One of the most ambitious and controversial archeological digs ever mounted by the Israeli Antiquities Authority is raising howls from both Islamic officials and Orthodox Jews.
Pundits here have dubbed it the "War Over Bones and Stones."
But officials of the Islamic Trust, responsible for Jerusalem's Muslim holy sites, and the rabbi in charge of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site, are not amused.
Both Muslim and Jewish officials say the dig at the base of the massive stone retaining walls that form the southwest corner of what Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Haram al Sharif (or Noble Sanctuary) is dangerous because it tampers with their historic claims to the city.
But the passions unleashed by the dig are not only about historical conflicts. They also reflect the growing tension between Israelis and Palestinians over the future of this city, which both sides claim as their capital. Each side fears the other wants to erase its rival's past in Jerusalem to ensure that it has no future here.
Caught in the middle are a team of Israeli archeologists who say they want to create an educational park that will lay out the histories of both Muslims and Jews here.
"We are talking about making this thing into one of the main tourist attractions in the country," said Jacob Fish, a spokesman for the Antiquities Authority.
The archeologists plan to dismantle remains of the walls of a 1,300-year-old Islamic palace from the Umayyad period that lie on the west side of the site to expose a long expanse of an earlier, Herodian-era street beneath the palace.
To compensate for destroying the remains of the Islamic palace, archeologist Yaakov Billig says, stones removed in the dig on the west side of the Temple Mount wall will be used on the south side to partially rebuild a second Ummayad palace.
But Muslim officials say that partially rebuilding one palace does not make up for destroying another.
"We don't need taller walls for the second palace," said Adnan Husseini, head of the Islamic Trust. "They want to explode our history in Jerusalem. It is a fight against the Muslims, against our history in the city. This is very dangerous from our point of view."
For very different reasons, Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz, who is in charge of the Western Wall, is also unhappy with the palace dig going on just south of his domain. The west side of the dig is actually an extension of the Western Wall, the section of the Herodian retaining wall that Jews revere as the last remnant of Judaism's Second Temple, rebuilt by Herod the Great and destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
Getz objects to archeologists' plans to use stone blocks, believed to have been dislodged from the wall by Roman conquerors, to partially rebuild the Umayyad palace on the south side of the site. He says Jewish law forbids the use of stones that may have been involved in construction of the temple to rebuild an Islamic structure. Better the stones should be left where they were found than reused in such a manner, he argues.
The rabbi is not swayed by archeologists' arguments that the stones already had been used by the Umayyad when they built the original complex of four palaces on the west and south sides of the Temple Mount.
The current work began about eight months ago. Earlier work was done at the site after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, but abandoned when funds ran out.
Getz and other ultra-Orthodox Jews also have raised questions about human bones uncovered in the dig. Jewish law forbids the disturbing of graves and requires that any Jewish bones uncovered by digging be properly reburied in a Jewish cemetery.
The Antiquities Authority argues that the bones are not those of Jews. Instead, its officials say, they are the remains of Muslim defenders of Jerusalem who were slain fighting Christian soldiers during the Crusades in the early centuries of this millennium. That theory set off the Islamic authorities, who fear the desecration of Muslim graves.
Toiling in the shadows of the great stone walls that loom above the site--and under the suspicious gaze of the religious officials--the beleaguered archeologists say they find the criticisms hard to ignore.
"Sometimes, I go home from here after a day of this with steam coming out of my ears," said Billig, chief assistant to archeologist Ronny Reich, chief archeologist at the dig. "We just want to do some archeology and not mix around in all the politics."
There is, however, perhaps no site more fraught with religious rivalries, Billig, himself an Orthodox Jew, acknowledges. But there is also no site that offers richer rewards.
"This is the most important site in the world for Judaism, the foot of the Temple Mount," he said. "The potential here is the greatest you can ask for in archeology in Jerusalem. There is such great potential for learning about the periods, and there is the emotional attachment."
Billig points out a jumble of massive blocks lying in a deep pit the archeologists have excavated on the western side of the site. Some of the stones weigh as much as 24 tons, he says. They have lain there since Roman soldiers pried them loose 2,000 years ago and hurled them onto the street below.
"It is one thing to talk about the destruction" of the Second Temple, Billig said. "It is another thing to see it. This is the destruction."
But as Billig works to uncover the past, Husseini of the Islamic Trust worries about Israeli plans for the future.
Some extreme Jewish groups have dedicated themselves to rebuilding the Herodian temple. Husseini points out that such a project would require the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa, the Muslim mosques on the Temple Mount. He says he fears the Antiquities Authority's excavation could inspire attacks on the Muslim sites.
Husseini says he also fears the dig might undermine Al Aqsa, on the southwest side of the Temple Mount. The deep pit the archeologists are digging could fill with water in winter, he says, and the water could in turn undermine Al Aqsa.
Billig dismisses Husseini's fears, saying the dig poses neither a theological nor a physical threat to Muslim sites nearby.
But Husseini warns that Muslims in Jerusalem and abroad are growing increasingly alarmed by the dig, saying, "The Israelis should be trying to create a better atmosphere, an atmosphere of peace here. But it seems they want to fight all Muslims."
One reason for the tension surrounding the dig is the political limbo Jerusalem entered when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed a framework peace accord on Sept. 13, 1993.
Jerusalem's future then was considered so sensitive an issue that negotiations on the city were put off until a later phase of talks, scheduled to begin in 1996.
Meantime, in an "interim phase," the two communities are supposed to try to build confidence in each other, and the Palestinians--who have established self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho--are expected to extend that rule to the rest of the West Bank as a prelude to negotiating the final status of those territories and Jerusalem.
Instead, the two sides are engaged in a sometimes deadly struggle, especially over Jerusalem.
And Billig's beloved dig has become a powerful symbol for Israelis and Palestinians of what is at stake in their struggle over the capital.