The Old City didn’t look any different the morning after the
Annapolis summit. Religious Jews were praying at the Western Wall and
groups of tourists were streaming through the narrow streets, snapping
photos and looking for bargains. A couple of wedding processions came
for a huppa at the Wall. A prayer call was sounded from one
of Al-Aksa’s minarets. All in all, one of the world’s most contested
and charged places, an area whose fate had been discussed just a few
hours earlier in a remote city, was unbelievably peaceful and quiet.
Even the presence of the police and security checks at the gates
didn’t seem disturbing or alarming.
to enter the Temple Mount, I wondered how genuine and stable this quiet
really was. And what was hiding behind the still water appearance?
At 7 a.m., a group of very determined and sleepy tourists, mostly
Israeli, gathered at one of the Kotel entrances. Some of the tourists
came from as far as Tel Aviv to participate in a tour of the Temple
Mount organized by Beit Shmuel. The guide, archeologist Tzahi Zweig,
explained the meaning of the sign hanging right before the entrance
to the site. ’Orthodox Judaism forbids the approach to the Temple site,
the holiest of the Jewish sites in the world, due to ritual impurity.
Yet, all the Reform rabbis and some ’kippot srugot’ [crocheted kippot,
a reference to the national religious camp] now permit and even
recommend visiting under special conditions — if a person has purified
himself in a mikve and put on non-leather shoes.’
A few minutes later, three Jews wearing kippot joined the group that
just crossed the gate to the Temple Mount. One of the new sightseers
was none other than Moshe Feiglin, a member of the Likud party who lost
the battle for party leadership to Binyamin Netanyahu in August.
The Wakf guards (210 of them are deployed at the site in three
shifts) and the Israeli policemen didn’t prevent Feiglin and his
entourage from walking around, yet the tension was quite palpable.
Jewish Israeli tourists are allowed to enter the site, yet any
Jewish paraphernalia, like shirts with Psalms quotations or prayer
books, are strictly forbidden. ’People have actually been expelled from
the Temple Mount as soon as the Wakf guards suspected they were about
to conduct a prayer,’ said Zweig.
After being closed to visitors in 2000 at the beginning of the
second intifada, in August 2003 the Mount was reopened first to foreign
tourists, then Christian groups and eventually to Jewish Israeli
and his companions made their rounds, and after a few minutes they left
the site. The policemen and the Wakf guards seemed relieved after their
DESPITE THE apparent quiet, it’s clear it could be disrupted at any
given moment, especially when there are so many elements that threaten
to destabilize the situation, says Dr. Yitzhak Reiter, a lecturer
in Islam and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University. ’The
status quo is very fragile and any threat — or even an appearance
of a threat — can put an end to it,’ he says.
As could be expected, the summit in Annapolis has brought deep fears
to the surface, combined with militant rhetoric on both sides. Despite
the hard line taken by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas,
who repeated a few times that the Palestinians demand an end
to occupation in east Jerusalem and the establishment of the capital
of a future Palestinian state in east Jerusalem, a few cartoons that
appeared in mainstream Palestinian newspapers — Al-Quds and Al-Hayat
Al-Jadeeda — cried out the famous slogan ’Al-Aksa is in danger’ and
demonstrated how the Dome of the Rock disappears in the hourglass
of the peace process.
A day before the Annapolis summit, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Sheikh
Muhammad Hussein issued a fatwa forbidding ’giving up even a single
stone of Al-Aksa.’
Reiter explains that since the Muslims consider the Kotel to be the
western wall of Al-Aksa, the meaning of this fatwa is clear —
no compromises on Al-Haram al-Sharif (the Arabic name for the Temple
Mount) or any territory around it, including the Western Wall.
While buying a newspaper in a small bookshop on Salah a-Din Street,
I heard a commercial that has been running for quite some time
on numerous Israeli radio stations calling on Jews to enter the Temple
Mount and pray there during Hanukka. In an interview with Arutz Sheva,
Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, the head of the capital’s Temple Institute, called
on Ehud Olmert to ’send the troops to the Temple Mount during Hanukka
and to light the candles, so the Arabs would shake.’
in the police say that this campaign is not likely to materialize into
an actual storming of the Temple Mount, yet the leaders of the Islamic
movement are warning against such a move, which will ’lead to the third
WHEN YOU first enter the compound, you are immediately overwhelmed
by the two mosques — the massive, gray Al-Aksa, where thousands
of people can pray simultaneously, and the beautiful, glowing Dome
of the Rock. While Al-Aksa, which was built in 710, has been destroyed
many times by earthquakes and has been totally rebuilt, the
octagon-shaped Dome of the Rock has barely changed since it was
constructed by Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik between 687 and 691. Once
the initial awe has worn off, visitors start noticing the smaller, more
delicate and sometimes almost invisible details of the compound.
The clear air of Jerusalem is filled with memories of great men
of the past — King David, King Solomon, Herod. The clues are
everywhere, but one can only guess what lies beneath the gardens and
stone pavement, to which era the broken columns and fragments of marble
In some countries, archeology is considered to be a purely
scientific field that has nothing to do with real life and politics.
Not so in the Middle East. Here every excavation, every dig and every
find immediately affects reality, no matter how ancient.
