Holy city fighting battle of the bulge

Control: Israelis and Palestinians blame each other for a failing wall at Jerusalem's most disputed religious site.

February 12, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - In almost any other city, it would be just a wall with a bulge. Almost anywhere else, the wall would be repaired without people taking notice.

This wall, however, is part of Jerusalem's most disputed religious site, may be in danger of collapse and has sparked another argument between Palestinians and Israelis. A bulge 35 feet long has appeared in the southern retaining wall built 2,000 years ago during the reign of King Herod at the base of the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The wall adjoins the Western Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism.

Islamic authorities say the bulge was caused by Israeli excavations at the base of the wall. Israeli authorities blame the problem on Islamic officials constructing an enormous underground mosque.

"The wall is in a very dangerous state," said Eilat Mazar, a Hebrew University professor of archaeology who heads a group concerned about the destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount. "One good rain and it could collapse. And if it does, it will set the stage for our next crisis."

The dispute is about more than a wall. It touches on many of the issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including questions of sovereignty and spiritual pre-eminence. Each side says the other is twisting concern about the bulge to assert tighter control over religious sites.

The situation is complicated by Israel's ban on visits by non-Muslims to the Temple Mount, to prevent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis. The ban has eliminated any independent oversight of what Muslim workers are doing as they clear an underground chamber for the new mosque.

Mazar has scoured dumps and commissioned aerial photographs, to find evidence that Islamic authorities are violating building regulations and carting artifacts away in dump trucks with no regard for the objects' historical value.

She also says that something more sinister is taking place. Mazar contends that Islamic authorities are using the work to erase archaeological proof of an ancient Jewish presence there, to compromise Israeli claims to the site.

"They are trying to convert the Mount into a mosque for Muslims only," Mazar said. "They could care less about archaeology. They could care less about history. They are making a provocative claim."

Sheik Adnan Husseini, director of the Waqf, the Islamic trust that oversees Muslim shrines, says workers are merely restoring a long-abandoned 16th-century mosque to make room for thousands of additional worshippers.

He, too, sees an ulterior motive behind the dispute over the bulge.

"The Israelis want political gains to change the status quo" of the Temple Mount, Husseini said. "We forbid the intervention of any party in our affairs. We have our archaeological specialists, and we will not accept Israeli interference. We do not recognize Israeli law in this city."

The underground area is called Solomon's Stables, though it has nothing to do with the Old Testament's King Solomon. The stables are a series of vaulted chambers 70 feet below the plateau of the Temple Mount and extend nearly the length of a football field. Archaeologists believe Crusaders used the structure to stable their warhorses and later turned it into a church.

Muslims refer to the area as the Marwani mosque, and say that their work is aimed not at constructing anything new but merely at clearing centuries of accumulated debris. The chambers could then accommodate the overflow of worshippers from Al Aqsa, the black-domed mosque near the gold-sheathed Dome of the Rock.

The Waqf is cleaning giant underground cisterns there and plans to fill them with holy water from Mecca. To Husseini, it is an enhancement of the religious site. To Mazar, it will make the site a destination for Muslim pilgrims and compromise access by Jews.

"A very dangerous plan," she said.

Israel won control of the Temple Mount in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The plateau was the site of Judaism's Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. In the 7th century, Muslims built the Dome of the Rock over the boulder where Islamic tradition says the prophet Mohammed started his ascension to heaven.

Any physical changes, even talk of change, can spark unrest. In 1996, Israel opened a tunnel running the length of the Western Wall to tourists, touching off riots that led to the deaths of at least 50 Palestinians and 14 Israelis. In September 2000, Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount helped ignite days of protests that marked the beginning of the Palestinian uprising.

Because of the potential for violence, Israeli authorities have been reluctant to support Mazar. The Hebrew University professor's complaints about the construction work have been largely ignored by Israel's Antiquities Authority. Last month, though, Jerusalem police issued an order temporarily prohibiting work in Solomon's Stables.

Husseini complains that the recent stop-work order is preventing repairs to the wall, but denies that the wall is in danger of toppling.

"If the Israelis are afraid of it collapsing, they wouldn't close the doors to our restoration attempts," he said.

The bulge, Husseini says, was caused by archaeological digs by Israelis at the base of the wall, work that he insists has undermined the structure. He alleges that it is a deliberate attempt by Israel to topple the wall and damage the mosques above.

Israeli officials say their work, intended to salvage artifacts, does not threaten the wall.

The dispute is about control, both sides agree, but Husseini goes further.

"There is a siege on our mosques, just as there is a siege on Jerusalem," he said. "And the Israelis want to constantly remind us of that."

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