Destructive policies?

With the Mugrabi Bridge closed briefly and Israel, Jordan and the Wakf yet to reach an agreement on an alternative structure, tensions are high.

Mugrabi Bridge 521 (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Mugrabi Bridge 521
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Adnan al-Husseini, the governor of Jerusalem, takes his job, which he has received from the Palestinian Authority, seriously, even though it comes with no temporal power since Israel controls the capital. A descendant of one of the city’s notable families, he also takes his other job seriously: director of the Wakf, the Muslim Religious Trust, in Jerusalem.
Prior to 1948, the Husseinis had long held positions of power in the city, as muftis and mayors.
Today what troubles Husseini is the potential for violence associated with what some perceive as Israeli plans to change the status quo of the Temple Mount, which Muslims refer to as Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary.
“More than a week ago, we heard that [the Israelis had] declared that they wanted to start working on the Mugrabi Bridge, but they stopped due to pressure from foreign governments and other lobbies because it is very sensitive. The Israelis are working under the pressure of the Ir David Foundation, which is [a] very extreme [organization], and they want to change everything there [next to the Western Wall]; they don’t pay attention to others or their rights,” he says.
Changes to the Mugrabi Bridge threaten to destabilize relations between the Jewish state and its two most amenable neighbors, Jordan and Egypt. In the latter, Muslim Brotherhood leader Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi has called on Israel to cease its actions for fear of creating Muslim riots across the Middle East. Jordan’s King Abdullah II has repeatedly demanded that Israel “refrain from any measures that could change the features of Jerusalem, or affect Islamic and Christian holy places in the holy city.”
In response, on November 28, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ordered a halt to the Jerusalem Municipality’s plans to demolish the bridge, which was constructed in 2004 as a temporary structure of wood and metal scaffolding. A week later, the municipality responded by ordering the bridge closed to pedestrian traffic, giving the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the bridge, a week to respond – or to close it until the city engineer certifies that it is no longer dangerous, it is replaced or the government forces it to open. The bridge was closed on Sunday and there is currently no entrance to the Temple Mount open to non-Muslims.
Under an agreement with the Wakf, the Mugrabi Gate is the only gate non-Muslims may use. It is usually open Sunday through Thursday in the morning and is used only by non-Muslims.
The struggle over the bridge’s fate pits the government, which worries about foreign policy ramifications, against the city and the Western Wall rabbi, who both want the bridge replaced because it is taking up space in the women’s section of the Western Wall prayer area. At the same time, both the government and the city are faced with a multiplicity of voices – academic, Islamic and political – claiming either that the bridge is satisfactory or that changing it represents a right-wing plot to expand the Wall’s Jewish prayer space.
In the Arab media, Israel has been accused of attempting to destroy a “historic” bridge, though the structure only dates back to 2004.
“Reacting to this, Palestinian officials have likewise called for a halt to the demolition of the bridge, which is considered a major Islamic historic and religious site,” said an Egyptian website.
Gulf News reported similar claims: “The Jerusalem Municipality announced Tuesday that it will be demolishing the ramp of the historic Mugrabi Gate in occupied east Jerusalem within a month.”
Following these reports, Muslim leaders, national and religious, in both Jordan and Egypt, have pressured Jerusalem not to make any changes, including closing the bridge, because of fears that their populations may react violently – even though the bridge in question is not historic and removing it does not change the Temple Mount.
With the the Arab Spring, the rise of Islamic political parties, and fears for the future of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, politicians are taking the warnings seriously, even though the issue itself seems trivial.
THE HISTORY of the current problem dates back to at least 2004. Until that time, there was no temporary bridge to the Mugrabi Gate, there was a large earthen mound to the south of the Wall’s women’s section. Along the mound ran a stone ramp that led from the Western Wall Plaza to a Temple Mount gate. According to Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, this ramp, which tourists formerly used to access the Mount, was damaged during the winter of that year.
“Parts of it fell down in [February] 2004... because of an earthquake and the heavy snow we had that winter. In reality, it was a 40-year miracle that it didn’t fall sooner,” he says.
Husseini has a different view. He claims that when Israel attempted to place a steel shade over the ramp in 2004, it undermined the ramp’s foundations.
“The workers dug in the middle of the ramp, and then rain penetrated inside and it cracked the foundations,” he says, adding that the Wakf complained many times and asked the municipality not to change the ramp.
For Muslims, what is most sensitive is not so much the ramp, but that it leads to the Temple Mount. Rumors that Israeli excavations next to the Mount were aimed at undermining the site have often led to demonstrations over the years.
“This area is owned by Al-Aksa Mosque. There is a museum there, and it is a historic area,” explains Husseini. He also says the area is sensitive because next to the Mugrabi Gate is a minor Muslim holy site called Al-Burak.
The Antiquities Authority excavations underneath the ramp led to the ramp’s disappearance, since all the dirt under it was removed. As such, the scaffolding bridge became the only way to access the Mugrabi Gate.