For more than 60 years, no archeological team has been allowed
to perform any work at the Temple Mount. The piles of rubble lying
on the outskirts of the compound hide pieces of ancient Lebanese
cedars, fragments of marble, carved stones and ceramics — a pure
archeological paradise. Unfortunately for archeologists around the
globe, for now this paradise remains untouchable. The only digs that
are permitted are around the compound.
Yet there is always great controversy over these works, as Islamic
authorities assert that the digs and the excavations pose a threat
to Al-Aksa’s foundations.
The contention was first made during the 1920s by grand mufti Haj
Amin al-Husseini in an argument over the Jewish faith in the redemption
that will come after the Third Temple is built. It gained real support
after a fire that was started at Al-Aksa in 1969 by Michael Rohan,
a disturbed Australian Christian.
’There are two aspects to this assertion. The first one is a concern
that any Jewish dig under the Temple Mount will damage
Al-Aksa’s foundations and cause a collapse of all the existing
structures,’ explains Reiter. ’The second is a fear that archeologists
will discover artifacts from the Temple era — a menora or any other
remnant of that time — that will strengthen the claim of the Jews
to this historic site. An argument commonly used by the Islamic
authorities and experts says that since no such remnants were found
during the previous expeditions that worked on the compound in the 19th
century and the beginning of the 20th century, there is no use
performing any additional digs. Israeli archeologists say that since
no expedition has actually dug beneath Al-Aksa, it explains the absence
Zweig supports this view: ’The British archeologists who worked
at the site during the last century and beforehand didn’t do a thorough
job and didn’t dig beneath, and still there were some interesting
findings,’ he says.
The local planning committee has approved the renewal of the
controversial works that were suspended this summer at the Mughrabi
Gate, which leads to the southwestern gate of the holy compound, and
if the proposal is passed in the regional committee there will probably
be a new wave of accusations and threats. Recently the Turkish daily
Zaman published a report submitted by a group of Turkish archeologists
who visited the site in March and inspected the digs.
’The archeological excavation at the Mughrabi pathway, which
involves various traces of the Umayyad, Ayyubid, Mameluke and Ottoman
periods, must be discontinued immediately,’ the report said.
Ironically, the Turks were invited to the site by Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert so that they could attest that there was no threat to Al-Aksa.
While Israel prepares to renew the works at the Mughrabi ramp, the
Wakf continues the dig inside the compound to replace the old electric
wires that caused a short circuit this summer.
Zweig says that although this time there is an archeological
inspector on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, there is still
concern that this will cause irreversible damage to the possible
archeological findings onsite. While we were touring the compound, the
tractors continued the digging.
Coming out from the Chain Gate on the way back from the Temple
Mount, we passed through Rehov Hagai. On the right side of the road,
construction was being done. The work, financed by the American Jewish
tycoon Irving Moskowitz, is designed to reconstruct the Ohel Yitzhak
synagogue, which was built in 1917 and abandoned during the Arab riots
of 1936. In 1948, the structure was destroyed by the Jordanians along
with all the other synagogues in the Old City.
During the excavations at the site, an intact 14th century Mameluke
bathhouse was discovered. The dig is being conducted by the Israel
A museum is also planned to be constructed at the site. However, the
Arab and Iranian media reported recently that the plan was to connect
the space to the Western Wall with the help of an underground
’The Zionist regime’s officials have admitted that they have
recently constructed a synagogue under the Al-Aksa Mosque site
in Al-Quds. In a response to this Israeli act, Al-Aksa Institute has
announced that it was well aware of the existence of many other
synagogues under the site of Al-Aksa Mosque, adding that it certified
all the claims of Israelis of not having dug under Al-Aksa
as absolutely false,’ said the Iranian presstv.ir.
Islamonline.com quoted Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the chief rabbi
of the Western Wall, as saying that ’the agreement with Cherna
Moskowitz, the wife of Irving Moskowitz, has been already signed. The
idea still needs approval from the Israeli government, security
services and the Israel Antiquities Authority.’ Haaretz carried
a similar report.
Replying to In Jerusalem’s inquiry, Rabbi Rabinowitz denied the
report, saying that the possibility of connecting the space with the
Kotel tunnels was currently being explored. ’At this stage we are still
unsure that this plan is feasible, and there is certainly no agreement.’
Daniel Luria from Ateret Cohanim, an organization supported
by Moskowitz, also denied that the billionaire was involved in the
plan. ’Moskowitz is responsible for restoring the synagogue and
building the museum. The dig beneath the structure is being conducted
by the IAA, and if someone is interested in exploring whether
it is possible and worthwhile to connect Ohel Yitzhak with the Kotel
tunnels — [Moskowitz] is not involved.’
Grand Mufti Hussein has slammed ’building the synagogue and digging
beneath Al-Aksa,’ claiming that Israel was breaking international law.
In an interview with IJ he said that ’the Palestinians refuse the
building of any structure — synagogue, apartment house or any other
building — on land that belongs to Islamic Wakf and that was occupied
by the Israelis in 1967.’
The mufti referred to the synagogue as ’the new structure,’ disregarding the idea that it existed prior to 1948.
According to Reiter, the building in which the synagogue was housed
actually belonged to a Jewish family, however the Islamic religious
establishment refutes these claims.
The Temple Mount tour was over by midday. At that time, more people
came to visit the holy sites — some to pray, some to take pictures,
some to guard. Now the quiet seemed to be merely a thin outer layer
of an otherwise turbulent interior of the Temple Mount.