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Trouble beneath the surface

reposted from Israel Hayom
April 24, 2015

Not only is the Temple Mount the subject of a war over its physical control, it is also a political football in a long­running propaganda game.

by Nadav Shragai

In the same week Hamas flags were unfurled on the Temple Mount and the Al­Aqsa mosque paid homage to the terrorist Abdel Aziz alRantisi, a Holocaust denier, one of the first and most prominent Jewish researchers to extensively study the holy places passed away in Jerusalem ­­ Professor Asher Kaufman.

In the 1970s and 80s, Kaufman felt quite at home on the Temple Mount. He could be seen walking around the complex in his trademark casquette cap, armed with a small notepad and pencil, painstakingly chronicling every agonizing detail about the harm being done to antiquities at the site. As inconceivable as it may sound today, waqf officials (the Jordanian authority with day­to­day control of the site) harbored great respect for Kaufman. From time to time, they would invite him into their offices for conversations about research matters and archaeology.

A native of Scotland, Kaufman was a biophysicist by trade. As a devout Jew educated in the ways of English politesse, he was a one­man supervisory committee. Yigael Yadin, the founding father of Israeli archaeology, came to his aid whenever he ran into trouble with the authorities, particularly when Temple Mount artifacts were in danger of being vandalized. Yadin also exerted his influence on behalf of Kaufman so that he could articulate his research philosophies, which often ran counter to the mainstream traditional school of thought as it pertained to the location of the Holy of Holies. While it is believed that the Holy of Holies is located in the area encompassing the Dome of the Rock, Kaufman suggested the real location is south of there.

The story of this supposedly forgotten character is a riveting one from both a humane and journalistic standpoint. It is a story that should be kept in mind whenever discussing contemporary issues as they relate to the Temple Mount. Kaufman's story is a tale of insight into just how bad things have become at the site in recent decades, on a number of levels.

Kaufman's unwitting successors, the men and women who serve on the committee that is tasked with preventing the desecration of antiquities on the Temple Mount, took a tour of the complex this past Monday. The tour was held in the presence of senior police officials as well as one special guest, Professor Ruth Gavison, an Israel Prize winner for her work in legal research.

What was supposed to be an educational tour quickly devolved into something else entirely, due to the epithets and verbal abuse hurled at the group by local Muslims as well as the new discoveries that were made.

Dr. Gabriel Barkay, a committee member and a winner of the Jerusalem Prize for Archaeological Research, noticed a small tractor adjacent to the Dome of the Rock, as well as piles of construction material inside the structure. Barkay and his entourage asked to enter the shrine to get a clearer idea of what was taking place. In the last 20 years there have been numerous occasions in which committee personnel discovered illegal Muslim activities on the Temple Mount. Here, too, was another instance that aroused their suspicion.

Their suspicion was heightened further still after the police refused to allow the group entrance to the structure, which houses the Foundation Stone, considered by many researchers to be the approximate location of the Holy of Holies.

An urgent phone call to the Israel Antiquities Authority showed that even its officials were unaware of what was taking place inside the Dome of the Rock. The police, which initially underestimated the importance of what has happening, preferring to chalk it up to the simple replacement of carpets, initially prevented IAA archaeologists from gaining access to the site. This led them to suspect that someone had something to hide.

The pieces of the puzzle only started to come together the next day. The Muslims were replacing the carpets with new ones ­­ donated to them by the Jordanian royal family. In hindsight, this work was done without IAA coordination. It also denied archaeologists an opportunity to document what was taking place on the floor of the Dome of the Rock and the cave underneath it.

The flooring of the shrine is partially decorated with mosaics and geometric shapes from various historical periods, particularly in the form known as opus sectile, an art that has been used on colorful stone plates with differing shapes. During the Roman period, this type of design was common in the homes of wealthy people, and is considered to be quite valuable.

Stone of contention

The only people who to this day have documented the existence of this art technique at the Dome of the Rock ­­ albeit quite superficially ­­ were the famous British archaeologists Charles Warren, who drew a small replica of the flooring in 1865, and the Jordanian Muslim researcher Mohammed Gosha, who two years ago wrote a doctoral thesis on the Dome of the Rock.

