by Jonathan Cook in Jerusalem
The Israeli government has
indicated that it will press ahead with a plan to enlarge the Jewish
prayer plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, despite
warnings that the move risks triggering a third intifada.
Israeli officials rejected this
week a Jerusalem court’s proposal to shelve the plan after the judge
accepted that the plaza’s expansion would violate the “status quo”
arrangement covering the Old City’s holy places. Islamic authorities
agreed to the arrangement after Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967.
The site eyed by Israeli
officials is located at the Mughrabi Gate, an entrance to the mosque
compound known as the Haram al Sharif, the most sensitive site in the
conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Inside are Al Aqsa Mosque
and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock.
Earlier encroachments by Israel
on Islamic authority at the site have triggered clashes between Israeli
police and Palestinians. A heavily armed visit to the compound by Ariel
Sharon in 2000, shortly before he became prime minister, to declare
Israeli rights there sparked the second intifada.
In recent weeks, analysts have
grown increasingly concerned that a third intifada is imminent as
Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has advanced settlement building in East
Jerusalem and declared several places deep in the occupied West Bank as
Jewish heritage sites.
Another assault on Muslim
control so close to Al Aqsa Mosque risked “pouring fuel on the fire”,
said Hanna Sweid, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament who filed the
original planning objections to the Israeli scheme.
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According to evidence presented
to the Jerusalem court, Israeli officials used minor storm damage to a
stone ramp leading to the Mughrabi Gate as a pretext to tear it down six
years ago. The intention is to replace the ramp with a permanent metal
bridge and then extend the Jewish prayer plaza into the area where the
The scheme is the brainchild of
Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi in charge of the Western Wall, who declared
the damage to the ramp in 2004 a “miracle” that had offered Israel the
chance to take control of more land from Islamic authorities in the Old
The rabbi’s plan was approved in
late 2007 by a special ministerial committee headed by Ehud Olmert,
then the prime minister. The project has also won backing from Mr
Netanyahu, though he froze construction work in July under orders from
the Jerusalem court.
The judge, Moussia Arad,
proposed in January that the ramp be reinstated, or at the very least
that the bridge follow the exact route of the ramp, and that all prayer
at the site be banned. That position won the backing of United Nations
officials monitoring Israel’s work at the Mughrabi Gate.
The Jordanian, Turkish and
Palestinian Islamic authorities have all expressed deep concern at
Israeli excavations at the Mughrabi Gate that are seen as a prelude to
the plaza’s expansion.
Observers had hoped that, faced
with the danger of another row with the United States so soon after the
diplomatic crisis sparked by Israeli settlement building in East
Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu might agree to the court’s compromise.
They have been proved wrong.
“Netanyahu has a history of
trampling on Palestinian rights in the Old City,” Mr Sweid said. “There
is every reason to be worried about what he plans to get up to this
In 1996, during his previous
stint as prime minister, Mr Netanyahu opened the Western Wall tunnel,
another excavation close to the mosque compound, resulting in clashes in
which 75 Palestinians and 15 Israeli soldiers were killed.
Israel, which says the mosques
sit on the ruins of two ancient Jewish temples, built by Solomon and
Herod, refers to the site as Temple Mount and has staked a claim to a
degree of sovereignty over the area in recent peace negotiations.
Last week, in a sign of the
explosive consequences of tampering with the status quo concerning
Jerusalem’s holy places, riots broke out in a “day of rage” in East
Jerusalem following Israel’s announcement that it had rebuilt an old
synagogue, the Hurva, close to the mosques.
“The Haram al Sharif is a site
of unrivalled Muslim sensitivity and the Israeli government is playing
with fire here,” said Mohammed Masalha, a lecturer who heads a coalition
of Islamic groups inside Israel that brought the court case.
In evidence presented to the
court, Meir Ben Dov, an Israeli archaeologist and the excavations
director at the Western Wall for nearly four decades, produced
photographic evidence showing that the storm had caused only a minor
“I was asked by the government
to inspect the damage two days after it occurred and I found maybe a
dozen stones had been dislodged,” he said. “The ramp could have been
repaired in less than a week but instead they decided to demolish it.”
Judge Arad, Mr Ben Dov said, had
been “shocked” when she saw the photographs.
