Jerusalem dig completes tunnel under Old City wall

JERUSALEM, Jan 25, 2011 (AFP) - Israeli archaeologists have finished work on a controversial tunnel running from a site close to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem that is the third holiest site in Islam, officials said Tuesday.

The 600-metre (yard) tunnel to the nearby district of Silwan, originally built as a drainage tunnel during the Second Temple period, starts at an archaeological site in the Old City next to the Western Wall, one of Judaism's most sacred spots, and just south of the mosque compound.

"After works which lasted seven years, the last part of the tunnel, which is 600 metres long and was used for draining rainwater during the Second Temple period, has been cleared," a spokesman for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) told AFP.

He said the controversial project was "purely archaelogical" in nature and that the tunnel "does not go under the Temple Mount" -- the Jewish term for the site which formerly housed the Second Temple but is now the site of the mosque plaza.

The tunnel leads to the City of David, an archaeological site run by ideological Jewish settlers located in the flashpoint neighbourhood of Silwan which lies just outside the Dung Gate, immediately south of the Old City walls.

The project, which began in 2004, sparked controversy because of its proximity to the mosque plaza and due to the fact that it was funded by ELAD, a hardline settler group which seeks to expand Jewish presence in occupied and annexed east Jerusalem.

"Over the years, the tunnel was partially opened to the public. Soon it will be completely opened," the spokesman added.

At the moment, the tunnel can only be accessed from the Silwan side, but there are plans to create an exit at the other end in the coming months.

Construction work in and around the Old City has historically been one of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has a history of triggering unrest.

Israel occupied and later annexed east Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, during the 1967 Six-Day War and considers it to be its "eternal and indivisible capital."

But the Palestinians oppose any extension of Israeli control over the city's eastern sector which they want as the capital of their future promised state.

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