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Israel 'playing with fire' with Western Wall construction

Benjamin Netanyahu's government will press ahead with construction at the Western Wall, despite the threat of a third Palestinian intifada.

Excavation at Mughrabi Gate is seen by many as a pretext to find Jewish antiquities to give credence to Israel's claims on the site.
Excavation at Mughrabi Gate is seen by many as a pretext to find Jewish antiquities to give credence to Israel's claims on the site.

JERUSALEM // The Israeli government has indicated that it will press ahead with a plan to enlarge the Jewish prayer plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, despite warnings that the move risks triggering a third intifada.

Israeli officials rejected this week a Jerusalem court's proposal to shelve the plan after the judge accepted that the plaza's expansion would violate the "status quo" arrangement covering the Old City's holy places. Islamic authorities agreed to the arrangement after Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967. The site eyed by Israeli officials is located at the Mughrabi Gate, an entrance to the mosque compound known as the Haram al Sharif, the most sensitive site in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Inside are Al Aqsa Mosque and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock.

Earlier encroachments by Israel on Islamic authority at the site have triggered clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians. A heavily armed visit to the compound by Ariel Sharon in 2000, shortly before he became prime minister, to declare Israeli rights there sparked the second intifada. In recent weeks, analysts have grown increasingly concerned that a third intifada is imminent as Benjamin Netanyahu's government has advanced settlement building in East Jerusalem and declared several places deep in the occupied West Bank as Jewish heritage sites.

Another assault on Muslim control so close to Al Aqsa Mosque risked "pouring fuel on the fire", said Hanna Sweid, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament who filed the original planning objections to the Israeli scheme. According to evidence presented to the Jerusalem court, Israeli officials used minor storm damage to a stone ramp leading to the Mughrabi Gate as a pretext to tear it down six years ago. The intention is to replace the ramp with a permanent metal bridge and then extend the Jewish prayer plaza into the area where the ramp was.

The scheme is the brainchild of Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi in charge of the Western Wall, who declared the damage to the ramp in 2004 a "miracle" that had offered Israel the chance to take control of more land from Islamic authorities in the Old City. The rabbi's plan was approved in late 2007 by a special ministerial committee headed by Ehud Olmert, then the prime minister. The project has also won backing from Mr Netanyahu, though he froze construction work in July under orders from the Jerusalem court.

The judge, Moussia Arad, proposed in January that the ramp be reinstated, or at the very least that the bridge follow the exact route of the ramp, and that all prayer at the site be banned. That position won the backing of United Nations officials monitoring Israel's work at the Mughrabi Gate. The Jordanian, Turkish and Palestinian Islamic authorities have all expressed deep concern at Israeli excavations at the Mughrabi Gate that are seen as a prelude to the plaza's expansion.

Observers had hoped that, faced with the danger of another row with the United States so soon after the diplomatic crisis sparked by Israeli settlement building in East Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu might agree to the court's compromise. They have been proved wrong. "Netanyahu has a history of trampling on Palestinian rights in the Old City," Mr Sweid said. "There is every reason to be worried about what he plans to get up to this time."

In 1996, during his previous stint as prime minister, Mr Netanyahu opened the Western Wall tunnel, another excavation close to the mosque compound, resulting in clashes in which 75 Palestinians and 15 Israeli soldiers were killed. Israel, which says the mosques sit on the ruins of two ancient Jewish temples, built by Solomon and Herod, refers to the site as Temple Mount and has staked a claim to a degree of sovereignty over the area in recent peace negotiations.

Last week, in a sign of the explosive consequences of tampering with the status quo concerning Jerusalem's holy places, riots broke out in a "day of rage" in East Jerusalem following Israel's announcement that it had rebuilt an old synagogue, the Hurva, close to the mosques. "The Haram al Sharif is a site of unrivalled Muslim sensitivity and the Israeli government is playing with fire here," said Mohammed Masalha, a lecturer who heads a coalition of Islamic groups inside Israel that brought the court case.

In evidence presented to the court, Meir Ben Dov, an Israeli archaeologist and the excavations director at the Western Wall for nearly four decades, produced photographic evidence showing that the storm had caused only a minor landslide. "I was asked by the government to inspect the damage two days after it occurred and I found maybe a dozen stones had been dislodged," he said. "The ramp could have been repaired in less than a week but instead they decided to demolish it."

