Palestine's Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem 2008. (GNU Free Documentation License)
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 tunnel to the nearby district of Silwan, originally built as a drainage tunnel during what is known as the ‘Second Temple period’, starts at an archaeological site in the Old City next to the ‘Buraq Wall’ -- termed Western Wall by Israel -- 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 alleged the controversial project was "purely archaeological" in nature and that the tunnel "does not go under the Temple Mount" the Israeli term for the site which is argued to have formerly housed the Second Temple but has been the site of the mosque plaza.
The tunnel leads to the City of David, an archaeological site run by ideological Israeli 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 hard-line settler group which seeks to expand Israeli 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 has claimed it to be its "eternal and indivisible capital."
Palestinians oppose any extension of Israeli control over the city's eastern sector which they want as the capital of their future promised state.