On a high steel scaffold next to the southern area of the Temple Mount compound’s eastern wall, workers of the Muslim wakf have been working to repair the wall for quite some time. One after another, the stones are removed from the “diseased” area of this wall, which threatened to collapse some years ago, and replaced with new surfacing stones.
The result is an eyesore: a bright spot of relatively new stones, in the eastern wall of the Mount, that stand out from the layers of earlier, darker stone surrounding it. But the aesthetic problem, which may be solved one day, is actually the easy part of the story of the Temple Mount in recent years. This story has many chapters, some that have been told and some that will be. But if the story is to be given a title, it should be “One Transgression Leads to Another.”
Let’s start from the end. Last Sunday, three trucks drove up onto the Temple Mount and discharged their cargo: more surfacing stones for the Mount’s shaky eastern wall. Afterward, the trucks turned toward the piles of debris on the Mount’s eastern section. This is no ordinary debris. Replete with archaeological artifacts, these piles of debris comprise about 3,000 tons of the soil that the Muslims dug up from the Temple Mount about 15 years ago, when they turned the area known as Solomon’s Stables, at the southeast corner of the Temple Mount, into the underground Al-Marwani mosque.
But these 3,000 tons are only a quarter of the amount. Another 9,000 tons of debris were dug up in the same place. In Nov. 1999, this enormous quantity of debris, filled with archaeological artifacts, was removed by trucks in the middle of the night and thrown, like ordinary rubbish, into illegal trash dumps.
Last week, in violation of a High Court injunction, the wakf began removing what was left of the debris on the Temple Mount (the remaining 3,000 tons). A special ministerial committee and later the police gave the wakf permission to remove trash and tree prunings only, but the Muslims loaded the trucks with some of the debris as well. An archaeologist by the name of Tzachi Dvira saw what was going on.
Dvira knows this debris very well. For eight years he, together with Dr. Gabriel Barkay and thousands of volunteers from Israel and around the world have participated in the Temple Mount Sifting Project, which has been working through the debris since it was removed from the Mount in 1999. Over the years, the project, which is located in Emek Tzurim northeast of Jerusalem’s Old City, has uncovered archaeological artifacts from all periods, including the First and Second Temple eras. Dvira feared that what had happened in 1999 was about to happen again, so he wrote and published a report. The work was stopped, and the argument began.
In 1999, Amir Drori, who was then the director-general of the Israel Antiquities Authority, called the brutal removal of the large amounts of debris an “archaeological crime.” Elyakim Rubinstein, then the attorney-general, described it as a swift kick to the history of the Jewish people. Later on, when Dvira and Barkay began sifting through the debris that had been removed from the Temple Mount, the scope of the “archaeological crime” became clear.
In the sifting project, tens of thousands of tiny archaeological artifacts from a variety of periods have been uncovered, including thousands of findings from the First and Second Temple eras: seal rings that belonged to priests from the First Temple era; colorful floor tiles from the plaza that surrounded the Temple during the Second Temple era; horseshoe nails; silver coins; and various kinds of pottery.
Had the archaeologists been allowed to keep track of the findings when they were removed from the ground and examine, in real time, the soil from which they came, the study of the history of Jerusalem, and of the Temple Mount, would have benefited. The Temple Mount compound, which has never been excavated, would have told us for the first time at least some of its story, not on the basis of historical writings, but from scientifically-studied archaeological artifacts.
But the debris was torn out violently with heavy equipment in violation of all the rules of research, and scattered in trash dumps outside the Temple Mount. Large artifacts were taken by the wakf and scattered throughout the Mount. Some of them were later sawn with an industrial saw that the Muslims placed near the eastern wall.
Danger and anarchy
As stated, about a quarter of the material — approximately 3,000 tons — remains on the Temple Mount. The wakf wanted to remove it. The Temple Mount Antiquities Rescue Committee, of which Barkay and Dvira are members, together with prominent personalities such as former Supreme Court Chief Justice Meir Shamgar, poet Haim Gouri and writer A.B. Yehoshua — submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice. The court, which is usually reluctant to intervene in matters concerning the Temple Mount, took the unprecedented measure of issuing an injunction the very same day forbidding the removal of the remaining piles of debris.
