JERUSALEM — Another damaged structure on the Temple Mount is raising fears once again that a serious international crisis could be just a burst water pipe away.
Two weeks ago, a section of a wall that is part of the Islamic Museum on the Temple Mount collapsed, leaving a gaping hole of dirt about 120 square feet, located just to the right of the Mugrabi Gate. The hole is visible from the Western Wall plaza.
The collapse is another in a series of instances of structural damage that critics say have resulted from the Israeli government’s decision to yield to the Waqf, the Palestinian Authority-appointed Islamic religious authority that has day-to-day control over the Temple Mount.
In its attempt to avoid an international incident by abrogating its authority on the Temple Mount, they say, Israel is risking a far greater danger by neglecting its duty to supervise unauthorized construction. In the minds of some critics, a major catastrophe that could damage the Islamic holy sites is bound to occur, for which Muslims would blame Israel. The repercussions could be deadly, with riots across the Muslim world, a wave of violence in Europe or even a full-blown Arab-Israeli war.
“We have been warning [about] this very point from the very beginning,” said Eilat Mazar, a spokeswoman for the Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, which has been decrying for years the lack of archaeological management at the site. “We were asking for supervision, professional supervision, as is normal and customary all over the state. You must have supervision.”
Adnan Husseini, director of the Waqf in Jerusalem, was quoted in news accounts saying the wall collapsed “as a result of Israeli interference in our work and preventing us from fixing this wall after we had found that it needed urgent work to prevent it from collapsing.”
But Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman said the Israeli police did not interfere. “In the clearest terms possible, no request was made to the Israel police by anybody in the Waqf regarding restructuring or rebuilding that wall,” Kleiman had said two weeks ago.
The Temple Mount problems began in 1996, when Israeli authorities opened a second entrance to the Western Wall tunnel and the Waqf expelled inspectors from the Antiquities Authority, which by Israeli law is responsible for supervising any construction work carried out at holy sites. A series of projects were then started by the Waqf without the authority’s approval, and although authority officials could sometimes gain access, they were not allowed to photograph or document anything they saw.
The Waqf banned Jews from the Mount following Ariel Sharon’s September 2000 visit, after which Palestinian rioting broke out. Finally this June, non-Muslims were again allowed to visit in organized groups.
Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky said the government was working to strike a deal with the Waqf, under which the Waqf would comply with construction regulations. Sharansky said he will convene his Interministerial Committee on Jerusalem right after the holidays to pursue the issue.
Critics of the Waqf’s construction projects charge that the digging and building is causing irreparable damage to archaeological remains from the First and Second Temple periods in the area known as Solomon’s Stables, where the Waqf built an enormous underground mosque.
Critics say the building is part of a continuing Palestinian campaign to deny a historical Jewish presence in Jerusalem. Just two months ago, in fact, P.A. Mufti Ikrima Sabri told a German publication, “There is not [even] the smallest indication of the existence of a Jewish temple on this lace in the past. In the whole city, there is not even a single stone indicating Jewish history.”
Concerns about archaeological damage have given way to a more immediate fear: The construction, some said, was leading to a weakening of whole areas of the Temple Mount, as well as its supporting outer walls, with many of the parts in danger of collapsing. Water was seen dripping out of a rock in the Western Wall, and there were dark moisture stains and a bulge farther south on the Western Wall, which Antiquities Authority officials said was caused by water seeping from a garden above, creating pressure on the wall. The worst damage occurred at the southern wall of the Temple Mount, where a small bulge eventually widened to more than 100 feet, protruding more than three feet. Here, too, the cause was thought to be excess water pressure.
A year ago a compromise was finally reached between Israeli authorities and the Waqf that would allow engineers from Jordan to fix the problem, but some fear they are not doing enough.
“It is a small Band-Aid on a very large wound,” Mazar of the Antiques Authority said. “The source, the heart, is sick there. The whole irrigation there, the whole system of running water, should be taken care of very professionally, and nothing of the kind is done. It’s just a matter of time when this water will come out and make another bulge in the wall.”
Mazar said that the 36 acres of the Temple Mount platform, and the space below, has endured years of historic decay and damage from earthquakes. Following the devastating earthquake of 1927, Mazar added, nothing was strengthened or preserved in any way except Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was collapsing.
“Everything that was done since [then] related only to the Islamic monuments,” she said. “But the whole platform, a huge ancient platform, was never checked, strengthened, preserved and watched by professionals in order to see that it’s going to hold.”
Sharansky, however, said that the government has done much to stop illegal construction. “The bringing of construction materials was practically stopped, and instruments for cutting the stones was also stopped,” he said. “We can’t say that we are in a situation of full transparency; we can’t say we have full cooperation of the Waqf. But that is definitely our aim.”
Mazar said the collapse two weeks ago is not directly connected to the problems of the southern wall and the water leak in the Western Wall stones, but it is simply another example of the overall destruction that is taking place.
“We are very worried about the whole area of the platform, the area of the Temple Mount, which is built over a very, very large cistern,” she said. “It’s hollow underground, it’s not supervised, and it’s not preserved, and in the current construction, tractors and trucks are crossing the area. So it’s just a matter of time — and it seems soon — that there’s going to be a disaster.”