In 2007, these excavations met with international criticism from Jordan, Turkey and UNESCO. Sheikh Raed Salah of the Islamic Movement’s Northern Branch claimed it could lead to a “third intifada.” In response, the digs were halted and cameras were installed to reassure the Muslim world that nothing was being done to undermine the Temple Mount.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post in February of that year, Dr. Eilat Mazar, a renowned archeologist who has been involved with digs in the City of David, said there was “no risk whatsoever” to the Temple Mount from the excavations: “There is no basis to the Muslims’ claims... excavations around the compound near the Mugrabi ramp will show that the original compound built at this place was the most impressive and ingenious construction of the Second Temple period,” she said.
THE MUGRABI Bridge issue has many facets. One is the claim that Israel intentionally built a temporary bridge so as to remove the earth from under the old ramp and create more space in the women’s section of the Wall. Seventyfive- year-old Meir Ben-Dov, a Jerusalem-based archeologist, believes this to be the case.
“I was there in 1967,” he says. “Actually I remember initially they wanted to use a different gate for non- Muslim access to the Temple Mount, but in the end we had the keys to the Mugrabi Gate because that is how the paratroopers got onto the Mount. I remember that the women praying at the Wall wanted access to a room that adjoins their part of the Wall, and I actually helped get them access to that storage room from the mufti, Hilmi Muhtasid.”
He posits that the situation is not “about building a bridge, it is about enlarging the Kotel [Western Wall] to the south.”
According to Ben-Dov, the damage from the 2004 incident “in which a few stones fell” from the Mugrabi ascent amounted to “almost nothing.” In his opinion as an archeologist, he says, it would have taken no more than NIS 50,000 to repair the original ramp, and there would have been no need to erect the bridge or fundamentally change the mound.
However, Rabinovitch, who works with the Western Wall Heritage Foundation – an organization set up in 1988 to manage the site – rejects these claims.
“After 1967, the women received one-third of the Kotel to pray at, but the reality is that as many women come as men,” he asserts. “Now 40 percent of the women’s section has been taken up by this temporary bridge.”
Another accusation made against Rabinovitch is that he is in favor of building a large new bridge to the Mugrabi Gate. Ben-Dov explains that as far as he is aware, the problem has to do with the Western Wall Heritage Foundation pushing for a bridge that will span the area from the Mugrabi Gate on the Temple Mount all the way to the Dung Gate, the Old City gate nearest to the Wall.
“The planned bridge spanned 250 meters from the Dung Gate, but it had no license. Now they’ve decided to build an 80-m. bridge from the entrance to the Western Wall [Plaza, where the security gate is] to the gate,” he says.
Rabinovitch also rejects the idea that he has any interest in such a bridge: “It is clear... I don’t need the Mugrabi [ramp]; I am against going up to the Haram. I see that the Kotel is part of us [the Jews], and the Mugrabi area doesn’t touch Haram al-Sharif. I think [the Wakf and other critics] are lying when they say [building a new bridge] hurts the Temple Mount.”
The rabbi opposes Jews ascending the Temple Mount because of the 1967 ruling by the country’s chief rabbis that doing so was forbidden for Jews, lest they tread on the area of the Holy of Holies.
He and the mayor’s office view the situation as primarily a safety issue. In October of this year, the city engineer ruled that the bridge was unsafe, that it was a fire hazard and in danger of collapsing. Based on this, the city ordered that the temporary bridge be torn down in November, sparking the current tensions. Rabinovitch fears for the worshipers at the Kotel.
“The situation now is that the bridge is temporary and it is dangerous,” he says. “It endangers the women praying; it is pikuah nefesh [a grave danger to life] at the Kotel.”
He explains that while he is involved in the issue of the temporary bridge, ultimately it is up to the city and the government.
“The city is responsible for the dangerous situation, and the city is ultimately in charge. The changes and repairs, that is what the Western Wall Heritage Foundation deals with. We work together. Now we need to change it,” he says, expressing hope that this can be done without causing harm to others.
REFUTING THE claims that the bridge is unsafe are Ben-Dov, the Wakf and City Council member Meir Margalit. When I visited Margalit last week to discuss the issue, he called the engineer who had erected the bridge and began to ask probing questions about how long it could stay up.
“There is a mistake on top of a mistake here,” says Margalit. “Israel wanted a temporary bridge, and it is not as dangerous as the city claims. It could stay up for another 20 years. At this moment, due to the political situation, it is better to climb down from this tree now. If we’re talking about a fire hazard [because the temporary bridge is made of wood], then the city should look at what is happening at the [Church of the] Holy Sepulchre, where there is real danger of fire.”
The international political situation is also of central importance, he asserts. “It would be better for [Netanyahu] to forget about this; the future of peace with Egypt is more important, and also with King Abdullah in Jordan.”
