November/December '99

Temple Mount: Layers of dirt, history, and conflict

By Michael S. Arnold

(December 26) -- Michael S. Arnold looks at how the recent flare-up over Solomon's Stables points to the sensitive balance in Jewish-Moslem relations.

The bulldozers were relatively quiet, their work already done. As a crew of men scurried about, building the access ramp to the Temple Mount's underground Solomon's Stables - known to Moslems today as the Marwani Mosque - drivers lolled about without any apparent purpose.

A few weeks ago, the bulldozers were in action, and at the heart of the latest confrontation lying at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli Arabs active in the Islamic Movement helped rent the bulldozers that the Wakf (Islamic Trust) used to cart off the thousands of tons of dirt blocking the ancient entrances to Solomon's Stables - dirt rich with the buried history of one of the most sensitive archeological sites in the world.

Israeli officials reacted with both indignation and incredulity - indignation at the possible wanton destruction of traces of the Jewish Temples that once stood atop Mount Moriah, incredulity at the fact that the Wakf would use bulldozers to churn up and remove the soil without conducting any scientific assessment of what it contained, and without coordinating with Israeli authorities.

After ignoring requests from right-wing activists to stop the work, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein visited the site and declared that the remnants of Jewish history were being trampled on. The refrain was taken up by right-wing politicians and activists who long have campaigned for a stronger Jewish presence on the site.

Beyond that, however, the Solomon's Stables dispute showed once again just how explosive any issue connected to the status and control of Jerusalem can be - and what kinds of fireworks and provocations can be expected as the two sides approach the end-game of peace negotiations in the coming year.

FRIEDRICH Nietzsche, trying to underline the brute force of his arguments, subtitled one of his books: "Philosophizing with a Hammer." The image is of delicate and exacting work carried out with a blunt instrument, akin, say, to performing surgery with an ax. Into this category some would put archeological work carried out by bulldozers.

A showdown has been building on the Temple Mount since 1996. First then prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu opened a new exit to a tourist tunnel running along the base of the Western Wall without notifying the Palestinian Authority, a move that the Palestinians considered, or chose to utilize, as a provocation. Then there was the new-found involvement of Israel's Islamic Movement, under the leadership of Umm el-Fahm Mayor Ra'ed Salah, in the administration of the Temple Mount.

With overt Palestinian Authority meddling on the Temple Mount diplomatically problematic, the Islamic Movement stepped into the breach, gathering funds, volunteers and equipment for the extensive renovation work that made Solomon's Stables - which some right-wing Jewish groups wanted to use as a place for Jewish prayer - into a full-fledged mosque with room for thousands of worshipers.

The move radically changed the status quo on the Temple Mount, but the government, shaken by the violence of the tunnel-related clashes with the Palestinians, chose to give the work its post facto approval.

The Wakf, which refuses to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, nevertheless had consulted with Israeli authorities in the past over renovation work it deemed essential on the site; Israel kept such consultations quiet and informal, so as not to shame the Wakf.

Since the events of 1996, however, the Wakf has stopped cooperating with the government, according to Jon Seligman, Jerusalem region archeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority.

THE RESULT is events such as two recent showdowns over Solomon's Stables. The first, shortly after Prime Minister Ehud Barak took office last summer, occurred when the Wakf made known its need for a window to allow better air flow at the Marwani Mosque. The government agreed - only to find that the Wakf had punched through the outside wall of the Temple Mount, an egregious breach of the status quo.

Barak forced the Wakf to close the opening, and in this case the Wakf agreed.

This fall, however, the Wakf again tested the government, and this time got most of what it sought. The Wakf claimed an emergency exit was needed for worshipers at the Marwani Mosque, who now can only access the site via a narrow staircase that could quickly become a death trap in the event of fire or another emergency. The government agreed, underestimating the extent of the work that the Wakf and the Islamic Movement would carry out.

Bringing bulldozers to the site, the Wakf hollowed out a ramp on the southeast corner of the Temple Mount some 30 meters wide, 30 meters long and about 12 meters deep at its deepest point and leading from the Temple Mount at ground level to the underground mosque. They also unblocked two of five large archways that for centuries had been filled with stones and rubble, and started clearing a third. Some 200 truckloads of material were carted away.

Attorney-General Rubinstein sounded the alarm in early December. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert threatened to get a court injunction.

The Wakf, however, timed its work cleverly. With the holy month of Ramadan beginning - and the approaching millennium focusing the eyes of the world on the Holy Land - the government was reluctant to confront the Wakf and risk violence. A ministerial committee that has final jurisdiction over archeological work at the holy sites overruled the objections of the Antiquities Authority and told the Wakf, in effect, stop at two arches and we'll accept the rest as a fait accompli.

