the Israeli premier on Thursday demanding a halt of the Israeli diggings.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, also urged Tel Aviv to take the "sensitivities" of others into account over the work.
The mosque has been a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian fighting in the past.
The second Palestinian Intifada or uprising broke out in September 2000 after a provocative visit by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the mosque compound.
In 1996, more than 80 Palestinians were killed in three days of protests after then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened a new entrance to a controversial archaeological tunnel near Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
Palestinians have repeatedly warned that ultra-orthodox Jewish groups were planning to dynamite the mosque.