Mr Ben Dov said his
recommendation that the walkway be repaired for $14,000 was ignored by
Israeli officials, including the then-tourism minister, Benny Elon, a
settler rabbi who heads a far-right party. Instead the government tore
down the ramp and built a temporary wooden bridge to the Mughrabi Gate
while excavations were carried out in the area exposed by the ramp’s
The Jerusalem comptroller,
Shulamit Rubin, the city’s watchdog official, criticised the excavations
at the time, saying they were illegal because the necessary
authorisations had not been sought.
The secretive nature of the
excavations was widely assumed by Islamic groups to be evidence of an
Israeli intention to search for parts of the destroyed temples. With
such evidence, Israel would have a stronger claim to extend its control.
The unscientific approach to the
excavations was highlighted in early 2007 when it emerged that three
years earlier Israeli archaeologists had unearthed at the site a Muslim
prayer room from the time of the Saladin, dating to the 11th century,
but had kept the discovery quiet.
In February 2007, when Israel
brought heavy machinery to the Mughrabi Gate excavations, hundreds of
Palestinians clashed with police while the Islamic Movements within
Israel staged large demonstrations. Islamic Jihad said it had fired two
Qassam rockets from Gaza in response, and Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade
threatened to carry out attacks if the work was not halted.
Islamic authorities also
expressed fears that the compound of mosques might be damaged by the
bulldozers, and that the heavy machinery might also destroy the
as-yet-undiscovered Al Buraq mosque, believed to be located close to the
Mughrabi Gate and marking the site where the Prophet Mohammed tethered
his horse on his Night Journey between Mecca and Jerusalem.
To calm the situation, Israel
allowed Turkish experts to examine the excavations a short time later.
They reported that Israel was trying to sideline Jerusalem’s Islamic
history so that its Jewish aspects could be emphasised.
Israel had another reason for
pushing ahead with the illegal excavations, said Kais Nasser, the lawyer
representing the Islamic groups. “They needed to unearth something,
anything, that could be claimed as an antiquity to nullify Muslim
demands for the ramp to be reinstated. Rebuilding the ramp would then be
impossible because it would risk damaging an archaeological site.”
Mr Nasser said Israel hopes that
if it can present the bridge as the only feasible option, then there
will be no obstacles to expanding the prayer plaza.
Mr Ben Dov said he shared such
suspicions about Israel’s activities at the site, adding that the goal
of Israeli officials seemed to be to gain control over the whole
480-metre length of the Western Wall.
He and other observers have said
this is just one more example of a long-standing policy to gradually
encroach on Muslim control of the mosque compound.
Among the most significant has
been the creation of the City of David, an Israeli archaeological park,
directly south of Al Aqsa Mosque in the Palestinian neighbourhood of
Silwan. The site is run by Elad, an extremist settler group, that has
taken over neighbouring Palestinian homes and, along with the Jerusalem
municipality and government officials, is pushing for dozens more to be
demolished. It eventually wants to link up the park with the Temple
Jewish settlers have also been
concentrating their efforts on taking over Palestinian homes in the
Muslim quarter, close to the Haram al Sharif, and have been supported by
right-wing politicians, including in the past by Mr Netanyahu.
One settler organisation, Ateret
Cohanim, has been especially active, and is known to be excavating
under Palestinian homes around the compound in the hope of discovering
traces of the temples.
“What we see here is an unholy
alliance of government ministers, Jerusalem municipality officials and
settler organisations trying to revive a supposed golden era of Jewish
sovereignty from thousands of years ago,” Mr Sweid said.
In addition, he said, Israel
believed that a more significant Israeli presence close to the mosques
would strengthen its hand in any final peace talks over the division of
Jerusalem with the Palestinians, with Israel able to stake a bigger
claim to sovereignty over the site.
At the Camp David talks in 2000,
Bill Clinton, then US president, proposed dividing sovereignty so that
Israel would have control over both the “subterranean spaces” of the
mosque compound and the Western Wall. During the talks Ehud Barak, the
Israeli prime minister of the day, alarmed observers by calling the
whole compound the Jewish “holy of holies”, a term previously used in
referring only to the inner sanctum of the destroyed temples.
There are additional fears among
Palestinians, and the wider Muslim world, of darker plots being hatched
by even more extreme groups.
Although Jewish religious purity
laws have traditionally forbidden Jews from entering the Temple Mount, a
growing number of rabbis are demanding that Jews be allowed to pray in
the compound. Even more fanatical groups are known to favour blowing up
the mosques and building a third temple in their place.
