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A small protrusion forming ominously in the 2000-year-old Southern Wall of the Temple Mount and spreading cracks in the fabric of the Al Aqsa Mosque are the result of an extensive Islamic construction project opposed but not stopped by the Israeli government.

The alarming damage to the ancient sites developed from five years of unsupervised Islamic construction work aimed at turning “Solomon’s Stables” and the adjoining chambers under Al Aqsa into the biggest mosque in the Middle East.

Carried out by the Islamic religious authority, called the Waqf, and the Israeli Islamic Movement under its leader, Sheik Raed Salah, the project appears to have been overly ambitious. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Israel, it now proves to have been marred by serious engineering mistakes.

No Israeli or international engineers, historians or scholars were allowed to inspect the work on a site as required by Israel municipal regulations and national laws governing the protection of historical and religious monuments.

Successive Israeli governments, fearing an international Islamic backlash, allowed the underground excavations and construction to go forward, unchecked and unsupervised. Every demand by the Israeli authorities and international archeologists to access the project was met with angry refusals.

Two weeks ago, Sheikh Salah told his congregation in Umm al Fahm about the cracks and crumbling patches in the Al Aqsa Mosque wall. But, he added suggestively, the “neighbors” had heard mysterious sounds of digging in the small hours. The mosque has no neighbors.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Ahmed Abdul Rahman announced gravely over Radio Palestine yesterday that Israel planned to exploit a small stone that fell off the top of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, the Jewish prayer place, to move in and take control of the entire Muslim site. He also mentioned the cracks, but declared, without explaining how, that they were part of an Israeli plot.

Al Aqsa, which like the rest of Jerusalem, is located in the earthquake-prone African Rift Valley region, has been destroyed by earthquake seven times since it was built by the city’s first Muslim conquerors in the seventh century. The new construction has weakened the structure, so that a tremor could well compound the damage.

Some in Israel fear the right kind of propaganda, alleging Jewish culpability, and the repeated call to “Defend Al Aqsa!” might rally the Islamic world in a flash against Israel – which Yasser Arafat’s intifada has so far failed to do.

The Palestinian leader has now begun to hope that a catastrophe on the Haram might even be built up to outdo the impact of Osama bin Laden’s assaults in the United States.

Meanwhile, the Muslim builders are not yet done. Using forbidden heavy earth-moving equipment, they are now excavating a northerly channel on the Temple Plaza heading in the direction of the Dome of the Rock, whose gilt and blue faience fa?ade dominate the Jerusalem skyline. Breaking into the bedrock in this area, archeologists warn, would also harm the gold-topped Dome, which sits on that rock.

The damage to the Islamic sites comes on top of the destruction of unique relics and artifacts from Jewish Temple, Byzantine, Crusader and medieval times, that the Muslim builders smashed and dumped, in defiance of protests from scholars around the world and warnings from engineers. The Palestinian mufti of Jerusalem and Sheikh Salah simply echoed Arafat’s assertion that the Temple Mount, including the Western Wall, is a Muslim site and no Jewish temples ever existed.

Ergo – no relics.

To make sure this was true, Salah’s builders did what they could to obliterate every trace of an historic Jewish presence above and below the ground of Temple Mount, according to Israeli observers.

But they forgot to take this into account: The Islamic structures were built on the early foundations of that presence and were supported by them. Therefore, by their acts of vandalism, the new Muslim builders have also wrought irreparable damage to sites holy to Islam.

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