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Digging up the Past, Destroying the Future


T is no simple matter these days to visit the compound of the al-Aqsa Mosque, also known as the Temple Mount. Israeli soldiers guard not only the entrances, but also the alleys leading up to them. If they wish, they will search you. If they wish, they will take you in for clarification or turn you away, and there is no appeal. Israeli police patrol the 35-acre compound.

Each year, as Ramadan approaches, the harassments increase, as well as the tensions. This year the atmosphere is gloomier than usual, because the separation barrier keeps worshipers away. The alleys of the Old City, usually teeming with life during Ramadan, seem empty most days.

Recently, a revelation by Meron Rapoport in the magazine of Haaretz (Sept. 20) added fuel to the fire. He reported that Ateret Kohanim, a yeshiva which ensconced itself 27 years ago in the Muslim quarter, has initiated an archaeological dig inside one of its houses on al-Wad Street. The house is 80 meters from the western wall of the Aqsa complex. Ateret Kohanim has always been forthright about its main goals: to oust the Muslims from the neighborhoods around the Temple Mount, “judaizing” the area of ancient Jerusalem, and with God’s help to rebuild the Temple. Although at first the direction of this latest dig was downward, the excavators have also tunneled 20 meters to the east, toward the Aqsa compound. The work causes damage to houses above. There is cause to suspect that the tunneling will continue, given the yeshiva’s enormous interest in finding traces of the Temple beneath the Aqsa platform.

Eight months ago the Muslim neighbors began to hear drilling beneath their homes. Then cracks started spreading in the walls. The large Zorba family, for example, lives 40 meters from Aqsa’s western wall. They are in constant fear that their ceiling will collapse. One of the sons had to evacuate together with his wife and children.

Walid Zorba, the head of the family, owns a small grocery on al-Wad Street. He told me: “When Ateret Kohanim repairs its property, this is none of our business. But when they dig underneath our houses, it becomes our business. I invested 80,000 shekels [ca. $17,000] in repairs before they started digging, and now it’s all down the drain. We worry that the house will collapse in the middle of the night.”

Walid’s son, Ala Zorba, has many stories about the physical harm wreaked by members of Ateret Kohanim on the people of the neighborhood. Watching the walls crack, he feels that he and his neighbors stand alone in the struggle against the settlers. He cannot rely on the Israeli police, who haven’t answered the written complaint which he filed on August 18. He cannot rely on the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), which merely demanded proof that his family owns the house. Nor can he rely on the Palestinian Authority (PA) or the Waqf, which are impotent.

“The problem isn’t just the tunnel,” says Ala Zorba, “but the overall situation in the Old City.” The constant pressure on the Palestinians to leave, coupled with the effects of the separation barrier, are emptying the streets. “Now that Sharon has gotten rid of Gaza, he is free to seal up the West Bank and separate it from Jerusalem, which without the West Bank is worth nothing.”

Archaeology in the service of politics

During my investigation of the tunneling, I met with Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, director of the al-Aqsa Mosque, at his office in the compound. I asked about the dangers to the holy place. “These are of many kinds,” he said. “There is the danger of the tunnels, and there are also the threats of extremists to bomb the mosque from the air or blow it up from below. There is also the harassing of worshipers, the limit on the numbers allowed in, and of course the separation barrier, which keeps many out.”

For Muslims, al-Aqsa is the place to which Muhammad came in a night journey reported in the Qur’an, and the Dome of the Rock (in the compound’s center) enshrines the place from which he ascended to heaven, where God instructed him. Muslims have been praying here since the 7th century C.E. For Jews, the same compound is the site where Solomon’s Temple stood, as well as the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Both claims are politically irrelevant. Relevant is the fact that the area is occupied territory. According to international law, a nation is not allowed to keep land taken in war (or to excavate in it).

At least ten Jewish groups in Israel, however, including Ateret Kohanim, are fervently planning to build the Third Temple here. They consider the renewal of the Temple service after 2000 years to be a necessary part of Redemption, which is to include the restoration of the Chosen People to the place that God intended. The rebuilding, however, will require the disappearance of the Muslim structures.

A crucial item is the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets with the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. Various theories place it in Jordan, Ethiopia or Ireland. However, the leaders of the Temple Institute, a close cousin of Ateret Kohanim, believe that, anticipating invasion, King Josiah buried the ark about 2600 years ago in a secret vault that Solomon had wisely prepared for this purpose within the Temple Mount, “at the end of hidden, deep and winding passageways”. Because the Temple was built to house the ark and the tablets, and because they believe they know where these items are, the Temple faithful cannot ignore them or make new ones. They must constitute the centerpiece, enthroned in the new Holy of Holies. It is vital, therefore, to find the ark. (See their website: .)

In 1983 an attempt was made to excavate to the chamber believed to contain the ark. This provoked widespread Palestinian unrest, which put the venture on hold.

The members of the Temple Mount groups are serious about rebuilding the Temple. Consequently, some of them are equally serious about clearing the ground for it, i.e., destroying the Dome and the Mosque. (A few were jailed in the 1980’s for plotting to blow these up.) That would set off a major war. The search for the lost ark is not, then, just a piece of antiquarian fetishism. It occurs within the context of an extremely dangerous movement, which need not be large to light the spark.

