November/December '99

Tensions Mount
Susan Sappir

WHO'S IN CHARGE?: The real argument at Solomon's Stables is about sovereignty
(Nasser Nasser/AP)

Just in time for the millennium and Ramadan, Israelis and Palestinians face off over Muslim excavation work on the ultra-sensitive Temple Mount

Jerusalem's Islamic Waqf, the religious trust that administers Muslim holy sites, has one less thing to worry about this Ramadan. Now that it has opened a new exit to the Marwani Mosque - the huge underground prayer hall 12.5 meters below the surface of Temple Mount, widely known by the traditional misnomer Solomon’s Stables - there is less risk the 8,000 people who spill over into the hall from the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque will be trapped inside in an emergency.

Mundane as the function of the new opening to the ancient structure may be, its location at the heart of Temple Mount, just a few paces away from the Western Wall, bestows every stone added to it and every grain of soil taken away with historic, political and religious import that threaten to shake the world.

The government is under pressure from Jewish nationalist groups, archaeologists and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert to clamp down on the waqf’s renovation works, the most recent of which is the opening, which they say violate Israeli laws and interests. Prime Minister Ehud Barak has led a policy of caution and restraint in the interest of maintaining peace at such a volatile place at such a volatile time. Some 300,000 Muslim worshipers are expected on the mount for the busiest service of the year - the last Friday of the holy fast month of Ramadan, which is also the last day of the Christian millennium.

Given the role the holy mount plays in the apocalyptic fantasies of messianic radicals of all stripes, combined with the unknown quantity of millennial madness, the Israeli and Palestinian authorities that manage the site have every reason to quell any potential conflicts before they get out of hand. On the other hand, with final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians underway, and the city’s future one of the major points of contention still to be resolved, both sides are also interested in asserting their control. With so much at stake, it is no wonder that the recent dispute over the new opening has been viewed as the potential spark that could ignite the whole Temple Mount powder keg.

A Jerusalem city spokesman told The Jerusalem Report, in a written statement, that City Hall "recognizes the need for an emergency exit as presented by the Islamic waqf and the Israeli Police. The municipality hopes the new openings will indeed serve only as emergency exits."

However, the statement continues, "the Municipality has no doubt that the openings called emergency exits are intended to become a magnificent main entrance to Solomon’s Stables, as part of a political move intended to create a fait accompli toward the future management and control of Temple Mount."

Faisal al-Husseini, the Palestinian official who holds the Jerusalem portfolio, denies the charges. "We did not violate the status quo," he told The Report. "The city’s demand to be involved is a violation of the status quo. We are not building anything new. We just made an emergency opening, which is needed especially for the year 2000."

Right before Ramadan began, on December 9, the waqf complied with a request by the Israel Police to hold the number of new openings in the structure to the two ancient arches they had already opened, and refrain from opening another two. Already, though, the work they had undertaken involved using bulldozers to dig a hole 30 meters long by 30 wide, and 10 deep. Although there were no official negotiations between the sides, the apparent compromise signals that the Palestinian Authority, which controls the waqf, is just as eager as Israel to avoid a confrontation.

While officials on both sides say they consider the matter over, various Jewish groups are challenging the government to get tough with the waqf: On December 6, the Jerusalem District Court rejected a petition by the ultra-nationalist Hai Vekayam group to order a stop to all construction at the Stables. A similar group, the Temple Mount Faithful, filed a similar petition before the Supreme Court on the same day. Both groups want to revive Jewish worship on the mount and rebuild the Temple. A ruling by the court is pending.

The structure that has been called Solomon’s Stables since Crusader times was built by Herod as a space under Temple Mount, itself a vast man-made platform supported by arches on its southern edge. The underground caverns were reconstructed in the early Arab period, and subsequently used as stables by the Templar knights stationed on the mount in the 12th century, during Crusader rule. The knights named themselves for the Hebrew Temples that once stood on the site, and the stables for the Biblical king who built the first one. The name Marwani Mosque, which has been in use only since the recent conversion of the space into a prayer hall, comes from the last Umayyad caliph Marwan II, son of the caliph who built the original Dome of the Rock in the 7th century.

"There is nothing holy about the space per se [for Jews]; it never functioned as part of the Temple," says archaeologist Aren Maeir, of Bar-Ilan University. "But the Temple Mount itself is the most important place of all for Jews. For the Muslims too, the entire Temple Mount compound - Haram al-Sharif - is holy because it houses Al-Aqsa, Islam’s third holiest site and the holiest site outside of the Arabian peninsula."

Articulating the main argument voiced by the right-wing groups (and adopted by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein), Maeir alleges the waqf was working without archaeological supervision and causing damage by using heavy machinery such as bulldozers and cranes. "Archaeologically the problem is not that they are destroying Jewish remains," he says, as there is generally a consensus that two millennia after the Roman razing of the Second Temple, in 70 CE, nothing is left from that structure. "But even if what they are doing has nothing to do with Jewish history at all, and we can’t be 100 percent sure, it is absolutely unacceptable from a professional point of view. You are dealing with a much too sensitive area to be digging with bulldozers and trucking stuff away. It’s unheard of."

