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Preserve the Temple Mount

January 23, 2001
from the Jerusalem Post

According to the red lines Prime Minister Ehud Barak dispatched with his negotiators to Taba, Israel will not "transfer sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians." In the meantime, the Barak government is already failing to exercise Israeli sovereignty on the most basic level: ensuring proper preservation and oversight over the Israel's most important archaeological site.

Yesterday, the police categorically denied independent reports by a watchdog organization and by Israel Radio that digging of a tunnel had begun between two mosques below the surface of the Temple Mount. The Council for the Prevention of Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, which includes authors A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, and noted archaeologists, argues that such police reports have already proven not to be credible, such as when the police reversed previous denials regarding a ditch on the platform supporting the Dome of the Rock.

Though Barak reportedly ordered police to stop work on the 40-meter long by 70-centimeter deep ditch, this is far from sufficient comfort to all those concerned about the potential for irreversible archaeological damage.

According to Israel Caspi, the organizer of a public letter to Barak on this issue, a triple scandal surrounds Israel's indifference to the Wakf's activities: the destruction of antiquities of great importance to Israel and the world, the blatant disregard for Israel's laws and the recommendations of the attorney-general, and the draconian restrictions on public and press access to the area.

All concerned agree that the major damage occurred in late 1999 when the Wakf - the Islamic authority that continued to oversee the area after Israel took over in 1967 - opened a huge entrance to the a mosque built into the substructure of the Mount. At that time and since, hundreds of tons of material were removed with heavy equipment and without any Israeli archaeological supervision.

According to one of the foremost experts on the Temple Mount, archaeologist Gabi Barkai, large-scale work has continued over the past few months, some authorized by Israel, some not, in areas beyond the initial construction. Most seriously for the future, archaeologists have little idea what is going on, since what little supervision ended last September.

Before September, the Antiquities Authority sent what it called "observers" to the Mount. These visits were not called "inspections" because the archaeologists were not allowed to take pictures, notes, or measurements, nor did they have any authority - as they would elsewhere - to stop work if they judged that archaeological damage was being done.

Since September, even this extremely lax level of supervision is gone since the police have barred all but themselves and Moslem worshipers from going up to the Mount. The police ban has barred tourists, archaeologists, and the press - a blatant violation of the freedoms of access to holy places and of the press.

Though the attorney-general has expressed increasing concern over the government's rampant lack of enforcement of the antiquities and other relevant laws, the Supreme Court has repeatedly established, with respect to sensitive holy places, that the government has wide prerogative to essentially waive the law according to security or diplomatic considerations. But the fact that the government has leeway not to enforce the law does not mean such a policy is wise or acceptable.

Israel is not without recourse with respect to the Wakf's complete disregard for the archaeological treasures partially placed in its trust. The public council attempting to protect the area has made some common sense demands: bar any unauthorized heavy earth-moving equipment from the Temple Mount, institute regular and professional archaeological inspections, end the press blackout, and enforce an orderly process of planning and permits for any new construction.

There is no security excuse allowing a level of destructive anarchy on the Temple Mount that would not be tolerated by the most lowly municipality in Israel. The Wakf, for its part, does not have a leg to stand on, because it is not the freedom of Moslems to worship that is at issue, but the custodianship of a place that is not only treasured by the Jewish people but by the Western world.

The current abdication of responsibility does not even makes sense for those who think that Israel should substantially relinquish sovereignty over the Mount. Those inclined to trample our own interests out of respect for the Wakf's illegitimate bullying should remember what Yasser Arafat says when Israel complains about inflammatory Palestinian textbooks: 'Why didn't you, Israel, change them when you were in charge of educating Palestinians before Oslo?' If Israel does not set a standard for proper custodianship now, its standing to demand such a standard from the Palestinians in the future will be close to nil.



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