In Feb. 2005, an agreement that had the force of a court ruling was reached between the state and the committee. The state promised that the remaining debris would not be removed from the Temple Mount, and that if there was any intention of removing it, the committee would be notified a month in advance. Last Sunday, that agreement was broken. Once again, somebody fell asleep on watch.
A look at the area (I was there last Monday) shows clearly that trash was not the only thing removed from the Temple Mount. The vegetation, fed by rainwater, that has grown on one of the piles for years had a chunk taken out of it by the bulldozer. It appears very likely that the debris removed from the Mount contained many archaeological artifacts such as those that have been discovered in the sifting project since 1999. A random glance at the edges of the pile confirms this guess, since it took no more than a few seconds to spot pottery and fragments of ancient artifacts.
The events of this week have their roots in the middle of Ehud Barak’s brief term as prime minister. Under the false pretense of constructing an emergency exit for Al-Aqsa mosque, the Islamic Movement in Israel and the wakf deceived the Israeli authorities and turned the underground space known as Solomon’s Stables into the third mosque on the Temple Mount, and the largest one in Israel.
A few years later it became clear that the construction work in Solomon’s Stables had caused more than archaeological damage. It had affected the stability of two of the walls of the compound. The southern wall was the first to become unstable, followed by the eastern wall, whose inner side serves as the eastern wall of the underground area of Solomon’s Stables. In March 2004, the eastern wall of the Temple Mount began to bulge severely. Archaeologists and engineers from the Antiquities Authority stated unequivocally, “The eastern wall of the Temple Mount compound is in imminent danger of collapse.”
The cause of the danger was clear to the Antiquities Authority professionals: the construction work done by the wakf and the Islamic Movement, the passage of heavy equipment on the roof of Solomon’s Stables, the pouring of concrete slabs and the paving of the plaza in the area of the Stables. The paving diverted rainwater, which until then had drained into the soil, to the outer wall of the compound, damaging the wall.
The police contacted the wakf, which refused to cooperate for months. Only when they were threatened that the underground mosque would be closed for fear of collapse was an all-embracing agreement reached, according to which Jordan and Egypt would participate in the repair work. Support anchors were inserted into the eastern wall between the rows of arches that bore the weight of the underground structure of Solomon’s Stables. The trucks that brought in the surfacing stones for the repair work last week were the same ones that removed the trash mixed with the debris whose removal was forbidden.
At first, the police and the Antiquities Authority presented a united front, denying that the debris had been removed from the Temple Mount. The police stuck to their story this week too, saying that it “absolutely rejected the claims” and that “everything that was done on the Temple Mount was done under the close supervision of the Antiquities Authority and the Jerusalem police, according to the High Court’s ruling. As shown in the photographs that were taken by the police, only trash and waste were removed.”
According to the police, the goal of these assertions is to “stir up emotions and to create a provocation.” While Antiquities Authority officials admit off the record that debris was also removed, they minimize its value. Police officials describe these statements as “eye-rollers.” They ask: Why wasn’t the work stopped? Archaeologists claim that if the Antiquities Authority had not stood up to the police, the removal of the debris would have continued, and it was the Antiquities Authority that stopped it.
The police say that these claims are groundless. The Temple Mount Antiquities Rescue Committee can only watch from the sidelines, almost in despair, as events unfold and the unofficial exchange of accusations goes on. Dr. Eilat Mazar says without hesitation that this is anarchy. “There’s no problem in removing the debris from the Mount as long as it is sifted there according to all the rules.” Mazar claims that the Muslims deliberately mixed trash into the piles of debris so that they would be able to ask permission to remove the trash — and the debris along with it.
Dr. Shmuel Berkowitz, an attorney who asked for an urgent meeting this week between the committee and the prime minister, said that when he probed the matter, he found contradictory statements. “According to Antiquities Authority officials, the work, as it was done, was not done with its permission. According to the police, everything was done in coordination with the Antiquities Authority and by its permission. As far as we of the committee are concerned, it is obvious that the compromise agreement, which had the force of a court ruling, was held in contempt. It is obvious that debris, and not only waste, was removed, and it’s clear that artifacts were damaged, since these are the same piles that were partially sifted, and in which valuable artifacts were found.”
With tied hands
The chairman of the State Control Committee, MK Uri Ariel, believes that the government’s behavior regarding the Temple Mount should be much more transparent than it is. He regrets the decision of his predecessors, the former chairmen of the State Control Committee, to grant the prime minister’s request not to release the state comptroller’s report. As is well known, the report revealed many failures of the government authorities over the years when it came to supervision and enforcement of the laws concerning antiquities, planning and construction on the Temple Mount.