Gideon Avni, the Jerusalem Region head archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority, says Israel has been aware of the waqf’s plans to rebuild the stables for years and did not object, so long as the work was all internal and did not change the outer structure. Avni say in the past the relationship between the two parties ensured the Authority’s presence and professional input in any renovation work. "Until 1996 we had a close relationship with the waqf," he told The Report. "We saw plans for a mosque in that area in 1992. They began the work to turn it into a mosque in 1996."

The turning point, Temple Mount watchers agree, was Israel’s opening of the Western Wall Tunnel in September of the same year, sparking violent clashes in the West Bank that left some 85 people dead, most of them Palestinians. Since then, observers say, the Muslim authorities have acted with impunity, knowing Israel would hesitate to unleash such fury again.

"The Netanyahu government did nothing to stop the building or bringing in of tools," Avni says. "Already then there was damage to objects of archaeological value. Today, there is clear, though unintentional, damage to antiquities," he says. "You can’t dig 10 meters anywhere in Jerusalem without hitting something. What we have found is that the antiquities that were harmed are from Muslim Jerusalem." It doesn’t help that, whereas the work for the conversion of the underground space to a prayer hall was done manually and with care, the most recent work, on the opening, has entailed the use of heavy machinery.

Avni points to the involvement of Israel’s Islamic Movement, which supplied labor, machinery and financing for the latest work, as one of the reasons for the waqf’s changed approach. He says the work was done with no archaeological supervision.

Faisal al-Husseini demurs: "We have our own archaeologists." He says the waqf never worked under the supervision of Israeli archaeologists. "It was always like this. They can come and take a look like visitors." When The Report visited the offices of the waqf’s chief archaeologist though, it was told that he was on vacation, and all attempts to gain entrance to the new mosque were rebuffed.

"I don’t understand the archaeologists," says Sheikh Hashem Abdel Rahman, spokesman of the Al-Aqsa Association (Jamiyat Al-Aqsa), based in the northern Israeli town of Umm el-Fahm, which is participating in the Marwani Mosque works. "Sometimes they say archaeology proves there is no remnant of any Jewish presence there or synagogues. Another time they allow Jews to build stairs on the southern side or a roof. Once they allow, once they don’t. I don’t think it has a scientific or rational or just basis.

"They ask the Christians to open another exit for safety at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But when we open an entrance for safety, they say it is a violation. What is more important, human life or archaeology? Human life is more important."

Political scientist Menachem Klein, a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, who has studied the issue of Jerusalem in the peace process, says the groups opposing the work on archaeological grounds are speaking a different language from both Jewish religious nationalists and the Muslims.

"They use the argument that the Antiquities Law [which puts all excavations in Israel under the supervision of the Antiquities Authority] is being violated," he says. But Temple Mount is a holy site, to which different rules have always applied. "The real argument here is about sovereignty," explains Klein. "Non-religious people raise the legalist argument to talk about antiquities. But for a Muslim, Haram al-Sharif is the third holiest site after Mecca and Medina, the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. It is a holy place. God is there. It is not a matter of antiquities. It is a part of daily life, of the transcendent. For Muslims, the whole idea that they might be harming antiquities is ridiculous."

Klein, author of the book "Doves in the Sky of Jerusalem," about the conflict over the city, says Israeli sovereignty on Temple Mount has always been symbolic. "Not once did the waqf ask for a permit from the Jerusalem municipality or anything like that. Never. They have never recognized Israeli sovereignty there. There was never advance coordination, only retroactive approval by Israel of work they already did."

Waqf director Adnan Husseini dismisses the very idea of Israeli sovereignty on the Mount. "I don’t know why the Israelis want to have authority over us. I don’t know what the benefit to them is. We know how to manage ourselves. This has been our responsibility for hundreds of years. The city is under occupation. Their very presence on the Mount is illegal. Why should they impose their authority on us?"

With the dispute over the emergency exit over, what remains is the political fallout on two levels: One is on the domestic front, with Likud Mayor Olmert, who has prime ministerial aspirations, pointing to Barak’s weakness toward the Muslims on Temple Mount to gain political leverage. The second is on the international level.

"There is tension surrounding the Temple Mount," says Klein. "Any change in favor of the Jews will bring about a big explosion. All the Palestinians, and all the Arab world, are closely following the preparations of Jewish radical groups to reclaim the Temple Mount. They are mobilizing to protect the Mount. They are calling the masses to prayers, raising their voices to defend Al-Aqsa.

"The role of the leadership and the politicians is to calm things dow down."

©The Jerusalem Report 1999
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