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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli archaeologists said on Wednesday they fear priceless relics could be damaged by a mechanical digger being used by Muslim caretakers to carve out a utility trench at one of Jerusalem's holiest shrines.
The work is being carried out on the plaza revered by Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and by Jews as the Temple Mount.
"It is appalling that in one of the most important archaeological sites in the country, heavy machinery is used in a barbaric way to dig a ditch 120 metres long and 1.5 metres deep," said Gabriel Barkay, an archaologist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
He and other members of the Israeli-based Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, have criticised Israel's Antiquities Authority for allowing the Waqf, the Muslim caretakers of the site, to conduct the work.
Dalit Menzin, a spokeswoman for the Antiquities Authority, an Israeli government agency, declined to comment.
Sheikh Abdel al-Azeem Salhab, president of the Waqf Council, which is charged with day-to-day administration of the compound, denied the digging would cause any archaeological damage.
The trench is being dug to replace decades-old electric wiring at the complex, which now houses the al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock Mosques and was the site during biblical times of two Jewish Temples.
The future of the compound, on land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war, is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"I assure you that the area where the electrical cables are being extended was excavated in the past and there is nothing of value in it that can be damaged or destroyed," Salhab said.
Barkay said earth from the trench contained pottery shards dating to the Byzantine period. He cautioned that more relics still underground could be harmed.
Christian, Muslim and Jewish heritage could "fall victim to this heinous act", Barkay said.
The site is in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in a move that is not recognised internationally. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of the state they hope to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In Febuary, an Israeli dig intended to salvage ancient artefacts before construction of a new walkway leading to the holy complex sparked worldwide protests by Muslims who said they feared the two mosques would be damaged.
Israel's Jerusalem municipality denied any harm would come to the shrines but scrapped its original construction plan and ordered a committee to prepare new blueprints and hold public hearings on the project.
Additional reporting by Kareem Khadder