Bridge over troubled city

Municipality says bridge could collapse, but suspicion stands in the way of cooperation.

Mughrabi Bridge 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mughrabi Bridge 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A report be the municipal fire authorities published the last week of October, as part of the department’s regular reporting on public sites, has determined that a temporary bridge, commonly referred to as the Mugrabi Bridge, is in imminent danger of collapse.
The Mugrabi Bridge, a wood construction based on iron pillars covered by a tarp, is located in one of the most religiously and nationalistically contested spots on the planet. It connects the Western Wall Plaza with the Mugrabi Gate, leading up to the area known to the Jews as the Temple Mount – the site of the First and Second Temples – and to the Moslems as al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), the location of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, first constructed at the end of the 7th century CE.
In response to the report, in a letter dated October 28, municipal engineer Shlomo Eskhol informed Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall who is responsible for Jewish holy sites, that he must dismantle the bridge within one month.
If Rabinowitz does not comply, Eshkol warns, the municipality will override his authority and will take responsibility for the bridge and its removal.
Eskhol did not consult with the waqf, the Muslim authority responsible for Muslim holy sites in the Holy Land, but the contents of the letter made their way to the waqf officials. In the ensuing frenzy, Islamic websites throughout the world, including the official site of Hamas, have called for a third, violent intifada if Israeli authorities begin any form of work on the bridge, even just to reinforce it.
“Transplanting a tree in this city should be done with extreme caution, since it could easily become a reason for a special United Nations meeting,” legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek once warned in a speech on Jerusalem Day, the day on which Israel official marks the extension of Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem – a move Palestinians consider to be an occupation.
Competing nationalistic and religious claims, together with complete distrust between Israeli and Palestinian municipal officials, all exacerbated by Jewish settler attempts to take over Arab neighborhoods and assert unilateral Jewish authority, turn seemingly mundane issues of urban development and municipal administration into symbolic struggles.
The Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif is Jerusalem’s tinderbox. The visit in the year 2000 by then-MK Ariel Sharon to the mount was the trigger that set off the violence and riots that became the second intifada, known to Muslims as the al-Aqsa Intifada.
And so an ostensibly routine question of public safety has the potential to detonate an explosion that could set the city on fire and drive the entire region into a third intifada.
On this site, Jews believe, Abraham bound Isaac and Kings Solomon and Herod built their temples. Muslims believe that the mount was the furthermost mosque (literally, alaqsa) visited by Muhammad during his night journey from Mecca and from here he ascended to heaven to meet Moses, Elijah and Jesus.
According to agreements with waqf officials dating back to the years immediately after the Six Day War, the Mugrabi Bridge is the sole access for non-Muslims, including security forces, to the mount. The bridge protrudes along the southern side of the Western Wall, forming a border to the women’s section of the wall.
It was originally built during Jordanian sovereignty over the city, sometime after 1948. A slight earthquake in the winter of 2004 destabilized the original earthern bank.
Later that same year, the bank collapsed.
The collapse occurred in the middle of the night, when there were no worshipers in the vicinity and no one was hurt. Then-mayor Uri Lupolianski ordered that a temporary bridge be erected. In a highly irregular procedure, the municipal licensing department swiftly provided the necessary authority for the construction, without any public discussion, as mandated by law. This was justified, officials said at the time, by the need to provide an immediate solution.
No Palestinian officials were consulted at the time. Speaking on condition of anonymity, municipal officials tell The Jerusalem Report that Jordanian officials were “unofficially” consulted. However, Jordan’s Ministry of the waqf and Religious Affairs said in a statement that Minister Abdul Salam Abbadi had condemned the Israeli decision to demolish the Mugrabi bridge, according to “the Jordan Times.”
While constructing the temporary bridge, Lupolianski also called for a new bridge plan. An initial, grandiose plan called for connecting the Mugrabi Gate directly to the Dung Gate, but this was almost immediately dismissed due to public opposition. A more modest plan calls for building a 95 meter (285 foot) steel construction, at a height of 60 meters (180 feet) above the archaeological findings beneath and along the lines of the current bridge. That plan was recently approved, following municipal procedures, including submission of opposition by the public, of which there was little. Neither the Palestinians nor the waqf, which do not recognize Israeli municipal authority in Jerusalem, submitted objections.
Current mayor Nir Barkat, following Lupolianski, has also endorsed this plan.
Israeli law mandates that authorities conduct “salvation digs” at any construction sites, in order to uncover possible archaeological treasures that may lay buried beneath. In July 2007, as mandated by this law, the Israel Antiquities Authority conducted initial excavations, which were met by massive protests, some of them violent. A delegation from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) visited the site and determined that Israel was not endangering any of the Palestinian holy sites.
Raed Sallah, the leader of the northern branch of the Israeli Islamic Movement, called upon Muslim believers to come to Jerusalem to save the al-Aqsa mosque that was, he claimed, in danger of being destroyed. In the ensuing riots, which lasted for five days, Salah was arrested and accused of assaulting a police officer, but was later acquitted of this charge. Subsequently, UNESCO adopted a decision calling on Israel to immediately cease all archaeological works in the Old City of Jerusalem and, in particular, cited the bridge work.
Jamal Abu-Toameh, legal adviser to the waqf, tells The Report that the main issue is one of non-cooperation with Israel.
“We do not recognize the authority of Israel and the municipality, since we believe that the sovereignty over this place belongs only to the waqf,” Abu-Toameh explains. “We cannot collaborate with the municipality on a place that is part of the mosques compound, and this is also the position of the Jordanian government. This is why we did not cooperate with the Israeli authorities in any way, such as going to their courts, and we appealed to UNESCO, asking them to intervene to stop the works in our sovereign place.”
Some Israeli and Palestinian sources doubt the motivations behind the municipality’s decisions.
