Bridges and sovereignty

Israel must tread carefully, lest it arouse the rancor of the Arab world for daring to make even the most basic and necessary construction changes.

Mughrabi Gate bridge 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Mughrabi Gate bridge 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
One of the many tasks of Yitzhak Molcho, the chief negotiator and personal envoy to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who stepped down last week, was maintaining good diplomatic relations with Jordan.
In that capacity he was involved in the ongoing controversy surrounding the Mughrabi Bridge that connects the Western Wall plaza to Mughrabi Gate on the Temple Mount. This is the entrance used by Jews and tourists to ascend the Mount.
Even Molcho’s expertise as a negotiator was not enough to overcome the prejudice and extremism that have prevented a sane solution to Mughrabi Bridge saga.
An absurd situation exists in which the looming threats of Arab rioting and terrorism prevent any changes in the landscape in and around the plaza.
No matter that the entire area of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount is under full Israeli security control since 1967, when Israel repulsed the onslaught of the combined armies of Jordan, Egypt and Syria in the Six Day War, unified Jerusalem and took control of Judea and Samaria.
The reality is that Israel must tread carefully, lest it arouse the rancor of the Arab world for daring to make even the most basic and necessary construction changes.
Few issues better illustrate Israel’s powerlessness and lack of de facto sovereignty in and around the Temple Mount than the Mughrabi Bridge.
During the winter of 2004, rainstorms, snow, flooding and a minor earthquake destroyed the old route to the Temple Mount, known as the Mughrabi Ascent. Connecting the Western Wall plaza to Mughrabi Gate, the earthen ramp was the only entry point for non-Muslims to the Temple Mount, which is under control of the Jordanian Wakf, the Muslim religious trust that is custodian of holy sites – though Israel has entry rights for security purposes.
Tourists regularly used the ascent. So did some religious Jews, motivated by a spiritual yearning to be as close as possible to Judaism’s holiest site and by the conviction that it is important to demonstrate a Jewish presence there – at least in the areas where, according to their understanding, Jewish law permits Jews to venture. (Under the agreement between Israel and the Wakf, Jews are not allowed to pray there out of deference to Muslim sensibilities.)
The ascent was also the only way large numbers of Israeli security forces could gain quick access to the mount in times of emergencies or disturbances.
In the same year that it was destroyed, a “temporary” wooden ramp, which blocked about a third of the space reserved for female supplicants at the Kotel, was erected.
In parallel, an inter-ministerial committee began planning a new bridge.
The planning was accompanied by archeological rescue excavations, a precondition under Israel law. Israel took meticulous care rescuing and preserving antiquities – both Arab and Jewish. Cameras were stationed at the excavation site to prove the Temple Mount and its mosques were not in danger. Representatives of the Jordanian government, a delegation from Turkey and one on behalf of UNESCO were allowed to visit the site – to no avail.
Apparently, you cannot reason with fundamentalists.
Muslim extremists used the bridge plans as an excuse to stage violent demonstrations and incite against Israel.
Attempts in 2011 and again in 2014 by Netanyahu’s governments to replace the bridge were scrapped, after Arab extremists in and outside of Israel threatened to stage massive demonstrations in protest.
With Molcho’s departure there appears to be little chance of replacing the “temporary” Mughrabi Bridge, which Jerusalem’s chief engineer has warned is unsafe and which the Fire Department has determined is a fire hazard.
But the Mughrabi Bridge saga is part of a much larger problem.
Israel is unable or unwilling to assert its sovereignty over the Temple Mount. This weakness is endangering human lives and causing irreparable damage. Backing down on metal detectors was just one recent example. Failing to prevent unlawful excavations on the Temple Mount by Arabs has already resulted in the destruction of important historic artifacts that trace Jewish history back to the First Temple era.
It is possible to find a solution. Jordan and Israel have a strong peace treaty that binds the two countries together.
They should be able to reach an agreement.