Archaeology wars rage on at Temple Mount
Some 5,000 Israelis participated in a march around Jerusalem's Temple Mount July 15, in a monthly event led by Orthodox Jewish groups dedicated to the rebuilding of a Jewish temple on the site. The march usually draws far smaller numbers, but this one was held just one week before the Ninth of Av, the Hebrew calendar date when the First and Second Temples were destroyed by the Babylonians and Romans, respectively, a day of national mourning and fasting in Israel. (Israel Today, July 16) Meanwhile, in a bizarre reversal of recent controversies surrounding the Temple Mount, Jews protested an archaeological dig at the site approved by the Islamic overseers of the Haram al-Sharif. From the Jerusalem Post, July 15:
A group of Israeli archeologists has condemned the Antiquities Authority for authorizing Islamic trust officials to carry out a dig on Jerusalem's Temple Mount as part of work to repair electrical lines.
The work started last week on the northern section of the Temple Mount, with the approval of the Israel Police and the Antiquities Authority, Israeli and Wakf Islamic trust officials said, drawing the wrath of Israeli archeologists who said that the work, being carried out with a tractor and leaving an 80-meter-long, one-meter deep trench, had damaged the holy site.
The Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, which is composed of archeologists and intellectuals from across the political spectrum, has lambasted Israel's chief archeological body for permitting the work.
"The Antiquities Authority would never have allowed such damage to antiquities at any other archeological site in Israel," said group spokeswoman Dr. Eilat Mazar, a leading Temple Mount expert.
"The Antiquities Authority has the ability and full backing of the police to enforce real archeological supervision, but does not do so," she said, adding that the dig was being carried out "without real, professional and careful archeological supervision involving meticulous documentation."
According to decades-old regulations, Israel maintains overall security control at the site, while the Wakf is charged with day-to-day administration.
The Antiquities Authority declined to comment on the issue.
Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said that police, in coordination with the Authority, had given Wakf officials approval for the work.
Wakf director Azzam Khatib said the work followed an electrical shortage in the Mount's Al-Aksa Mosque.
The Antiquities Authority, which by law is charged with supervising Israel's archeological sites, has in the past been criticized by the Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount for overlooking large-scale Wakf construction on the site that has caused massive archeological damage, due to the political sensitivities involved.
The Islamic infrastructure work on the Temple Mount comes months after an Israeli excavation outside of the compound ahead of a now-nixed plan to build a new bridge to the Mughrabi Gate led to low-level Arab violence in Israel and the region.
A July 14 editorial in the Jerusalem Post claimed that sacred Jewish artifacts were being disturbed by the dig. This ironically echoes claims made about Israeli-approved excavations near the Temple Mount, which were made without consultation with the Waqf—and prompted official protests by UNESCO earlier this year, after the agency sent a team to Jerusalem to investigate the matter. (Haaretz, March 14) The UNESCO intervention came just as a self-proclaimed "New Sanhedrin Council"—conceived by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz as a revival of the ancient Hebrew supreme religious body, the Sanhedrin Court—announced plans to purchase a herd of sheep for ritual sacrifice just across from the Western Wall at the Temple Mount on the eve of Passover. Various so-called "Temple Movements" have sacrificed goats at the site before. (Haaretz, Feb. 28) However, Israel's real courts issued a ruling barring the ritual, finding that "the rights of the petitioners to practice their faith are outweighed by other considerations such as public order and safety." The group did approach the Wailing Wall in a procession with two sheep, but police prevented them from carrying out the sacrifice. (Haaretz, April 2)
The Israeli excavations concerned the Mughrabi Gate, a ramp adjacent to the Western Wall that allowed visitors access to the Wall and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Destabilized in a 2004 winter storm and a small earthquake, the ramp needed to be renovated, and Israeli authorities took this as an opportunity for archaeological excavations as well. (Causes of Conflict blog on Religion, Identity and the Middle East, Feb. 16)
February saw angry protests over the Israeli-backed excavations, with Palestinian youth battling Israeli police in Jerusalem's Old City, who fired tear gas and made several arrests. Nazaraeth saw a march of ocer 10,000 in a protest against the "Jewish assault on the Al-Aqsa Mosque," as their banners put it.
On Feb. 11, the head of the Arab League, Egyptian diplomat Amr Moussa, presiding over an emergency meeting of the League in Cairo, called for a halt to the excavations, saying: "The Israeli violations are provoking anger and condemnation in Palestine, Arab and Islamic world, which is threatening the security and stability in the region."
Malaysia, chair of the Organization of Islamic Conference, also issued a statement, reading: "We denounce this blatant act of provocation and the complete disregard for the sanctity of the holy mosque? this act will ignite the feelings of Muslims all over the world and is in fact a retrogressive step in the efforts to achieve peace in the region."
The committee of Muslim scholars in Jordan's largest political opposition group, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), issued its own statement that they "urge...proclaiming jihad to liberate Al-Aqsa and save it from destruction and sabotage from Jewish usurpers." (Haaretz, Feb. 11)
The pro-Israel media watch group Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) protested July 12 that while the February protests garnered international coverage, "So far, predictably, no Western media outlets have picked up on the Waqf's latest recklessness with archeological treasures." OK, but conversely: where were all the folks now protesting the Waqf-approved excavations back in February when the Israeli-approved excavations were underway? There are obviously issues other than preservation of artifacts at work here, to say the very least...