The recent rebuilding of the
Hurva synagogue has added to such concerns. The Israeli media reported
that, according to a 300-year-old rabbinical prophecy, the synagogue’s
rebuilding would herald the construction of the third temple.
A sordid affair: The Mughrabi
quarter’s ethnic cleansing
Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the
Mughrabi, or Moroccan, quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City after its
capture in 1967 is one of the more sordid episodes of the 1967 war.
Until it was destroyed by Israel
in 2004, the stone ramp that led to the Mughrabi Gate -- one of the
main entrances to the elevated compound of mosques known as the Haram
al-Sharif -- was the only visible reminder that the quarter, once home
to 1,000 Palestinians, had ever existed.
At the end of the Six-Day war,
as Israeli troops poured into the Old City, the Israeli government was
presented with an opportunity not only to restore a Jewish presence to
the walled city but to create a newly expanded Jewish quarter that would
have the Western Wall at its centre.
Before 1948, prayer at the Wall
had been possible only at several points along a narrow alley at the
margins of the densely populated Moroccan quarter, an area bequeathed in
the twelfth century to Saladin’s followers by his son Malik al-Afdal.
But in the immediate wake of the
“miraculous” victory in 1967, the Israeli government saw the chance to
create a wide prayer plaza in front of the Wall, making it the symbolic
heart of an expanded Jewish state that could unite religious and secular
All that stood in their way were
the quarter’s 135 homes.
On the night of 10 June, Uzi
Narkiss, head of the army’s central command, authorised 15 private
demolition crews to raze the quarter under cover of dark. He, like the
politicians, knew that neither the international community nor the
Israeli courts would consent to such a brazen violation of international
When Teddy Kollek, the mayor of
West Jerusalem, had consulted the justice minister, he had been told: “I
don’t know what the legal status is. Do it quickly and may the God of
Israel be with you.”
Uzi Benziman, an Israeli
journalist, described the “near-mystic” compulsion that drove those
behind the act of ethnic cleansing: “The officers and the contractors
considered themselves emissaries, come to renew Jewish statehood as it
had been 1,897 years earlier.”
An officer went from house to
house ordering the residents to evacuate. According to observers, those
who refused finally fled when the walls of their homes came down. One
old woman, found amid the rubble, died a short time later.
As the ruins were cleared and
the ground levelled to create an expansive plaza in front of the Western
Wall, the contractors were told to use the rubble from the homes to
build a ramp up to the Mughrabi Gate. The gate is the only entrance to
the compound for which Israel kept the key. Today it is the access point
for all non-Muslim visitors, including the Israeli police.
The Western Wall and the plaza,
on land that had previously fallen under the control of the Islamic
authorities, was placed under the jurisdiction of the Israeli religious
affairs ministry. A few days later, on the Jewish holy day of Shavuot,
an estimated 200,000 Israeli Jews -- one in 10 of the population -- came
to visit the Wall.
Although Israel had effectively
annexed East Jerusalem, its leaders were still troubled by the possible
international repercussions of being seen to seize control of the Old
City’s holy places, especially the compound of mosques. Under a
so-called “status quo” agreement, Muslim officials were supposed to
continue controlling the mosque compound, with Israeli oversight.
But that did not stop the rapid
emergence of a movement in Israel seeking control of the compound too.
Many Jews believe the ruins of the temples of Solomon and Herod can be
found under the mosques.
From the early 1970s, extremist
rabbis -- led by the Shlomo Goren, then the chief rabbi of Israel --
began lobbying for Jews to be allowed into the compound to pray, despite
traditional rabbinical rulings against such a practice.
Jewish groups soon sprang up
demanding more: that the mosques be blown up to make way for a third
temple that would bring nearer the arrival of the Messiah.
Since the outbreak of the second
intifada, little of the status quo agreement remains. Israeli movement
restrictions affecting both Gaza and the West Bank mean that today only a
tiny number of Palestinians can reach the mosques. Palestinian
institutions are also barred from operating inside Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, settlers and Israeli
officials have encroached on more and more land around the mosque
compound. At the Camp David talks with the Palestinians in 2000, Israel
proposed for the first time that Jews be allowed to pray in the compound
and that Israel have a degree of sovereignty over the site.
In recent years Jews have
started to be escorted by Israeli police inside the compound through the
Mughrabi Gate, though praying so far has not been sanctioned.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and
journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are “Israel and
the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle
East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments
in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.