An Israeli academic researcher, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells The Report, “It is clear that Israel has an interest to widen stable construction that will enable security forces, including armored personnel carriers, “After all, if the bridge is so unsafe, how has it lasted for seven years?” The same source further states that waqf “wanted to bring in their own engineers, but Israel refused to allow it.”
The Report was unable to corroborate this content. But Abu-Toameh claims that sovereignty, not safety, are behind the care of. If the bridge is really unsafe,” he tells The Report, “we are the only ones with the together with the Jordanian government.”
But according to Dr. Yitzhak Reiter, professor of Middle Eastern Politics and Islamic Studies at the Ashkelon Academic College and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a senior research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, “Jordan is the major opponent to the new bridge; in fact, the Jordanian objection is the only thing that has prevented the construction of a new bridge so far. Israel should be promoting some kind of compromise with the Jordanians, who even have an alternative plan for a new bridge.”
Attorney Daniel Seidemann, founder and head of Terrestrial Jerusalem, and a practicing attorney in Jerusalem specializing in legal and public issues in East Jerusalem, notes that within less than four months, the Israeli authorities have provided two different reasons for the need to demolish and reconstruct the bridge immediately. “In May 2011, it was [necessary to demolish the bridge] because it is unstable and could fall down at any minute,” Seidemann tells The Report. “Then the municipality said that it had to be reinforced. Now, the municipality is saying that it has to be demolished and completely rebuilt because it’s made of combustible material.”
Seidemann concludes that he accepts none of these explanations at face value, and suggests that there may be “behind-the-scenes coordination between the Prime Minister’s Office and the mayor’s office, to enable Israel to retain control over the place.”
Or worse, Seidemann says, these reports may be the result of an “independent and dangerous position taken by Barkat, who is deliberately pressuring the Prime Minister to take further action in Jerusalem, just as the Americans are investing tremendous efforts in an attempt to renew negotiations with the Palestinians.”
Sources close to the mayor, speaking on condition of anonymity, rejected Seidemann’s accusations out of hand. “The mayor is making every effort not to be involved in this issue, so as not to add to the tensions,” a senior official tells The Report.
“This construction is dangerous according to any and all professional standards, and it is inconceivable that the municipality should abdicate its responsibility for the safety of its residents because of fear of riots.”
Deputy Mayor Pepe Alalu, representing the left-wing Meretz party, says that he does not discount the contention that the structure is dangerous, but he, too, is critical of the way that the municipal authorities have handled the situation. Despite the official Palestinian and Jordanian positions, Alalu insists that ways to cooperate on the issue could be found. “The Arabs also want a bridge,” Alalu says. “There are ways to conduct such a sensitive issue…This is an issue so sensitive, that the eyes of the entire world are on us. We can’t just behave any way we want to.”
According to Alalu, his own investigations have revealed that the bridge isn’t even listed in the municipal registrar of dangerous buildings – which, for him, raises the suspicion that “the danger may not be so great or imminent. But even if it is, and even in light of the fire department report, we have to ask ourselves: why have they waited for six years and done nothing? If it’s dangerous now, it’s been dangerous for a long time. So if their motivations are not political – then the municipal officials are guilty of negligence.”
“Everyone is busy with the political questions,” a source in the Municipal Engineer’s office tells The Report. “But what if there is a catastrophe? What if, heaven forbid, tourists are crushed, or policemen have to access the Temple Mount via the bridge?”
Meir Margalit, also of the Meretz party and a field coordinator at the more leftist Israel Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), says that the municipality has, in fact, attempted to involve representatives of the waqf in the planning and construction of the new bridge. Margalit, a frequent, vocal critic of the municipality, who is in charge of the Arab residents’ affairs for the Jerusalem Municipal Council, tells The Report, “I don’t think that the commotion is justified.
It’s clear to all that there is no attempt to cause any damage to the al-Haram al-Sharif or to the al-Aqsa mosque. I think that the waqf representatives are the ones who have refused to participate in the process… because they refuse to recognize Israeli control. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have many more burning issues to deal with, and the argument that a new bridge will enable many more Jews to ascend to the Mount is ridiculous. If Jews want to ascend the Mount, they will.”
None of the official institutions that have any connection to the site – from the police to the Western Wall Heritage Fund, a department of the Ministry for Religious Affairs that oversees all activities at the Western Wall Plaza – have publicly expressed any opinion as to what should happen. In response to queries from The Report, the offices of Rabinowitz and his director general, Mordechai Eliav, responded only, “We have received the notice from the municipality and it has been delivered to the proper authorities."
It is reasonable to assume that “the proper authorities” refers to the Prime Minister’s Office, under whose auspices the Heritage Fund and the rabbi operate. The prime minister's spokespersons did not respond to queries from The Report.
This is not the first time that the safety of construction in the Holy Basin, which encompasses the Old City and its immediate surroundings, has on the slopes of the village of Silwan, in al-Bustan, are unsafe. Then-municipal engineer, Uri Sheetrit, warned that for political reasons, officials were ignoring the safety dangers. “Those buildings were built on a steep slope with no foundations. A particularly rainy winter could turn the entire area into a death trap of mud and sludge,” he warned The Report at the time.
But more recently, the homes along the slopes of al-Bustan remain, caught in the struggle between Mayor Nir Barkat, who is insistent on building the “King’s Garden” tourist project as part of the Ir David (David’s City) area, promoted by ideologically motivated Jewish settlers and right-wing parties.
Police officials are currently preparing a report on the implications of the construction to the Ministry of Internal Security. The report is expected to be released in mid- to late-November, 2011. Police spokesmen refused to provide any information on the upcoming report to The Report.
And meanwhile, every day, hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of Israelis, Palestinians and tourists continue to ascend the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif across the Mugrabi Bridge.