Jerusalem — On Sunday morning Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it was on. Sometime overnight into Monday, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski put it on hold. Tuesday, the Antiquities Authority said it was off. And then, the Housing Ministry insisted it was back on.
The construction of a bridge from the Western Wall Plaza to the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem and the start of a companion archeological dig left the government in a state of confusion as tensions smoldered in the contested Old City.
Suddenly, on the eve of the first Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in six years, the week of Muslim rioting, demonstration and calumny stirred up an unsettling déjà vu of the scenes from the September 2000 first days of the Al Aksa Intifada.
Charges that the construction was part of a plot to destroy the 1,400-year-old mosque turned the political battle over sovereignty in Jerusalem into a religious feud.
Palestinian, Israeli Arab, and Muslim religious authorities did their best to drop broad hints of a new uprising. A prominent Muslim leader in Jerusalem predicted that that the construction project could unite Palestinians after months of internecine battles.
The Al Aksa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, “united all factions, and unites worshippers and non-worshippers,” said Sheik Kramer Sabri, the head of Jerusalem’s Islamic council and a former Mufti of Jerusalem. “When an uprising starts nobody is consulted. The continuous Israeli pressure on the people will result in an explosion.”
Sheik Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch Israel’s Islamic Movement, described the construction as a “crime” and called on Israel’s Arab citizens to “energize” in protest.
On the Israeli side the bridge became existential, even metaphysical. “This is our land and our sovereignty,” Olmert said. “They cannot be allowed to tell us what to do in the Western Wall Plaza.”
A former Shin Bet official described the dispute over the bridge as a fight for the heart of the Jewish people. The relics to be found at the archeological dig had become a part of Israel’s national security: “Those that can’t protect the treasures of their past can’t be considered a nation here.”
Ironically, it was Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox mayor who stepped in to stave off the escalation by calling a public hearing “due to the sensitivity of the plan.” Lupolianski, the former deputy mayor under Olmert, consulted with Palestinian mukhtars. He told reporters he hoped the renovation project could serve as a bridge between Muslims and Jews. “We wanted to show there’s no conspiracy,” he said.
The debate in Israel underlined ambivalence about whether to forcefully assert sovereignty in Jerusalem regardless of the threats, or to acknowledge Muslim sensitivities surrounding the construction and lower the flame of conflict.
“They’re seems to be a tension between showing whose boss and not backing down, and a recognition by other groups that they rushed into something without considering the consequences,” said Gershom Gorenberg, who has written a book about the Temple Mount.
While Israel has been on the defensive to assert its sovereignty it has also sought to behave as enlightened rulers sensitive to the beliefs of all concerned.
At the Temple Mount entrance inside the Lion’s Gate, there was a tense calm one afternoon this week. In one corner was a small pile of rocks that demonstrators had used against police who used stun grenades to push them back. Motioning up to a nearby rooftop, a policeman in a bulletproof vest shooed a group of young children back from the edge. A detachment of border police walked by with weapons at the ready.
“They put all of their soldiers in the Old City,” said Mohamad Jalal, 21, as he watched. “These are special reservists from the checkpoints. On the weekend they bring the dangerous ones.”
The area around the Temple Mount — the site called “the Noble Sanctuary” by Muslims who believe Mohammed rose to heaven on that spot — has always been a tinderbox. In the past, even the slightest appearance of an Israeli attempt to widen its control in the Old City has been enough to sparked widespread violence.
Four years before Ariel Sharon gave Palestinians the excuse of his famous Temple Mount stroll to embark on their latest uprising, an entrance to a tourist tunnel opened up by government of Benjamin Netanyahu (together with then-Mayor Ehud Olmert) sparked the clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian policemen after the Oslo accords. A dispute over claims to the Western Wall prayer area in 1929 touched off Arab rioting and terrorism that continued on and off up to World War II.
The Muslim suspicion is fueled by worry over a plan to build a third Holy Temple in place of the mosques — a demand made by fringe groups on the right in Israel. The archaeological dig is also a threat to the Palestinians’ historical narrative, explained Yousyf Natscheh, the archeologist of Jerusalem’s Islamic Waqf.
“Its more than just an excavation. Excavation in Jerusalem is colored by politics,” he said. “It a justification of the people of the Israeli state. They have their past, present and future as the only people in this country.”
But Ha’aretz columnist Nadav Shragai said that the findings of the digs disprove Muslim attempts to delegitimize Jewish history in Jerusalem.
“Muslim religious figures attempt to portray the Jewish presence in Jerusalem as having been short-term,” he wrote. “Muslims fear these excavations, not because they physically endanger Al-Aksa’s foundations, but because they undermine the tissue of lies proclaiming that the Jews have no valid historical roots in the city and its holy sites.”
Meanwhile, the lack of clarity by the government stirred ridicule by the Israeli right.
“It looks terrible — all the hesitation and stammering. You need to know how to stand up for what is right,” said former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
Dedi Zucker, a former parliament member from the left-wing Meretz party, expressed concern that the Temple Mount dispute turns the conflict into a religious one.
“I wish we could extract the Israel Arab conflict from the religious context,” he said. “It’s probably too late.”