Whose Jerusalem ?

Whose Jerusalem ?

Whose Land ?

Open the Mount to Scrutiny

July, 13 2001

If there is an accusation that captures popular cynicism toward politics, it is the aphorism "where you stand depends on where you sit." Some politicians, however, manage to develop reputations of adhering to principle, even at the possible expense of their popularity. Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau was considered such a straight shooter, so is particularly disturbing to see his 180-degree turnabout on the issue of protecting antiquities on the Temple Mount.

Under the premiership of Ehud Barak, Landau was one of the loudest voices protesting against the government's disregard for the wanton and unsupervised destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount by the Wakf, which was engaged in seemingly endless construction projects there. Landau probably did not imagine that within months he would be the minister of internal security, and therefore would have a pivotal role in ensuring that such destruction did not continue.

The fact that Landau's role is so pivotal is one of the problems he was meant to solve. Since last September, the Israel Police and the Wakf have together blocked all non-Muslims from entering the Temple Mount. This prohibition includes archeologists from the Antiquities Authority and all journalists - except those hand-picked by the Wakf. The police, therefore, are the only thin reed by which the outside world knows anything about whatever construction is taking place on the Mount.

This week, the Committee to Prevent the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, a non-partisan group of archeologists, authors, and public figures, released photographs of heavy equipment working in this sensitive area, and a large saw used to cut massive ancient stones for reuse in construction projects. The committee has repeatedly charged that the police have misinformed the public and its minister as to the extent of the work going on, and has demanded that the area be open to the press and subject to archeological supervision. The committee further claims that, contrary to an assurance by Landau this week in the Knesset, the saw is still being used, large amounts of construction materials have been brought in, and hundreds of volunteers from the Islamic movement have been working on construction projects on the Mount.

Today, for only the second time since the formation of the government, and only after significant attention by the press and the Knesset, Landau will be meeting with the committee to review the evidence it has collected. So far, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the heads of the Antiquities Authority, the police, and Education Minister Limor Livnat (who has jurisdiction over the Antiquities Authority) have all refused to meet with the committee.

The behavior of the government in this instance is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable. Sharon, Landau, and Livnat were all at the forefront of demanding that the Barak government not allow one of the most sensitive archeological sites in the world - certainly to the Jewish people - to be exempt from the supervision to which almost any road or construction project is routinely subjected, as required by law. The police are not in a position, nor do they have the expertise, to do this themselves. Furthermore, the police have, by consistently minimizing what the Wakf has done, demonstrated that they have a clear conflict of interests - it is simplest for them to let the Wakf go about its business.

It is absurd, even pathetic, that Israel and the world must rely upon smuggled and aerial photographs to get some sense of what is happening in the heart of Jerusalem, at a site of unmatched historical and religious significance to the Jewish people. The first, most urgent way to shed some light on the situation is to lift the ban on press access to the Temple Mount.

Perhaps security considerations can justify preventing tourists and the non-Muslim public from visiting the Temple Mount, though this, too, should not be considered a normal and acceptable situation. But even if such a general prohibition makes sense, it cannot justify the imposition of a journalistic blackout on the area. In other areas, such as parts of the Gaza Strip, that have been closed to Israelis for security reasons, an exception has been made for journalists.

The introduction of journalists into the Temple Mount should not be considered a sufficient form of supervision of the area. The committee correctly demands that all construction and destruction on the Temple Mount be subject to a detailed, transparent approval process, and close supervision by the Antiquities Authority.

The Temple Mount has a rich history stretching over thousands of years, and bears the imprint of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian civilizations. If any other country had entrusted the Temple Mount to Islamic authorities - which deny any non-Muslim connection to the area and have a record of destroying non-Muslim artifacts in keeping with their extremist ideology - Israel and the Jewish people would be up in arms. If, in addition, this other country had prevented a modicum of supervision by archeologists and the press, Israel would be screaming bloody murder.

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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