Just how big an opportunity was missed could be seen on the Facebook pages of the many Muslims who posted photographs of the flooring discovered underneath the rugs. Barkay said the missed opportunity was merely a symptom of what has been transpiring on the Temple Mount. It only served to highlight the weakness displayed by the IAA and its complete dependence on a police force normally motivated by considerations completely unrelated to archaeology.

Barkay said the scientists working on the Temple Mount Sifting Project, which he heads jointly with his colleague, Tzachi Devira, discovered remnants of nearly 1,000 floor tiles featuring the opus sectile style. Judging by the photographs posted on Facebook and other Muslim sites, these tiles appear to correspond to those currently inside the Dome of the Rock.

"These photographs teach us that the Crusaders, who used this style of flooring and tiling, also designed the floor of the Dome of the Rock," he said. "This is a very significant historical point when considering the history of such an important and holy shrine that contains within it the Foundation Stone. This is a site that has tremendous religious and historical importance, both for Jews and Muslims."

"These tiles appear to have been dismantled either by Saladin in the late 12th century, or sometime later and then discarded in an area where the waqf dug up a huge pit in the 1990s, just as its officials were converting Solomon's Stables into a mosque in the southeastern part of Temple Mount," Barkay said. "The dust extracted by the waqf from this pit, which was done by violating every archaeological and cultural norm, is the same dust from Jerusalem's Emek Tzurim that we have been sifting through for years."

Barkay and Devira are not the only ones horrified at what they have seen on the Temple Mount. Construction Minister Uri Ariel has already spoken to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the matter. The IAA has also voiced its criticism. The agency's director general, former MK Israel Hasson, acknowledges his dissatisfaction over the inadequate oversight and supervision.

"Work was done here without the knowledge of the Antiquities Authority," he said. "This should never happen. This is something that I will begin investigating early next week."

According to Hasson, two pieces of tiling were ripped out of the floor when the old rugs were removed. The tiling was later put back with no damage done. He added he was unaware of any instances in which tilings were destroyed by hammer, a claim that was heard this week.

While he does agree there was a tremendous missed opportunity from an archaeological and research standpoint, he does urge people to keep a level head.

"We've had far more dramatic missed opportunities on the Temple Mount," he said.

Are the Antiquities Authority's oversight and supervision efforts coordinated with the waqf?

"Barely. Our dialogue is with the Israel Police. In the four months since I've taken up the position of IAA director general, there hasn't been an instance in which we have not received cooperation from the police, whether the issue was related to stopping work or with correcting some flaw. The only problem, which is particularly vexing, is what is not known regarding the work being done there."

For the first time, Hasson goes on the record publicly about the mounds of dust and dirt visible on the Temple Mount. The High Court of Justice agreed to a petition filed by the Temple Mount Antiquities Rescue Committee and forbade the removal of these piles, which contain dirt from Solomon's Stables and other areas of the complex. They also contain remnants of ancient pieces of wood that some researchers believe stretch back to the First and Second Temple periods.

"On the issue of the mounds of dust, the High Court has set the bar high for the state," Hasson said. "It has denied us permission to remove the dirt from there. Instead, it has told us that we need to sift through it on the premises rather than outside the complex. From an operative standpoint, given the circumstances surrounding the Temple Mount today, this is nearly impossible."

"In light of this reality, I have no doubt it would be far preferable to study this dirt outside the Temple Mount and to remove it from there," he said. "The status quo is resulting in damage to the historical mounds of dirt and the potential findings hidden there, particularly when the mounds of dirt also include pieces of trash and waste interspersed with it."

"We are going to have to make a decision on this matter," Hasson said. "If need be, we will once again petition the High Court."

Hasson hinted that if the Temple Mount Antiquities Rescue Committee agrees to remove the mounds of dirt from the Temple Mount, perhaps it would also be possible to remove the wooden remnants currently being stored in unsavory, damaging conditions.

Not only is the Jerusalem District Police preoccupied with archaeological disputes, but must also contend with the "Murbitat" Muslim resistance group that for months has received funds from the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. These groups have made life miserable for Jewish visitors to Temple Mount by shouting racist epithets at them and yelling "Allahu akbar" (God is great).

