This action aroused anger in many parts of the Muslim world. After Friday prayers, on February 9, there was stone-throwing on the al-Aqsa compound (the Haram a-Sharif, “Noble Sanctuary,” known also as the Temple Mount). The police went in and stopped it by force. Then, on February 11, the mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupolianski, declared a freeze on the building of the bridge. The plan, it turned out, had never gone through the channels ordained by local law. Lupolianski sent the project into these channels. This will mean a long delay – indeed, there is no certainty that the plan will receive approval. Meanwhile, Israelis and tourists will continue to use the wooden ramp.
Yet the archaeological dig goes on, keeping the situation volatile. The Jerusalem Municipality has here engaged in a subtle maneuver. It cannot start building the bridge in any case until the salvage dig is done. For all intents and purposes, then, the work continues, and tempers are not allayed.
The Mugrabi Gate is one of several leading into the Haram. In the wake of the 1967 War, as part of its attempt to establish a new status quo, Israel decided to keep control over this gate because of its proximity to the Western (formerly “Wailing”) Wall, which it also took over. This would ensure quick access to the Haram by security forces. Israel also evicted the residents of the Mugrabi neighborhood (135 homes, two mosques, two religious schools) in order to create the large plaza now facing the Wall. It left civil control over the inner part of the Haram with the Muslim Supreme Council or “Waqf.”
The Waqf, and indeed all who oppose the Occupation, have never accepted this status quo. They regard it as a product of force. Israel claims that the Waqf’s archaeological digs inside the Haram are erasing all vestiges of Jewish history there. The Waqf complains, in turn, that many Israeli archaeologists dismiss and destroy everything that lies above the Jewish strata, including Islamic ruins.
The danger in the excavations
Why does the current dig arouse such fierce opposition? Israeli officials like to blame knee-jerk anti-Israeli incitement. The truth, however, is that the excavations – indeed the whole issue of the bridge – give genuine cause for concern.
The dig will remove a ramp that led to the Mugrabi Gate for four centuries – until one edge collapsed during a storm in 2004. The removal will expose twenty additional meters of the Western Wall, revealing a sealed gate that belonged to the Jewish temple compound of 2000 years ago. This so-called Barclay’s gate, part of which has long been visible in the women’s section, is likely to act as a magnet for apocalyptic groups that want to rebuild the temple on the ruins of the Muslim shrines. There was an attempt by the Jewish underground to tunnel beneath the shrines in 1983, as well as an attempt the next year near the Gate of Mercy or Golden Gate. A repeat could spark a regional conflagration. When the Waqf protests, therefore, one cannot accuse it of baseless paranoia.
As for the planned new bridge, its design is enmeshed in so-called security considerations. In December 2006, Ir Amim (“City of Peoples,” a non-profit association) published a document showing that in June of that year the authorities discussed the topic. Present were representatives of the Prime Minister, the police, the General Security Services (Shin Bet), the Antiquities Authority, and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The police demanded that the new bridge should enable 300 of their number to storm the Haram. The participants decided, therefore, to adopt the plan of the Western Wall Rabbi, which calls for a broad bridge 200 meters long (three times the length of the former ramp); it is to stand on pillars, descending into the Archaeological Garden near the Dung Gate. Apart from the aesthetic bombast, such a project would clearly violate the status quo.
In November the municipality hastily approved this plan in a manner contrary to its own procedures – that is, without preparing the details and without exposing the project to objections. To gain support for these omissions, it obtained a favorable legal opinion from a lawyer who works for the settlers.
Sheikh Muhammed Hasin al-Tamimi, director of the al-Aqsa Mosque, told Challenge that the old ramp (which is still mostly in place) helps support the Western Wall. Its removal would endanger the wall’s stability. The dig, moreover, is likely to expose valuable remains from the Islamic period as well as the Roman. For example, according to the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot (February 18), “ruins of an ancient Muslim prayer room have been found beneath the dirt ramp attached to the Mugrabi Gate. The room was discovered in 2004, but the find was kept secret by factors in Israel.”
The Waqf demands control over the excavations, since it is the legal owner of the Haram, including its exterior walls (the Western Wall included). According to Tamimi, ever since the partial collapse of the ramp in 2004, the Waqf has sought to repair and restore it, but the Jerusalem Municipality has ignored its proposal.
Meir Margalit, a journalist specializing on Jerusalem, has told Challenge that the old dirt ramp is perfectly capable of continuing its function. All it needs is reinforcement. This would obviate any need for a new bridge – or, consequently, for a salvage dig. Archaeologist Meir Ben Dov agrees: “The ramp has been there 400 years,” he told us. “It has a historical value in its own right. When there is peace, it will be possible to coordinate with the Arabs in deciding on the area’s appearance, but until then it’s best to repair the ramp and leave the situation as it was.”
Yosef Pepe Alalo, who represents Meretz on the city council and in the planning commission, raises a related question: “If the reason for the salvage dig is to rescue archaeological artifacts prior to the building of the bridge, and if the building of the bridge has been delayed indefinitely, and since the present plan may not even be approved, why go on digging?”
On top of all that, the dig is illegal even by Israeli procedures, claims Ben Dov. Only a committee that includes the ministers of Justice and Education is authorized to decide on a dig in this part of the city, and no such decision has been made. Ben Dov had hoped that the Knesset’s Interior Committee, which discussed the issue on February 14 (after Ir Amim and Pepe Alalo turned to the Attorney General) would stop the excavations. But the Attorney General made do with a diplomatic announcement: “Given the decision by Jerusalem’s mayor to freeze the permit for building the bridge at the Mugrabi Gate… a new situation has been created. Accordingly, the Interior Committee asks that the government consider its steps carefully, with moderation and transparency.” Meanwhile, the dig continues.
Since its inception, the issue of the bridge has been nothing but a display of Israeli muscle, under the direction of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – an attempt to show who’s boss and to nullify the Waqf’s autonomy on the Haram. The attempt is consistent with Olmert’s biography. As mayor of Jerusalem, in September 1996 – when PM Binyamin Netanyahu ordered that the Western Wall tunnel be opened onto the Via Dolorosa – Olmert got himself photographed wielding a sledgehammer to break through. This disturbance of the status quo resulted in bloody riots at the checkpoints, where dozens died. During his mayoralty, Olmert also collaborated with settler movements to take over parts of the city. Nor should we forget that his mentor was Ariel Sharon, whose tour on the Haram in September 2000 triggered the al-Aqsa Intifada.
Olmert’s decision to dig did not work out well for him. It aroused opposition within his government from the side of Defense Minister Amir Peretz. It caused Mayor Lupolianski to worry that things might spin out of control. There is a reasonable chance that the Attorney General would have opposed it, if Lupolianski hadn’t frozen it first. We may also assume that Olmert’s decision found little favor in Washington’s eyes: it came on the eve of a meeting between himself, Abu Mazen and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The purpose of this tryst was to calm the area, not enflame it.
For the present, we can say that Israel’s government has taken yet another aggressive decision that has ended in blunder, leaving an additional landmine on the long and lengthening road toward resolving its conflict with the Palestinians.