JERUSALEM, Feb. 12 (JTA) Israel’s elections and the suspension of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have created the impression that the controversy over control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount has been deferred.
On the ground, however, the controversy surrounding the site deepens every day.
Beyond the larger question of sovereignty over the site which the two sides began to address during last July’s Camp David summit at issue is a long-simmering dispute over whether Israel should prevent construction work being carried out by the Wakf, or Islamic religious trust, whose Palestinian Authority-appointed officials have day-to-day control over the site.
Many Israelis fear that the work being carried out on the Mount, which the Wakf has prevented Israel from supervising, is causing irreparable damage to archaeological remains from the First and Second Temple periods.
If Israel attempts to interfere, however, the repercussions among an already-inflamed Palestinian populace could be explosive.
The site, the holiest in the Jewish religion, is one of the holiest sites in Islam as well.
Israeli archaeologists last month called for greater supervision of Wakf excavations. Their call followed reports that bulldozers had dug a deep ditch near the Dome of the Rock, causing damage to a floor dating from the Second Temple period.
The archaeologists charge that during extensive construction work over the past two years, thousands of tons of gravel which could contain important relics have been removed from the Mount. The Wakf has unceremoniously dumped much of the gravel in a trash heap.
Experts contend that those artifacts not utterly destroyed by their handling have been rendered archaeologically useless when the earth on the site is scooped up by a bulldozer, mixing finds from diverse periods.
The archaeologists’ charges have prompted several prominent Israelis, among them leftist writers like A.B. Yehoshua and Yizhar Smilansky, to urge the government to take steps to stop the Wakf-supervised work.
The public campaign is being orchestrated by the Committee for the Prevention of Damage to Antiquities on the Temple Mount, a coalition of archaeologists and public figures, as well as activists who question whether Muslims should have control of the Temple Mount.
For its part, the Wakf has done little to defuse the controversy. Though it always has refused to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the site, for years the Wakf maintained an informal cooperation with Israeli inspectors when conducting work on the Temple Mount.
But tensions mounted after the 1993 Oslo accords as the Palestinian Authority wrested control of the Wakf from Jordan. The Palestinian Authority abruptly cut off all cooperation with Israel after 1996 riots following Israel’s opening of a new exit from an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Since then, the Wakf has refused to allow Israeli inspectors to monitor its work, and often disseminates misleading information about the work’s scope. Neither archaeologists nor journalists have been allowed to inspect the site.
As a result, the Israeli critics have based their case on archaeological findings among the discarded rubble, and from aerial photos.
Extensive work on a site adjacent to the Al-Aksa Mosque is one of the most controversial projects.
This project carried out by Israeli Arab volunteers recruited by the fundamentalist Islamic Movement focuses on renovating a site known as Solomon’s Stables. Despite its name, the underground area dates to the Crusader era in the 11th century.
The site has been turned into a new mosque, large enough to host thousands of worshipers.
According to the Israeli archaeologists, the construction work created an underground opening that runs some 40 feet deep and stretches over 2,400 square yards.
The Israeli campaign to block construction dates back to November 1999, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak gave the Wakf a green light to open an “emergency exit” to Solomon’s Stables.
Shortly after the authorization was given, three bulldozers began massive digging work which, according to archaeologists, was much more extensive than required for an exit.
“The trucks evacuated the rubble as if it was worthless,” said Eilat Mazar, a committee activist and a lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“The earth is rich with archaeological findings from all eras, beginning with the First and Second Temples, through the Roman, Crusader and Muslim eras.”
Referring to Barak’s 1999 approval, Mazar said, “The permit was given by the premier as a gesture of good will. But there is no proportion between the small area that was approved for work and the actual pavement works conducted.”
The Wakf had “no real need to carry out the work, except for the need to continue their takeover of the site,” Mazar charged.
Gabi Barkai, a lecturer with Hebrew University’s archaeology department and a winner of the Jerusalem Prize for archaeology, found clay in the rubble dating back to the Temple periods.
The construction has created “irreversible and serious damage to the most important archaeological site of the Jewish people,” Barkai said. “This is an unprecedented destruction.”
Writer Smilansky said, “Morally speaking, one cannot stand aside when one ruins antiquities.”
He described the construction work at the site as “barbaric.”
Yet the government, well aware of the sensitivity of the issue, has held its fire.
Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said last month that only approved work was being done at the site.
Jerusalem police officials have played down the significance of the Wakf’s excavation work.
According to the officials, no work is currently being done at the site, and all previous works have received the necessary permits “from the political echelons.”
Mazar, however, charges that the police are “trying to hide from the public” what’s happening on the Temple Mount.
“There is no other explanation but that it is subject to pressure by the minister for internal security and the government, for political reasons,” Mazar said.
The Wakf, meanwhile, maintains that it has no need for Israeli approval of its activities because it has sole control over the site.
“No one can justify the policies” of Israel “and ignore 1,400 years of continuous Arab Muslim-Christian rule,” Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of the Passia research institute in eastern Jerusalem, wrote recently.
Some Islamic and Palestinian leaders contend that Jews have no historic ties whatsoever to the Temple Mount.
“The Zionist movement has invented that this was the site of Solomon’s Temple,” said Sheik Raed Salah, a leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, a driving force behind the construction. “But this is all a lie.”