"The occupation bulldozers are headed to destroy the historic route from Dung [al-Maghareba] Gate," al-Tamimi said on Tuesday.
The bulldozers, he said, intended to demolish a mound next to al-Maghareba Gate, one of the entrances into Jerusalem's Old City leading to the mosque compound.
According to the Waqf religious trust, two underground rooms connected to the mosques lie under the mound. They claim that levelling the mound would threaten the foundation of the entire al-Aqsa compound.
"We have begun the work in preparation for the salvage dig"
Yuval Baruch, chief archaeologist
Witnesses said Israeli police were deployed in force in the Old City to avoid any disturbances. One bulldozer was present at al-Maghareba Gate, they said.
Shmuel Ben-Ruby, a police spokesman, said security guards were stationed at entrances to the compound "to thwart any attempt to disrupt order".
The work, just outside the site known as the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims and as the Temple Mount to Jews, is likely to inflame tensions.
Israeli police have already restricted access to the site, preventing tourists and Palestinian men under the age of 45 from entering.
Israel's project entails excavating the mound to ensure that the subsequent renovation work does not damage any archaeological artifacts found at the site, officials said.
Yuval Baruch, the antiquities authority's chief archaeologist for the Jerusalem region, told Israel radio the work was a salvage operation.
"We have begun the work in preparation for the salvage dig that is supposed to start here in the coming days in the framework of the renovation of the Maghareba Bridge," he said
|Israel has been conducting excavation work |
near the Dome of the Rock since 1969 [AP]
The compound, which houses al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, is where the second Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000 following a controversial visit by Israel's then-opposition leader, Ariel Sharon.
The site is also revered by Jews as once the site of Solomon's temple, the holiest shrine in Judaism, destroyed by the Romans in 70AD.
On Sunday, Jordan's King Abdullah II warned against "any attack on Islamic sites" in Jerusalem and condemned Israeli attempts "seeking to change the nature of these sites and erase their Muslim character".
In January 2007, Israel revealed a project to set up a synagogue next to the al-Aqsa Mosque's Dome of the Rock.
In February 2004, excavation works carried out by Israeli authorities led to the collapse of a part of the path leading to Al Maghareba Gate, one of the mosque's main entrances.
The Israeli government has been conducting exploratory excavation works underneath the al-Aqsa Mosque since 1969.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies