Israeli attempts last summer to construct a ramp to the Temple Mount resulted in heightened geopolitical tensions amid allegations of changes to the contested holy site’s status quo, according to a report published Thursday.
The findings were produced by Emek Shaveh, an organization of archeologists and community activists, who study the role of archeology in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
While the report, entitled “Archeology in the Political Struggle Over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif,” delineates significant changes on the Temple Mount and its surroundings since 1967, it focuses on the political fallout engendered by the government’s since-rescinded attempt to build the ramp to supplant the Mugrabi Bridge.
According to the report, there were “unprecedented developments in the activities of the Israeli authorities around the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif,” last summer involving the controversial entrance.
“In August 2014, Israel began building a temporary ramp for non-Muslim visitors to ascend the Temple Mount,” it stated.
“Several days later, after Jordan had put pressure on the Israeli government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave instructions to dismantle the ramp and stated that the construction was undertaken without the knowledge of the Prime Minister’s Office.”
The subject of constructing a non-Muslim entryway to the site is a loaded political issue that first emerged when the previous Mugrabi Bridge collapsed in 2004, the report stated. Since then, Israel has been trying to reach an agreement with the Jordanian government and the Wakf Islamic trust about building a new bridge.
“The issue of the Mugrabi Bridge is linked to the question of control over entrances and passages to the Temple Mount,” the report explained, noting that the bridge, which is overseen by Israeli police, is the only means for non-Muslims to enter the holy site.
The struggle over who controls the entrances to the Temple Mount peaked last year, following the decision by police to close certain gates to Muslims during the morning hours, “especially during visiting times for Jews and other non-Muslims.”
The move, the report said, created suspicion among Arabs that Israeli authorities were trying to change the holy site’s long-enforced status quo, severely restricting Jewish presence and prayer there.
“Control over the gates means control over people entering and exiting the Mount, which can be justified by security needs, or presented as something that does not undermine the status of the Islamic Wakf,” the report stated.
“In actual fact,” it continued, “it clearly signifies growing Israeli control over the precinct.”
“In addition to closing some of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif gates to Muslims, one must add the decision to build the [ramp] without coordination with the Jordanian government or the Wakf,” it added.
The bridge, the report stated, resulted in renewed Arab distrust of the Israeli government.
“It seems that even if these activities were undertaken without the knowledge of the Prime Minister’s Office, they were carried out as part of efforts to strengthen Israeli control over the entrance to the precinct and are motivated by a conviction that, with respect to the gates leading to the Temple Mount, the time has come to create unilateral facts on the ground.”
Emek Shaveh concluded that following decades of archeological excavations, and with the “increase in the political exploitation of the archeology at the Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharif,” it is necessary to now take steps to “restore trust and cooperation” between both sides.
“Alongside political steps, such as recognizing the special status of the Islamic Wakf and its right to manage the Haram al-Sharif without interference by Israeli parties, the sides must strive to work cooperatively based on UNESCO’s and ICOMOS’s [International Council on Monuments and Sites] international resolutions,” the report stated.
Moreover, the organization said that such cooperation “could become the basis for dialogue about antiquities and the importance of tradition; a step which could mitigate religious and political tensions.”
The report concluded that the only way to preserve the religious and historic status of the Temple Mount over time is a political agreement that would recognize the precinct as one of Jerusalem’s most significant heritage sites.
“In this way, the precinct would be recognized not only as important to Islam but as one of the most important heritage sites in the world,” it stated. “Israeli society must accept that it has been a central, sacred place for Muslims for a thousand years or more.”
Following talks with the Jordanian government in September, the Prime Minister’s Office ordered the dismantling of the bridge, and Netanyahu has repeatedly emphasized that his government has no plans to change the status quo.
“I want to make sure that everyone understands that Israel respects, and will continue to respect, the status quo on the Temple Mount,” he said last summer.
“We know that there are arrangements there, including the traditional role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and we are not about to change it.”