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.
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”.
When the Regional Planning Commission hands down its decision, there will still be a possibility of appealing to the Jerusalem District Court if necessary, says Seidemann.
Seideman presented objections to both the original and the revised designs before open meetings at the Jerusalem Municipality, and at a more recent meeting of the Ministry of the Interior’s Regional Planning Commission, on behalf of Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO which he formed to work for the equitable sharing of Jerusalem, which Ir Amim calls a city “of two peoples and three religions”.
The Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, confirmed that a decision on the new ramp design is now being finalized. He described the revised design as “a bridge in the air”, and said he liked the revised plan. “I hope that by September or October we will start building”, the Rabbi said. “The design was arrived at after a lot of thought, and the plans are very aesthetic”.
Adnan Husseini, a former head of the Waqf in Jerusalem, who is presently an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Jerusalem affairs, said the plan is not available, until now, “for the public”.
But, Husseini also said that the Israelis announced their original plan through the Jerusalem Municipality, and held meetings – which Palestinians apparently do not attend, so as not to confer legitimacy on the occupation – to discuss the design. The Israelis have also shown the plan to UNESCO, Husseini said, and an alternative plan prepared by Jordanians was also presented.
The situation has cooled somewhat by the involvement of UNESCO, a Paris-based organization. Though Israel has often had a tendentious relationship with many UN bodies and agencies, it appeared to have no qualms or objections in this case.
“This site one of the most sensitive places on the planet”, Israel attorney Danny Seideman said in an interview last week, “and the role of UNESCO has been very positive, fair, and evenhanded”.
UNESCO inscribed the Old City of Jerusalem on its World Heritage Site list for protection in 1981 – and in 1982 on a list of World Heritage Sites in danger. The current Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, proposed a “comprehensive plan of action to safeguard the cultural heritage of the Old City of Jerusalem”, which was approved by UNESCO’s membership in 2003.
Matsuura recently visited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Muqata’a Presidential Headquarters in Ramallah. On the same trip, Matsuura also spent time visiting areas in Israel which are, or which may in the future become, sites designated as worthy of being listed, and protected, as part of the cultural heritage of mankind
UNESCO intervened in the Mughrabi Gate controversy last year in an attempt to open a dialog between the parties concerned. Under its umbrella, UNESCO has formally brought Jordan back into the picture concerning the Mughrabi Gate excavations and ramp renovation.
For all intents and purposes, and in actual fact, that means Israel and Jordan, two governments which are state members of UNESCO.
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”.
Jordanian personnel headed the Waqf when Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967. After a period of stronger Palestinian influence in the 1990s, Jordan once again now exercises control of the Waqf’s top post, while the Palestinian Authority is in charge of nominating the Mufti.
The most recent involvement of Jordan in this controversy has been through UNESCO, however, and not through the Waqf, which prefers to avoid dealing with the Israelis as occupiers, because that would signify acquiescence to the legitimacy of Israeli authority in East Jerusalem.
Seidemann said that “Neither the Waqf nor the Jordanians ever formally participated within the Israeli approval process, though they did participate in the UNESCO deliberations”.
The Rabbi of the Western Wall said that UNESCO and the Waqf have had an opportunity to give input into the design, but “both did not come two times to meetings, and the third time UNESCO sent only low-ranking officials. Their objections were political and not actually about the design or the way it will be built”.
“There was a learning process”, Seideman said, and “the Jordanians fulfilled the role of responsible adults”.
But Seidemann says that he believes the new or revised Israeli design seems even better than the Jordanian design – though there are still problems with the revised Israeli design that must be resolved, including the fact that it would result in a significant expansion of the Western Wall Plaza by razing remaining remnants of the Mughrabi Quarter.
The Jordanian plan featured the construction of containment walls to hide the Islamic artifacts now being excavated under the crumbling ramp, Seidemann said, but he feels that the columns in the new Israeli plan are more reasonable.
The Turkish Government also initially protested the Israeli actions vocally and visibly when the controversy blew up just over a year ago. A technical mission sent by Turkey visited to examine the site, and wrote a highly critical report. Recently, however, the Turkish government seems to have all but disappeared from view on the issue.
The Jerusalem Municipality has, coincidentally, reportedly rushed through plans to permit the construction of a memorial to Ottoman war victims just outside (about 50 meters outside) the south-east corner of the Old City walls.
The Mufti of Al-Aqsa, Muhammed Hussein, denounced the whole reconstruction project during his sermon during Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of East Jerusalem on 13 June. The Mufti reportedly told worshippers that information now available indicates that the temporary wooden bridge that allows non-Muslim tourists and visitors to the Haram ash-Sharif (Mosque Esplanade) is to be replaced by a “steel bridge”.
This structure, the Mufti reportedly complained, would allow easier and faster access for the Israeli police and security forces, and would also expand the area currently available for Jewish women to pray in their separate section in the southern area of the Plaza facing the Western or Wailing Wall, which is below the southern end of the Mosque Esplanade.
In fact, some Palestinians in Jerusalem say, the proposed ramp appeared (in the original Israel plan) designed mainly to serve the Israeli security forces, and was wide enough for an armed vehicle to get quickly up into the Haram as-Sharif if riots break out.
