The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) demanded that Israel halts the current excavations being carried out near the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem.

A UNESCO team of experts headed by the director of UNESCO, Francesco Bandarin, criticized the digging for stirring large-scale protests in the Islamic world as well as amongst Muslim Palestinians and Arabs, given the holiness of the mosque.

However, the team maintained that no damage had been caused to the mosque and that the digging posed no threat to the stability of such a holy shrine. The experts suggested that Israel should have included international organizations in the construction works near the Mughrabi gate, demanding that Israel stops such works so as to allow observation by other relevant international bodies.

They also called on Israel to co-ordinate actions near the Al-Aqsa mosque compound with the Islamic Waqf authorities in Jerusalem as well as the Jordanian authorities. Israeli diplomats said compliance with such a demand would mean that Israel is admitting that it does not practice full sovereignty over the area.

Israel has been carrying out reconstruction works in the vicinity of the mosque, intending to renovate a walkway near the Muslim area of Mughrabi gate. The mosque is situated in occupied east Jerusalem and is being run by the Palestinian Islamic Waqf authority jointly with the Jordanian Waqf authorities.

Many international and local bodies have voiced concern over the digging for fear it might undermine the structure of the Islamic shrine of Al-Aqsa. Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site for Muslims, has been a flashpoint throughout the Palestinian-Israel conflict. In 1969, a Jewish extremist set fire to the mosque’s pulpit; in 1996, Israel opened a tunnel there, stirring up bloody confrontations; while in 2000, the then Israeli opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, paid a provocative visit to the compound, sparking the current 7 year-old Palestinian uprising (Intifada).