After a certain lull they again rear their ugly heads, particularly with the aid of "the Jerusalem branch" of Hamas. Just three months ago, after Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon declared them illegal, the Shin Bet security agency and police shut down three charities established by the Islamic Movement in Nazareth.

The Shin Bet said the activities of these people are aimed at undermining the security of those visiting the Temple Mount by escalating tensions and causing disturbances, all the while eroding Israel's sovereignty at the site.

The security forces' operations in Nazareth succeeded to reduce the scope of Murbitat activity. In recent weeks, however, these gangs have again been making life difficult for police and visitors. Earlier this week, Jewish visitation to the complex was limited after a group of Israelis was attacked by Arabs from Silwan. The police arrested two of the attackers.

Warning signs

Chief Superintendent Asi Aharoni, the Jerusalem District Police spokesperson, confirmed that after a significant drop in Murbitat activity, the group has been more provocative of late.

"Whenever there is a crime committed, we take care of it," he said. "Sometimes we know in advance about planned disturbances, and we prevent them. Other times we defuse them as they happen. And at other times we arrest those involved after some time has gone by ­­ for operational reasons."

Aharoni said the police is "fully cooperative" with the IAA. "Nothing is concealed from them," he said. "All the work being done [on the Temple Mount] is being done on the basis of all the necessary permits. When they ask to check something out, they come and do so."

Nonetheless, the IAA is limited as to what it can do on the Temple Mount, particularly when compared to its total freedom of operation at other sites across the country. The agency is not just subject to the authority of its director general, who just last week threatened to seek an injunction against the waqf if it did not permit IAA personnel from entering the Dome of the Rock. It is also subordinate to the Attorney General's Office as well as the Prime Minister's Office, both of which closely and directly supervise anything that takes place on the Temple Mount.

The police station at the site, which was set on fire eight months ago, has been refurbished. However, it is still not operational. The number of disturbances and incidents of violence in Jerusalem, meanwhile, has dropped dramatically, particularly compared to the final six months of 2014.

Nonetheless, things still are not quiet.

Stone­throwing incidents are still common, particularly along the "seam line." The vehicular terror attack that killed Shalom Sharki was deemed a lone wolf attack, similar to other incidents. The Shin Bet is now investigating whether the perpetrator was influenced by the agitation on the Temple Mount and the incitement­filled cries of "Al­Aqsa is in danger," as was the case in previous vehicular attacks in the capital.

In the meantime, Islamic clerics on the Temple Mount continue to heighten tensions. Not only are they waging a propaganda war over the holy site, but there is now a battle of competing signs as well. The mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, recently warned of a new sign that was to be posted by "the occupation municipality" on one of the overlooking entrances. The sign reads "Temple Mount."

The complex is known to Muslims as "Al­Haram al­Qudsi al­Sharif" ("the noble sanctuary of Jerusalem"). Now they are denying the Hebrew name of the site, which is consistent with how they view the existence of Jewish holy places there. They call it "al­maz'um" ­­ the imagined entity.

The sign controversy was also evident in an area near a section of the Western Wall adjoining the Golden Gate, one of the main entrances to the Temple Mount. A sign posted by the municipality, which is meant to show tourists the direction to the "Little Western Wall" in three languages (Hebrew, Arabic, and English), was inexplicably removed. It was most likely the result of Muslim opposition. Meanwhile, a number of signs with Arabic writing, including those of street names and holy places, have been vandalized.

In his frequent visits to the Temple Mount over a period of 23 years, Asher Kaufman documented instances of vandalism and destruction of archaeological findings. He claimed the waqf was deliberately engaged in this behavior. Today, after a stinging report by the State Comptroller (most of which is remarkably censored and off limits to the press) and after years in which members of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement have been involved in what is taking place at the site, one can safely conclude that when it comes to preserving antiquities it is very rare for the Muslims on the Temple Mount to commit a violation by mistake. These violations are almost always deliberate.

Not only is the Temple Mount the subject of a war over its physical control, it is also a political football in a long­running propaganda game.

 

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