Israeli attorney Seideman said that there were proposals for a structure strong enough to hold 300 Israeli police standing on the ramp at one time, in full gear.
However, with the intervention of UNESCO agreement was reached that the new ramp should not be a new security tool, but should instead restore the “status quo ante”.
While the new design may give somewhat better access for Israeli security forces, Seideman said, it will also provide greater accessibility for the handicapped, for the first time – including for Muslims with disabilities.
The ramp and the Mughrabi Gate is the only entrance to the Haram as-Sharif for non-Muslims – including Jews.
The other entrances are normally reserved for Muslims, while Muslims are not supposed to use the Mughrabi Gate.
The ramp was damaged by the elements, including a minor earthquake. Heavy rain and snow in the winter of 2004 eventually caused the collapse of what is called the “northern wall” of the structure in February 2004. It was declared unsafe.
Three years later, Israel began “salvage” excavations on the site that have aroused controversy and great suspicion, all the more so because the Israeli decisions were being taken unilaterally – as UNESCO said in a report on the controversy in the spring of 2007.
The structures tucked under the ramp which are now being excavated include part of an ancient madrasa and mosque as well as parts of homes from various historical periods. Seideman said these included structures from the Ottoman, Mameluk, and Ommayad periods. UNESCO said in a recent report that “several strata of archaeological structures (from the Herodian times to the British Mandate period) and of earth and rubble”, while the Rabbi of the Western Wall said he believed the structures were very recent.
The original Israeli plan to renovate the ramp suggested the removal of all or part of these structures, which Seidemann called “Islamic artifacts” in order to allow an enlargement of the prayer area reserved for Jewish women in front of the Western Wall.
The revised plan, as presented to the Regional Planning Commission, proposed the preservation of these structures – but with the vaults transformed into prayer halls for Jewish women. This, too, would be “very problematic, inflammatory and dangerous”, according to Seideman.
Otherwise, Seidemann said, the revised Israeli plan, which was the only one presented to the Regional Planning Commission, is very close to the original route of the ramp, and he said he considers it “reasonable”. It might be some 20 meters longer, Seidemann said, but the location, slope, and overall size are “much improved”.
The revised plan, Seidemann said, “is much more modest than the original plan”, which he called “megalomaniac”. That would have built a much larger and longer structure, he said, and would have resulted in considerable damage to very important archeological sites. And, according to Seidemann, there were a number of “hidden agendas to increase access for the Israeli police and military and the extremist settlers, and ad nothing to do with repair work.”.
There is “a reasonable chance that the decision of the Regional Planning Commission will be balanced”, he continued, but the test will not be the design of the ramp itself, but whether the area to the north of the ramp will still be marked for razing, and whether or not the idea to turn Islamic-era artifacts into Jewish prayer halls is rejected.
The Regional Planning Board, Seideman said, “is trying to do the right thing, which is rare. Their public hearing was very civil and intelligent, and there were clearly instructions from the political echelons to handle the situation responsibly. As Abba Eban once said, ‘politicans may eventually do the right thing, after exhausting all other possibilities’.”
By contrast, non-binding hearings held earlier at the Jerusalem Municipality had been “hostile, primitive, and racist”, Seidemann said. “This played to the grandstand, but had no real impact”.
The Haram as-Sharif is “the volcanic core of the conflict, and fundamental extremists on both sides are trying to take advantage of the situation”, Seideman said. “It makes everybody acts strangely – normal people become neurotic, and neurotic people become psychotic”.
The plateau itself is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the site where the inner sanctum of the two Jewish temples, which housed the Ark of the Covenant, containing the Ten Commandments and the Torah, is believed to have been built.
The Western Wall is composed of huge slabs of quarried and cut stone and believed to be part of the second (if not also of the first) Jewish temples that were built – and then destroyed, first by the Babylonians, then by the Romans – in Jerusalem.
After the Mughrabi Quarter was razed, a large plaza was created for Jewish worshippers, and the stated policy of the Israeli government remains that it is open to visitors of all faiths.
The Western Wall plaza is also used for state events, including for Israeli Defense Force ceremonies for induction, promotion, and commemorations.
Nearly one thousand residents of the Old City, many of whom were 1948 refugees from the Lod region near Tel Aviv, or from West Jerusalem, were made homeless in the process of clearing the area in 1967 to create the Plaza, and became refugees for a second time. Many moved to the Shuafat refugee camp on the northern outskirts of East Jerusalem, or to Anata – both of which have now been effectively banished to the West Bank by the route of The Wall in north-eastern areas of Jerusalem..
A still-existing though some believe now eroding “de facto” arrangement worked out just after the 1967 war by Israel’s Defense Minister at the time, Moshe Dayan, gave the Waqf authority over the Haram as-Sharif mosque esplanade, while Israel proclaimed itself in full charge of the site’s Western Wall.
Despite the immense religious importance of the place, there was no Jewish challenge at the time to Moshe Dayan’s “de facto” arrangement of partitioned responsibility. The religious-national right-wing Israeli settler movement had not yet been created.
