Jerusalem's mayor and Israeli archaeologists warned Tuesday that some of the massive stone blocks lining the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, are in danger of crashing down on worshippers.
Muslim clerics, who run the site, insisted the wall is stable and accused Israel of trying to fabricate a crisis as a way of asserting control over the shrine in Jerusalem's Old City.
A collapse might set off a cataclysm of Mideast violence because of the sensitivity of the shrine as a key holy site and a political flashpoint that has defied solution. Much lesser issues concerning the site have triggered violence.
Jerusalem's Israeli mayor, Ehud Olmert, said the bulge has been growing steadily. ``There are serious grounds for the apprehension that it could collapse,'' Olmert told Israel Radio. ``We have reached the moment of truth.''
The bulge is in the wall holding up the southeastern corner of the mosque compound, known to Muslims as the Haram as-Sharif, or ``Noble Sanctuary,'' built on the site of the biblical Jewish Temples.
The Western Wall, a retaining wall of the Temple compound, is just around the corner but is not affected by the bulge. With Jews kept off the hilltop by Muslim restrictions and rabbinical bans, the Western Wall is the holiest place where Jews can pray.
Eilat Mazar, head of Israel's Public Committee for the Protection of the Antiquities on the Temple Mount, said the southern wall has deteriorated beyond repair. She sent a letter Monday to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon urging immediate action.
``The wall will collapse,'' she said. The risk could even be greater during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan when tens of thousands of worshippers crowd into the mosque compound, she said. Ramadan this year begins in November.
The outward bulge is the exterior wall of a portion of the compound known as Solomon's Stables, an area renovated and turned into a mosque in recent years. A collapse could rain huge stone blocks, some a yard wide, onto Muslim worshippers, who sometimes number in the thousands.
From outside, the bulge appears about halfway up the wall, which is part of the exterior wall of the Old City at that point. Beneath it, outside, Israeli archaeologists have been excavating for years, but Jews do not pray there.
Adnan Husseini, director of the Muslim trust which supervises the mosque complex, said the bulge in the wall has not grown or shifted for about 30 years and poses no immediate threat.
``This bulge is under our monitoring since the 70s,'' he told The Associated Press. ``It is stable, we don't feel that there is any dangerous situation.''
Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, disputed Husseini's account and said Israeli experts using laser devices have measured a significant shift in the upper part of the wall over the past two years.
``It's the sort of thing that could stand up for another 30 years or fall down tomorrow,'' he said, adding that there was a need for more extensive examination to determine the cause of the problem and the best way to solve it.
Palestinians, who want east Jerusalem as the capital of a state, call the conflict the ``Al Aqsa Uprising,'' after the central mosque in the compound.
In 1996, more than 100 Palestinians and Israelis were killed in a spasm of violence that followed Israel's opening an exit to a tunnel that runs along the ancient wall of the compound. Muslims charged that Israel was trying to collapse the mosque.
The upper section of southern wall was built in the 8th century atop a wall dating back to the era of the Second Jewish Temple about 2,000 years ago. Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the compound.
Israel captured the compound during the 1967 Mideast War, but left daily running of the site to the Waqf, or Islamic Trust. Since Sharon's visit, the Waqf has denied entry to non-Muslims.
Husseini, the Waqf director, said the Israelis were demanding that their own experts carry out or supervise tests on the wall in order to re-establish an Israeli presence on the site. That, he said, was unacceptable.
``The Israeli side is trying to make from this problem a very dangerous political issue,'' he said. ``They want to gain a foothold.''
British archaeologist Shimon Gibson said both sides have contributed to the bulge in the wall, which has been warped by excavations on the Israeli side and by work on the Palestinian side, when both removed vital supporting soil. He said the Temple-era blocks at the base of the wall are not in danger, and the bulge above them could be stabilized with existing techniques.
That, however, would involve work on both sides of the wall, with either the Israelis foregoing supervision of the job inside the compound or the Palestinians dropping their objection to an Israeli role there.
``Everyone should get together and try to solve this issue and not make a political issue of it, but treat it as an engineering problem,'' Gibson said.