Judge Arad, Mr Ben Dov said, had been "shocked" when she saw the photographs. Mr Ben Dov said his recommendation that the walkway be repaired for US$14,000 (Dh51,400) was ignored by Israeli officials, including the then-tourism minister, Benny Elon, a settler rabbi who heads a far-right party. Instead the government tore down the ramp and built a temporary wooden bridge to the Mughrabi Gate while excavations were carried out in the area exposed by the ramp's destruction.

The Jerusalem comptroller, Shulamit Rubin, the city's watchdog official, criticised the excavations at the time, saying they were illegal because the necessary authorisations had not been sought. The secretive nature of the excavations was widely assumed by Islamic groups to be evidence of an Israeli intention to search for parts of the destroyed temples. With such evidence, Israel would have a stronger claim to extend its control.

The unscientific approach to the excavations was highlighted in early 2007 when it emerged that three years earlier Israeli archaeologists had unearthed at the site a Muslim prayer room from the time of the Saladin, dating to the 11th century, but had kept the discovery quiet. In February 2007, when Israel brought heavy machinery to the Mughrabi Gate excavations, hundreds of Palestinians clashed with police while the Islamic Movements within Israel staged large demonstrations. Islamic Jihad said it had fired two Qassam rockets from Gaza in response, and Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade threatened to carry out attacks if the work was not halted.

Islamic authorities also expressed fears that the compound of mosques might be damaged by the bulldozers, and that the heavy machinery might also destroy the as-yet-undiscovered Al Buraq mosque, believed to be located close to the Mughrabi Gate and marking the site where the Prophet Mohammed tethered his horse on his Night Journey between Mecca and Jerusalem. To calm the situation, Israel allowed Turkish experts to examine the excavations a short time later. They reported that Israel was trying to sideline Jerusalem's Islamic history so that its Jewish aspects could be emphasised.

Israel had another reason for pushing ahead with the illegal excavations, said Kais Nasser, the lawyer representing the Islamic groups. "They needed to unearth something, anything, that could be claimed as an antiquity to nullify Muslim demands for the ramp to be reinstated. Rebuilding the ramp would then be impossible because it would risk damaging an archaeological site." Mr Nasser said Israel hopes that if it can present the bridge as the only feasible option, then there will be no obstacles to expanding the prayer plaza.

Mr Ben Dov said he shared such suspicions about Israel's activities at the site, adding that the goal of Israeli officials seemed to be to gain control over the whole 480-metre length of the Western Wall. He and other observers have said this is just one more example of a long-standing policy to gradually encroach on Muslim control of the mosque compound. Among the most significant has been the creation of the City of David, an Israeli archaeological park, directly south of Al Aqsa Mosque in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. The site is run by Elad, an extremist settler group, that has taken over neighbouring Palestinian homes and, along with the Jerusalem municipality and government officials, is pushing for dozens more to be demolished. It eventually wants to link up the park with the Temple Mount.

Jewish settlers have also been concentrating their efforts on taking over Palestinian homes in the Muslim quarter, close to the Haram al Sharif, and have been supported by right-wing politicians, including in the past by Mr Netanyahu. One settler organisation, Ateret Cohanim, has been especially active, and is known to be excavating under Palestinian homes around the compound in the hope of discovering traces of the temples.

"What we see here is an unholy alliance of government ministers, Jerusalem municipality officials and settler organisations trying to revive a supposed golden era of Jewish sovereignty from thousands of years ago," Mr Sweid said. In addition, he said, Israel believed that a more significant Israeli presence close to the mosques would strengthen its hand in any final peace talks over the division of Jerusalem with the Palestinians, with Israel able to stake a bigger claim to sovereignty over the site.

At the Camp David talks in 2000, Bill Clinton, then US president, proposed dividing sovereignty so that Israel would have control over both the "subterranean spaces" of the mosque compound and the Western Wall. During the talks Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister of the day, alarmed observers by calling the whole compound the Jewish "holy of holies", a term previously used in referring only to the inner sanctum of the destroyed temples.

There are additional fears among Palestinians, and the wider Muslim world, of darker plots being hatched by even more extreme groups. Although Jewish religious purity laws have traditionally forbidden Jews from entering the Temple Mount, a growing number of rabbis are demanding that Jews be allowed to pray in the compound. Even more fanatical groups are known to favour blowing up the mosques and building a third temple in their place.

The recent rebuilding of the Hurva synagogue has added to such concerns. The Israeli media reported that, according to a 300-year-old rabbinical prophecy, the synagogue's rebuilding would herald the construction of the third temple. @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae