JERUSALEM, July 2 (JTA) It was a rare phenomenon in Israeli public life.
Leading Israeli personalities, from writer Amos Oz on the left to former Defense Minister Moshe Arens on the right, were among those signing an ad published in local papers protesting the “intolerable archaeological crime” perpetrated by Muslim officials on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
The ad, which was also signed by 75 legislators from across the political spectrum, attacked massive construction work conducted by the Wakf, or Islamic religious authority, aimed at expanding their places of worship on the Mount.
The petition urged Prime Minister Ehud Barak to take immediate action to stop the Wakf from continuing the work.
For his part, Barak refused to take such a step.
In recent months, thousands of tons of gravel were removed from the construction site, including a considerable number of archaeological artifacts, the ad charged. It also said the work was being conducted with no supervision from archaeologists.
“I signed the petition as an archaeologist, not as a politician,” Professor Trude Dotan of the Hebrew University told JTA. “You don’t dig in such a sensitive site with bulldozers.”
The controversy erupted just as Israel was trying to persuade the Palestinian Authority to conclude a final peace agreement that would defer what is perhaps the most sensitive issue confronting them Jerusalem for future negotiations.
The ad was just the latest chapter in the ongoing controversy over Jerusalem and who would exert control over its very heart the Temple Mount.
For the past two years, Islamic officials, supported by volunteers and money from Israeli Arabs, have been engaged in huge construction works on the Mount. Among their goals was the construction of a third mosque to join the Al-Aksa and Dome of the Rock mosques already at the site.
Israeli officials did not interfere.
A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s foremost writers, said he is not concerned that his having signed the newspaper ad may help right-wingers in their campaign against Israel’s making any concessions regarding Jerusalem.
“Palestinians should be concerned not to harm archaeological assets no less then Jews, ” Yehoshua told JTA. “I followed my conscience. In my view, sovereignty in the Old City of Jerusalem should be multireligious, and the Palestinians should have their share. But one cannot always justify the Arabs.”
Not all archaeologists agree that the digging has caused damage.
Veteran archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov, a leading expert on digs around the Temple Mount, downplayed the importance of the artifacts that were removed from the site.
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert is firmly on the other side of the debate. According to Olmert, a supply line of construction material should be cut off at the Lion’s Gate, the eastern entrance point to the Old City. This, he reasons, would spare the need to enter the Temple Mount itself to put an end to the work.
“No one suggests that we storm into the Temple Mount compound with bayonets,” said Olmert, but “cautious, intelligent” action should be taken “in order for us to regain control of the Temple Mount.”
For his part, Barak is in a bind. When the fate of a U.S.-hosted peace summit aimed at reaching a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is touch and go, a potential flare-up over Jerusalem is about the last thing he needs.
Following high-level consultations last week, Barak gave Muslim officials approval to continue with tiling work on the Mount, as long as no archaeological damage is done.
The prime minister rejected a recommendation by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein and the Israel Antiquities Authority to halt or limit the work.
He also vetoed Olmert’s recommendation to prevent the entry of heavy machinery, trucks and tractors to the Temple Mount.
Just the same, Barak directed Israeli officials to maintain “reasonable supervision” of the traffic entering and leaving the compound.
“We will do everything to maintain the status quo, but not to change it not in our favor and not in anyone else’s favor,” said Danny Yatom, Barak’s senior security advisor.
The “status quo” principle won unexpected support last week, when Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron sent letters to Muslim and Christian clergymen, stating for the first time by Israel’s highest rabbinical authority that the status quo on Temple Mount should be preserved, because any change “could desecrate the sanctity of the site and lead to bloodshed.”
The letters infuriated the extreme right.
“Even if you are a chief rabbi,” said Itamar Ben-Gvir, a former activist in the now-banned Kach movement, “you cannot decide that the House of God will be under Palestinian administration. This is definitely crossing a red line. This is a black day.”
Indeed, Barak is also concerned that right-wing extremists, agitated by the Wakf’s construction work may try to break into the site or take other action to protest the damage they claim is being done to sacred Jewish antiquities at the site, where the First and Second Temples stood.
The Arab presence in Jerusalem dates back to 638, when a Muslim army conquered the city.
According to Muslim tradition, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second Khalif of Islam, accompanied by hundreds of Muslims, entered the Temple Mount, where, according to Moslem tradition, the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven.
Omar immediately ordered a major cleanup of the site and erected a huge timber mosque for 3,000 worshipers. This eventually became the Al-Aksa Mosque.
Now, the Islamic authorities are determined not to allow any Israeli intervention.
In his Friday sermon, Sheik Akrameh Sabri, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, said Islamic officials would not ask permission from anyone to carry on with work on the site.
“We have never asked for permits, and we do not intend to do so today,” said the mufti, who is the highest Islamic official in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Sheik Najah Bakirat of the Islamic Movement, a leading Israeli Arab political party, insisted this week that the construction has caused no damage.
“I can assure you that during the construction work we have found no Jewish” artifacts, he said.
He also maintained that there was “no proof” that was the site of the Jewish Temples. “I suggest that the Jews look for the Temple somewhere else,” he said.