Ariel believes that was a mistake. “If this report had been published and there had been transparency, there would have been fewer mistakes like the one from last week,” he said. Ariel, who saw the report, says that the General Security Service would not object to its publication. “Somebody here took security’s name in vain,” he said. The report contains nothing secret, and letting it see the light of day would only improve the authorities’ performance on the Temple Mount.” This past week, Ariel contacted the speaker of the Knesset, asking to be permitted to hold a meeting of the Knesset’s Subcommittee for Security, External Affairs and International Trade of the State Control Committee. Before the elections, he wishes to change the decisions of his predecessors, Otniel Schneller and Ronnie Bar-On, not to release the report.
Schneller, a former member of Kadima, is not running for the Knesset. He intends to support the Likud and does not regret his decision not to publish the report. Like Uri Ariel, he has been visiting the Temple Mount on his own for years. He prays silently, “like Hannah [of 1 Samuel], whose lips moved and whose voice was inaudible,” he says, “so as not to cause a provocation.”
He believes that publishing the report would damage Israel’s ability to control the Mount and manage the situation there. He says that dealing with the Temple Mount is comparable to brain or open-heart surgery. “As a surgeon, you’ll work a hundred hours with the tiniest tweezers so as not to harm vital areas of the body. It’s the same for the Temple Mount, which is the heart and the brain.
“We all want to save the Temple Mount, but we’ll succeed only by doing slow, specific and frustrating work. If we don’t, we’ll lose the little we have left there. It’s important to me to keep an Israeli presence that gets steadily deeper on the Mount. If we make headlines now, we’ll force the government, which has good will toward the Mount, to act in opposite directions.”
Both Ariel and Schneller, who know the situation on the Temple Mount from up close, represent two perspectives. But on the ground, reality has a power of its own. The police are the ones who shape Israeli policy on the Temple Mount. As representatives of the Antiquities Authority have admitted any number of times, the Authority is dependent on the police and its decisions.
Over the past several years, the archaeologists of the Antiquities Authority have felt that their hands were tied. If they had their way, the Antiquities Law would be enforced much more firmly and decisively on the Mount. But the police, the attorney-general’s office and the Prime Minister’s Office soften and sometimes abrogate the Antiquities Authority’s powers on the Mount.
Last Monday, I went to the Temple Mount in the wake of the report by Dvira, whom the police consider a “professional troublemaker,” but actually works in his own way to preserve antiquities there. On the northern section of the Mount, inside a locked shed, are dozens of plastic bags piled on one another, filled with pottery shards and ancient ceramic tiles.
In a photograph that documented the shed before it was locked, an almost-intact jug, possibly from the Second Temple era, peeked out from one of the bags. The ancient wooden beams from the roof of Al-Aqsa mosque, some of which have been dated to the First and Second Temple eras, still lie inside the Golden Gate area, covered in fabric and shaded, but still exposed to the elements.
In the grove on the eastern part of the Temple Mount are many items, many of them made of marble, that come from ancient buildings from the early Arab period, architectonic items from Byzantine churches, and black limestone floor tiles that Dvira says come from the plaza that surrounded the Second Temple. From time to time, bulldozers move those piles, crushing valuable objects, such as an inscription in early Arabic from the Fatimid period. Archaeological damage does not discriminate between Jewish, Muslim and Christian artifacts. Also, astonishingly, some of the surfacing stones brought in to repair the eastern wall are ancient, sometimes decorated stones used in ancient buildings. Officials of the Antiquities Authority know this situation very well, but they do not operate on the Temple Mount as they do at other archaeological sites.
A long line of tourists stretches in front of the temporary bridge to Mugrabi Gate. The tourists quickly enter the Mount.
Jews, particularly those who appear to be observant, are inspected extremely thoroughly and accompanied by police officers and wakf officials to make sure they do not violate the prohibition against praying there. Arab families spread out blankets in the olive grove on the Mount’s northern portion and picnic. Children play soccer in the space between Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. One hour has been set aside for visiting. At 1:30 p.m., the Mount is closed to non-Muslims once again.
The Temple Mount. The last few days of 2012. A sad sight.