Archaeology plays here an important and sensitive role. But archaeology is in the service of Ateret Kohanim.

In the Haaretz article, Meron Rapoport disclosed that members of Ateret Kohanim plan to keep digging eastward until they’ve linked up with the tunnel that stretches north-south for hundreds of meters along the length of the western wall of the compound. (This tunnel caused trouble in September 1996, when Binyamin Netanyahu, then Prime Minister, opened its north end onto the Via Dolorosa. The deed provoked demonstrations in which at least 61 Palestinians died, as well as 16 Israeli soldiers.)

John Seligman, who directs the dig at Ateret Kohanim, heads the Jerusalem district of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). He confirmed to Rapoport that the tunneling has gone 20 meters eastward, but he opposes any attempt to link with the western wall tunnel. The IAA, however, digs only at specified seasons and times, whereas Ateret Kohanim is always on site.

Rapoport describes the unhealthy connection between the IAA, a government body, and Ateret Kohanim. Some 40% of the IAA budget comes from private contributors who are interested in advancing this or that dig. Ateret Kohanim is rich. (It is supported by American millionaire Irving Moskowitz.) One of Ateret’s members told Rapoport: “It isn’t accurate to speak of a dialogue between Ateret Kohanim and the IAA. It’s truer to speak of a monologue: Ateret Kohanim speaks and the IAA performs.”

Israeli archaeologist Meir Ben Dov has claimed for years that IAA decisions are blemished by conflict of interest: the same body that decides where to dig gets the money for digging. The decisions, therefore, are influenced by unscientific considerations.

To anyone who is not messianic, the issue of the ark may seem so bizarre that one would hardly expect mainstream political figures to get involved. In this light, we do well to re-examine what happened at the Camp David talks in July 2000. These included PA President Yasser Arafat and Israeli PM Ehud Barak, with US President Bill Clinton mediating. I interviewed Professor Menahem Klein, Barak’s advisor on Jerusalem during the negotiations. He told me:

“At Camp David, Barak wanted to use the achievements that he’d make on the issue of the Temple Mount as a means of persuading factors such as the Temple Mount Faithful, Yehuda Etzion [who was jailed for five years in the 1980’s for plotting to blow up al-Aqsa – M.S.] and Gershon Salomon [head of the Temple Mount Faithful – M.S.], to accept his program. The Palestinian starting point in the negotiations was that ‘the Western Wall will go to the Jews and the rest will be ours.’ Israel’s starting point was that ‘the Western Wall is ours, and now we’ll negotiate about yours.’

“One of the compromises that Clinton proposed was to divide the sovereignty over the Temple Mount as follows. The Western Wall would go to Israel. As for the Temple Mount, everything above ground would go to Palestine, everything below to Israel. That is, Israel would have the authority to prevent or approve archaeological excavations or repairs. …In my view, this simply aroused the old Palestinian anxieties that Israel plans to dig beneath the Temple Mount in order to cause the collapse of the mosques.”

Klein, who is an orthodox Jew, added this: “The aim of establishing the Third Temple stands in opposition to Jewish tradition, according to which the remains of the Temple are to be found in heaven. When God wants to built the third building, He’ll lower them from there. The Temple Mount compound is today an icon. It mobilizes Muslims from the world over, and it has become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. Israel paid no heed to this.

“On the other hand, among Jews the educational activities of the various Temple organizations have managed to place the building of the sanctuary at the focus of the nationalist orthodox public. Every month the Temple groups hold a march around the gates of the Mount, and thousands take part. The Temple Mount has penetrated the educational system and the prayer books. They’ve already sewn the vestments of the priests and built the seven-branched candelabrum. This goes together with the growth of religious extremism.”

No peace without Jerusalem

In addition to the Waqf, the Islamic Movement in Israel is also concerned about Israeli tunneling near the mosque. Its northern branch, headed by Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, has taken the defense of al-Aqsa as its chief mission. Under the slogan, “Al-Aqsa is in danger!” (and with the permission of the Israeli police) it assembles tens of thousands for an annual meeting in the soccer stadium of Um al-Fahm. Every Friday it busses thousands to al-Aqsa for prayers. The alleys of the Old City briefly liven up.

The Islamic Movement has taken a monopoly on the al-Aqsa issue, and this harbors another danger. Any future peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people will stand or fall on the question of whether the Palestinians get sovereignty there. Israel’s government no doubt welcomes a development where its own Arab citizens take al-Aqsa under their protection. In this way the conflict gets diverted: the question of al-Aqsa no longer appears as a dispute of sovereignty between Israel and the Palestinian people, but rather as an issue within Israeli sovereignty, between Israel and its own Arab citizens.

The Islamic Movement’s bear hug on al-Aqsa demonstrates the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and the Waqf. This weakness diminishes the chance that East Jerusalem will ever be part of Palestine.


raeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proclaims from every mountaintop that Jerusalem will forever be the capital of Israel – here, he asserts, there will be no compromise. On the other hand, all political agreements, from Oslo to the Road Map, have left the Jerusalem issue hanging. This has enabled Israel to behave as it wishes in the city.

Jerusalem is central to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The issue cannot be resolved outside this framework, even if there is no one today, on the Palestinian side, to lead the struggle. Until the question is settled, there will be no peace between the peoples.

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