Amendments required to revised plan for Jerusalem Old City's religious flashpoint

The Israeli government’s Regional Planning Committee on Jerusalem has just issued a split ruling on objections brought by the Israeli NGO Ir Amim to a revised design plan for reconstruction of the damaged ramp that leads from the Western Wall Plaza up to the Mughrabi Gate (Bab al-Maghariba) entrance to the Haram as-Sharif esplanade where Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located.

The Western Wall Plaza below - the Haram as-Sharif above

The Committee has set down some general principles, and has asked for the submission of an amended design.

The damaged ramp was built on the remains of the Mughrabi Quarter that was razed after Israeli forces conquered the Old City of Jerusalem in the June 1967 war.

Part of the ramp collapsed after winter rains and snow in February 2004, and the Israeli authorities initially decided it was a good opportunity to reconstruct areas of the Western Wall Plaza – including the ramp access to the Mughrabi Gate – to suit its own estimates of its present needs, including greater security access to the mosque esplanade, and an expanded prayer area for Jewish women.

Ir Amim’s legal adviser, attorney Daniel Seideman reported that objections he presented to several earlier versions of the reconstruction plan were accepted in large part – but not in their totality – by the Regional Planning Committee in the first week of July.

Ir Amim is an NGO working for the equitable sharing of Jerusalem, which it calls a city “of two peoples and three religions”.

“Where we were successful is that the Committee ordered the preservation of artifacts including from the Ottoman and Mandate periods, which includes the remains of the Mughrabi Quarter”, Seidemann said, whereas last November the government indicated that it wanted to raze all artifacts dating later than 1700 A.D.

But the wording of the Committee’s decision – directing without greater precision only that the design for reconstruction would have to “take into account” the artifacts that have been found there – leaves a lot to discretion, Seidemann noted.

A proposal which would have transformed some of the vaults of the Islamic-era structures that have been unearthed under the ramp in recent Israeli excavations into Jewish prayer halls has been rejected, Seideman reported.

Israeli excavation activity now appears to have stopped.

The biggest remaining problem, according to Seidemann, is the Committee’s ruling that the Western Wall Plaza could be expanded – though he said it would be less than in the earlier proposal.

So, he warned, “this is not over”, and the situation will require continued close attention.

The Israeli government in 2006-2007 signed off on a ramp redesign plan at every level up to and including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, after which excavations were carried out under the ramp, in accordance with requirements of Israel’s antiquities law.

But, the original redesign plan was severely criticized by 18 leading Israeli archeologists who said they were appalled by the potential damage to one of the most important archeological sites in Israel-Palestine, and a main focus of all the various civilizations that have coexisted in Jerusalem from ancient biblical times through the present day. The original plan was described as “megalomaniac” and “phatasmagorical”.

Following strong international protests, the Israeli government agreed to begin a consultation process under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Jordanian government and the Waqf (Islamic Trust Foundation) in Jerusalem participated in these consultations, which were apparently indirect – meaning that the delegations were not all in the same room.

A revised plan was filed, but objections persisted. As required by the Israeli approval process, the government’s Regional Planning Committee – which is administratively part of Israel’s Ministry of the Interior but which is composed of members of a number of other ministries, as well as of the Jerusalem Municipality, as well as two members of the public – has been considering these objections.

Now, the Regional Planning Committee has just ruled that the revised reconstruction plan must be further amended, and still has to sign off on the revised plan that it now awaited from local Jerusalem architect Eli Ilan, before a building permit is issued.

More hearings could be required if the design revisions are extensive, Seidemann indicated.

Tourists visiting the Haram as-Sharif

This project could become a model for working in such an immensely significant and sensitive site, according to Seidemann, but he noted that there is also still the potential to revert back to fighting that could cause “an interreligous conflagration”.

Adnan Husseini said this week that he was concerned that Israel was not paying attention to the negotiations conducted last February by UNESCO, and was just using the fact that these meetings were held “as an umbrella to get to their target”. The whole story, he said, is about Israel’s intention to enlarge the prayer area in the Western Wall Plaza. To so, he said, Israel could destroy 1400 years of history. “We ask UNESCO to take a serious role”, Husseini said. “This is an entrance to our Mosques, and it [the ramp as well as the archeological remains] is Awqaf property”. He urged UNESCO to take a position, and be firm and clear – and not just allow Israel “to show a picture of having discussed the issue with others, while in the end imposing everything on the ground”.

According to a report in Haaretz, the Israeli government is planning to spend 17 million shekels (over $5 million, at the current rate of exchange) on this project.

Israel considers the site to be an area of Israeli sovereignty. Israel extended its law and administration over East Jerusalem in the wake of the 1967 war, and Israel later proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1980 – a move that was declared null and void by United Nations member states, and which is recognized by fewer than a handful of countries.

A “de facto” arrangement put in place in 1967 by then-Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan left authority over the Haram as-Sharif mosque esplanade to Jerusalem’s Islamic Waqf (trust foundation) – while Israel proclaimed itself in full charge of the site´s Western Wall and the plaza created where the Mughrabi Quarter previously stood, but the Israeli Foreign Ministry website states now that “the Temple Mount lies within the sovereign jurisdiction of the State of Israel”.

The two concepts – of delegating authority to the Waqf while retaining sovereign jurisdiction – could be interpreted in various ways that could be more or less accommodating to the two sides. However, Israel has appeared in recent years to be moving to a more and more restrictive interpretation.

The Waqf continues to claim the entire area of the Mughrabi Quarter, including the ramp, as its property.

And the Palestine Liberation Organization’s National Council, in 1988, approved the declaration of independence of the State of Palestine, to be established on the territory captured by Israel in the June 1967 war, with East Jerusalem to be its capital.

Israeli Border Police at gate to Muslim mosques in East Jerusalem

Seidemann said that Israel’s Regional Planning Committee appears to have at least taken into consideration the views of the other parties, and he believes “there were clear instructions from the political echelons to handle the situation responsibly”.

But, the situation could go either way, Seidemann said: the revised plan could be “upgraded to something close to what is acceptable to the Waqf, the Jordanians, and UNESCO, or it could degenerate into something close to the original plan”.

Israel, in its 1994 Peace Treaty with Jordan, stated that it “respects” Jordan´s “special role” in the “Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem” (but not, however, in management of the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, for which Jordan also reportedly wanted a special status during the peace treaty negotiations). The 1994 Peace Treaty also says that Jordan´s “historic role” in the Jerusalem shrines will be given “high priority” when “negotiations on the permanent status” [i.e., between Israel and the Palestinians] “will take place”

Seidemann cautioned: “To fall asleep at the watch now would be exactly the wrong thing to do”.

Mughrabi Gate ramp redesign plan approval expected imminently

Tensions may be heating up again about Israeli reconstruction plans for a damaged ramp leading from the Western Wall Plaza in the Old City of Jerusalem, where Jewish worshippers pray at Judaism’s most sacred and revered site, up to the Mughrabi Gate entrance to the Haram as-Sharif mosque esplanade, the third holiest site of Islam.

A revised Israeli design to rebuild the ramp is expected to receive Israeli government approval imminently.

Mughrabi Gate entrance to the Haram as-Sharif - 12 June 2008

Depending on what is finally approved – by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior’s Regional Planning Commission – there still may be one or two problems, but the revised plan as viewed a few weeks ago by Israeli attorney Danny Seidemann, appears to be a big improvement over an earlier Israeli plan which, he said, reflected “ulterior motives”.

Continue reading Mughrabi Gate ramp redesign plan approval expected imminently