ON A desk in Seligman's office is a box with plastic bags filled with bits of debris. They look like trash. In fact, they're remnants of the rich archeological record of the Temple Mount, which Seligman and his peers at the Antiquities Authority fished from the Kidron Valley streambed where the Wakf dumped the earth it removed from the Temple Mount.

From an archeologist's perspective, Seligman is nearly speechless about the Wakf's actions on the Temple Mount.

"I don't understand it," he says. "Either it's based on ignorance and a lack of appreciation, or it's just vandalism."

The Temple Mount, Seligman says, is not only one of the most controversial and sensitive sites in the world, it's also one of the richest archeologically. Even the Canaanites apparently considered Mount Moriah holy.

King Solomon built his temple there, and Herod later built the grand temple described so meticulously by Josephus. The Romans reduced the temple to rubble to erase any trace of the troublesome Jews, and may have built a pagan temple of their own on the site. In Byzantine times, the area probably housed a small church; the Arabs later built their own holy sites on top of those of their defeated enemy.

The underground area used today as the Marwani Mosque appears to have been built at the same time as the Al-Aksa Mosque in the 8th century and may have been renovated in the 10th century, but Seligman says there is no evidence that the area was ever used as a mosque.

During Crusader times, the Christians, newly regnant in the holy city, turned the area into a stable for their horses, earning the area the slight misnomer of Solomon's Stables.

The Arabs later reconquered the area under Salah a-Din, but Solomon's Stables fell into disuse and lay empty until recent years.

The earth of the Temple Mount, then, contains relics from all these periods. "It's the number-one archeological site in the country," Seligman says, but because of the political and religious sensitivity of the place, it never has been excavated.

Now, Seligman says, by scooping up the dirt blocking the archways and dumping it randomly - the first piles even were mixed with trash - the Wakf has forever destroyed the archeological story it might tell. The nails, glass, and pottery shards - including some relics from the time of the Second Temple and even a few pottery shards from the first - that Seligman has collected in his office are useless without the evidence provided by their relation to other objects in the same or surrounding strata.

"Once an archeological artifact is out of its context, it loses any relevance," Seligman says. "You can only understand it in relation to everything else. It almost reaches the level of irrelevance."

"And, of course, there's no possibility of reconstructing the original configuration of objects."

"Once you've destroyed an archeological site you can't bring it back," Seligman says. "The corpse is dead and in rigor mortis."

SELIGMAN'S analysis is disputed by Dan Bahat, former Jerusalem district archeologist under the old Department of Antiquities, today a professor of the history and architecture of Jerusalem at Bar-Ilan University and resident archeologist for the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

While the current work certainly should have been carried out under the guidance of archeologists, Bahat says, the real archeological damage was done centuries ago, probably after an earthquake in 1033 led to unevenness in the ground on the Mount. The authorities of the time probably scooped up whatever earth was at their disposal - the same dirt full of artifacts from previous periods - and threw it down as backfill to level off the area around Solomon's Stables, mixing the archeological strata and rendering them useless.

"I think no damage occurred here to antiquities" in recent weeks, says Bahat, surveying the ongoing work recently.

"It was all just fill. There wasn't anything meaningful here."

Wakf spokesman Adnan Husseini says that the issue should not concern the Jews, since the only artifacts disturbed were from previous Moslem periods. Seligman laughs off the argument, noting that he is not concerned only with Jewish artifacts at the site, but with all historical periods.

"The staff we have here, specialists in archeology and restoration, they know how to take care of the place," Husseini says. "Our experience in working with archeology is better than the Israelis. Even Israeli archeologists say so."

Indeed, Bahat says, Wakf archeologist Yussuf Natshe is well-respected. What baffles him, Bahat says, is why Natshe was not involved in monitoring the work at the site.

CLEARLY, the dispute over the work at Solomon's Stables goes beyond the value of the historical artifacts mixed up now or 1,000 years ago; the dispute concerns the question of sovereignty at the site and, by extension, in Jerusalem as a whole.

The fiercest fighting of the 1948 war centered on Jerusalem, and when the Jordanians solidified their hold on the Old City, they razed synagogues in the Jewish Quarter in an attempt to destroy traces of the Jewish history of the area. When Israel conquered the Old City two decades later in the Six Day War, division commander Mordechai Gur did not tell Defense Minister Moshe Dayan: "We have conquered the Old City."'What he said, flushed with triumph, was: "The Temple Mount is in our hands."