The very sanctity of the site protected it, for years, from Jewish militant agitation. Mainstream rabbinic interpretation taught that Jewish Law forbids Jewish people to go up to the Temple Mount.
The Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, said in an interview last week with this journalist that this remains his belief and official position.
Rabbi Rabinowitz explained that the prohibition of visits to the site is “not because it is not ours. It is ours. But it is because of the sanctity of the place. It is where the Holy of Holies stood. Jews who go there must purify themselves with the [sacrifice of the] Red Heifer, which we do not have now”.
The first Temple was built by King Solomon over 500 years B.C. (before the start of the Common or Christian Era, which began with the birth of Christ). The second Temple was built in the same time period, about 50 years after the destruction of the first Temple. The second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.
Some rabbis have more recently adopted the view that Jews could go to the Temple Mount – as long as they avoided certain specific areas. Jewish visitors generally walk only around the perimeter of the mosque esplanade, and they avoid wearing leather while visiting the site.
Rabbi Rabinowitz explained that “There are a very few activists, a very small percentage, who do not observe Jewish Law. And even those who do go up to the site, do not go to every place there”.
The Rabbi said that “the entire Temple Mount, like the rest of Jerusalem, is under Jewish authority. Jerusalem has been important to us for generations, for thousands of years, wherever in the world Jews found themselves”. And, he noted, his grandfather was expelled from the Old City in the war of 1948.
“The current agreement, made in 1967, for the Waqf to take care of the Temple Mount, is in place until today”, the Rabbi said. “They are in charge of the Temple Mount, and we are in charge of the Western Wall. The excavations on our sides are open to the public, but we do not know about everything that’s going on up there”.
Excavations carried out on the esplanade directly under Al-Aqsa Mosque to create more prayer space have been a source of anguish for many Israelis, who believe that valuable antiquities were removed and tossed out carelessly, and there are continuing recovery efforts to sift through the soil that was removed.
The connection between the Rabbi and the Waqf is through the Israeli police, he said, and there is “full cooperation”. He explained that the contacts are not on a daily basis, but “only if things come up” – although the police and the Waqf authorities are in touch on a regular basis.
As far as the Rabbi is concerned, he said, he “would prefer not to have the Mughrabi Gate at all. We do not go up to the Temple Mount, so it is not a concern to us. There are other entrances that could be used”, he added.
He said he “would be very interested if all of that were to be removed”, because that would enable an extension of the women’s prayer area at the Western Wall. “In 1967, they didn’t see the need [for a large women’s area]”, the Rabbi added, “but now we see the need”. However, the Rabbi said, a decision was made to remove only a part of what is being excavated.
The Israeli government is firmly of the view that it has the right to make any decisions about what happens in the Western Wall plaza because it has been declared “an area of Jewish sovereignty” since the 1967 war.
Two days into the 1967 war, on 7 June, Israeli troops took East Jerusalem. The first step, taken three weeks later in the Knesset, was “the extension of Israeli law, jurisdiction and administration to the eastern neighborhoods of the city”, as the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs says.
Then, on 30 July 1980, Israel proclaimed a new “Basic Law” stating that Jerusalem [by then, meaning the greatly expanded “Greater Jerusalem” defined after the 1967 war] is “the eternal and undivided capital of Israel”, as well as the seat of Israel’s government.
The United Nations has taken the position that these actions are “null and void”.
For the Waqf, and for Palestinians, as well as for many others around the world, the areas that Israel conquered in 1967 – including East Jerusalem — are still under belligerent military occupation.
Adnan Husseini, a former head of the Waqf, who is presently an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Jerusalem affairs, said that there was a small police post on the Haram as-Sharif during the Jordanian time, which the Israelis took over.
But he feels the police should generally remain outside. “The police should be on all the gates all the time”, he said, “because they should be taking care of the situation”.
But, Husseini said, the police are now “moving everywhere inside the Mosque. And it’s not just the police with blue clothes. It’s also the border police with olive green uniforms, and even special police for more dangerous confrontations who carry automatic weapons. They are using all kinds of security, and it’s not any more a holy place”.
Al-Aqsa Mosque, he said, “started to be a mosque 1400 years ago…It is a key between earth and heaven, and the instructions of prayers started in this place”.
“What we need is to stop any intervention or threat coming from the outside”, Hussein said, “but instead the police responsibility has changed, and the police are now more concerned about the Muslims coming to pray. They control them, instead of controlling the settlers. They allow groups inside, in violation of the agreed instructions for visits. But some are coming not under the umbrella of religion, but with political goals, to change the status of the place. And the police are allowing it. This is a provocation. And this is part of the Israeli policy towards changing the status of the Mosque”.
Husseini said that the settlers are “very extreme” and have engaged in “violence in and around the Old City”. And, he said, “when the settlers enter the Mosque, they try to pray. But they should pray in their own places…Everyone should pray in his own place. They (the settlers) wanted to change this Mosque into a synagogue and to pray there. But touching religious issues creates troubles and hatreds”.
“All the time we have protested to everyone”, Husseini added, “because they are hurting, and touching the feelings of others, and this is dangerous”.