Margalit emphasizes that he has received many inquiries from foreign journalists and embassies.
“Will the state disappear because of [not building a new bridge]?” he asks. “Why take something so small and make something so big of it? If they really think there is a security or dangerous problem, then they should have the Jordanians build [a new bridge]. They should let the Muslims deal with this issue. It doesn’t hurt our honor or our religion. The minute that you let the national issues get involved, then it becomes religious.”
In relation to the political situation, Yitzhak Reiter of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies agrees that the temporary bridge is, for now, the lesser evil.
“The attempts to make a compromise [in negotiations with Jordan and UNESCO since 2004 about installing a new bridge] didn’t succeed because as time went on, the Arab and Jordanian position became more stubborn,” he says, adding that now, “because of the Arab Spring, the atmosphere is [even] more critical [of] Israel” regarding the site.
He recalls that when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, the discussion was about restoring the old ramp.
“I know that Olmert’s former military secretary held that opinion. He believed that nothing was wrong with the ramp, which was being destroyed in the meantime. He thought the ramp could be fixed and that the temporary bridge was not so dangerous. The price Israel is going to pay [for building a new bridge] is too high, and it could remain as it is.”
Today, however, the official opinion “is that Israel has an interest and responsibility [here] because if the wooden bridge collapses, it could be a disaster, and that therefore we cannot wait and must replace it as soon as possible with another bridge,” he continues. “The question here is, what kind of other bridge? Would it be a modest bridge to replace the ramp, or will it be something more sophisticated, nicer-looking, which doesn’t destroy the views and begins from the entrance to the Western Wall?”
It is this latter idea, he says, that the Jordanian government and the Arab and Muslim world reject.
“They think that in order to preserve the status quo, the ramp is part and parcel of the Haram al-Sharif and nothing should be carried out to better or significantly change what was removed or what was destroyed.”
Reiter believes that all the interested parties have lost out in the long run. The Western Wall rabbi has not been able to extend the women’s section, and the new bridge has not been created.
“This is also the loss of the Wakf,” he adds. “They want their site to be visited and toured because they make money from it. But they don’t want to be seen by other Arabs as collaborators with a Zionist project if they agree to the bridge.”
Aryeh Dayan of the Ir Amim organization also argues that Israel made a political mistake – that while the prime minister’s canceling the removal of the temporary bridge was correct, he erred in waiting so long.
“The Wakf is in charge of the Temple Mount and in charge of the entrances. So it is their responsibility,” he says. “There needs to be an agreement between the the Wakf and the city, and between Israel and Jordan. They tried to come to an agreement. Each time, the agreement didn’t work out.”
The site, he adds, “is an important place for both sides. It is a place that could cause an explosion. I think the central problem is that the Wakf feels that Israel chooses what to do by itself.”
He agrees, however, that “it is a dangerous bridge; [the Israeli authorities] need to build one that is not dangerous.”
There are also lingering questions of sovereignty relating to the site. According to Ronen Shoval of the Im Tirtzu Zionist youth movement, Israel has sovereignty at the site and should do as it wants.
“It is part of the State of Israel, we need to protect it,” he declares. “It shouldn’t be [that] because of some extremists... we can’t repair some bridge.”
According to WikiLeaks cables, government officials are concerned that if the country allows the Wakf and Jordan to dictate what kind of bridge is built, it could mean that Israel will no longer control as much of the Western Wall area.
Husseini, meanwhile, claims that if the excavations reveal old Muslim buildings, it could be a problem.
“Muslims will say, if you do some work there, then it belongs to us,” he says. “We should keep in mind that the Wakf [is capable of helping with the bridge area because it] has done lots of work around the Temple Mount. Not just inside, but outside. Even in the Western Wall area, it added two rows of stones atop the Wall.”
He argues that Israel is not only disturbing Muslim antiquities, but will also be “responsible for the reactions” among the Muslim community – a veiled allusion to violence.
“This ramp contained 1,400 years of civilization. We told them, don’t dig, there are a lot of buildings beneath this ramp, they would be digging through the layers of history of that site. This will create difficulties for [Israel], and the Muslim countries will be unhappy,” he says, adding that “the situation is very tense and this might create a big problem, if anything takes place.”
As it stands, none of the players will budge, and the city’s decision to close the ramp seems aimed at pressuring the government into acting.
Rabinovitch is dismayed.
“We thought the temporary bridge would be there for a few months,” he says.
The Prime Minister’s Office, the Ir David Foundation, the Antiquities Authority and the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement refused to comment about the bridge.
According to WikiLeaks documents, Israel has plans for a new bridge that will replace the temporary one; however, images of these plans are not available.
Stephan Miller at the mayor’s office reaffirms that the city still wishes the bridge to be removed and, barring that, closed.
“It is an immediate threat to public safety in the area, including those who pray nearby, the Western Wall, and the Temple Mount.”