Some have said that chief rabbi Shlomo Goren urged Dayan to dynamite the Moslem shrines to allow for the construction of the third Jewish temple on the site, with the excuse that no one would criticize actions taken in the heat of battle. Dayan rejected the suggestion out of hand, instead choosing a policy whose magnanimity might be unequaled in the annals of conquest: leaving the spot holiest to the victorious force in the hands of its enemies.

An analogous situation would be for the Moslems to reconquer Mecca from unbelievers, yet leave the Ka'aba stone in the hands of the enemy - a possibility so remote as to be virtually inconceivable.

Dayan's motivation was two-fold: an unwillingness to destroy shrines holy to another religion, and a belief that destroying the Al-Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock would lead to unending strife with the entire, enormous Moslem world.

STILL, Israel's generosity earned it no goodwill from the Moslems.

Even today the Islamic Movement continues to agitate against the Israeli government over imaginary Jewish plots to destroy the Al-Aksa Mosque, a canard used effectively by the Palestinian Authority in the bloody riots accompanying the 1996 tunnel incident.

The result has been an uneasy truce over the Temple Mount in the three decades since the Six Day War. Israel retains nominal sovereignty over the site, though its rule remains unrecognized by much of the world and certainly by the Wakf.

While right-wing Jews who wish to build the third temple on the site occasionally visit under heavy police guard, Israeli authorities forbid them to pray on the Temple Mount under pain of arrest.

Though the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism - the Western Wall, widely referred to as the holiest spot for Jews, is significant only because of its proximity to the Temple Mount - Wakf authorities refuse to acknowledge any Israeli, or even Jewish, interest at the site, going so far as to claim that the Jewish temples on the Mount never existed.

"We have only one sentence to declare: this place is an Islamic mosque, and there is no reason for non-Moslems to have any say about it," Wakf spokesman Husseini says. "The Israeli authorities take care of security, and nothing else."

FOR YEARS, Bahat says, the Wakf's public bravado was supplemented by a quiet willingness to recognize Israeli control, with actions on the Temple Mount coordinated with Israeli authorities so long as no written documentation was produced. Israel went along with that arrangement out of respect for the Arabs' honor, Bahat says, noting that during his term as district archeologist he refused to confront the Wakf on its distortions of the historical record.

Husseini places the blame for the current crisis squarely on the Israeli authorities, who he says "got upset for nothing and started to shoot accusations here and there, provocations."

Bar-Ilan University political scientist Menachem Klein, who has researched possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse over Jerusalem, also blames Israeli figures such as Olmert and Antiquities Authority head Amir Drori for turning the dispute over Solomon's Stables into a question of nationalism.

"They used archeology and antiquities as a means of proving Israeli sovereignty over the place," Klein says.

"If the issue remains at the professional level and there is a need to speak between equals, on antiquities and archeology and so on, then there is enough room to achieve cooperation between the two sides. Then it's not a question of supervision by Israeli authorities but cooperation between professionals. When the issue of enforcing Israeli law of antiquities and excavation becomes a symbol of Israeli sovereignty, you face a conflict."

The Israelis also failed to find the right language to address Moslems for whom the Temple Mount's significance lies not in the past but in the present, Klein says.

"The believers do not relate to it as a museum. God is present, alive there nowadays, not in the past. It's not antiquities," he says. "Using language like attacking and violating the law sounds very bad. The true believers can not understand such language. Immediately they interpret it as a means of control and authority over a holy place."

Former mayor Teddy Kollek says that he had a common-sense approach to maintaining quiet in the area: Establish good relations with the Arabs on an everyday basis, so that they have an interest in resolving problems when they arise.

"If I had a good relationship with the Wakf, they would tell me unofficially what they were going to do and I would advise them, and then when a crisis occurred we had a normal relationship. If you only have a relationship when a crisis occurs, you don't know what to do," Kollek says.

The situation may be more complex now, with final-status talks approaching over Jerusalem's status, than it ever was during Kollek's tenure. It is not only Israel that is trying to emphasize its control over the city; the Wakf and the Islamic Movement also are trying to create new patterns of behavior and facts on the ground to swing negotiations in favor of the Palestinian Authority.

The dilemma for Israel, then, is how to respond when challenged; with a challenge of its own or with appeasement. The question is not easy.

"Being wise does not necessarily mean being passive," says Yossi Alpher, director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel office.

"The Wakf doesn't want to incite or invite a Christian or Jewish attack on them, but they're trying to advance their own political goals.

"Clearly, the sooner we reach an agreed final status with regard to the Temple Mount area and Jerusalem in general, or even a new definition of a frozen status quo as a new interim situation, the better, because then new rules of the game can be developed. The best thing is for political advancement to occur."

©The Jerusalem Post

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