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Trouble brewing over bulge
A failing wall in Temple Mount threatens to become a spark in Mideast tinderbox

Wednesday, February 13, 2002

The Lost City of David

  • Photo Essay

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  • JERUSALEM -- Trouble is brewing again in the holiest place in the Holy Land.

    It is the spot from which God is said to have taken the dust to create Adam. It is where the Jews built their first and second temples, each destroyed by enemies. And it is where the Prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended into heaven.

    These days, if you press your cheek to the southern wall of what Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), you can see it curving outward. Some worry that the bulge, which has only recently become visible, could collapse at any moment.

    This 10-metre-wide bulge in the ancient wall is threatening to become yet another spark in the Mideast tinderbox. Some Israelis are accusing the Wakf, the Muslim trust that administers much of the 14-hectare site, of vandalism and neglect.

    "We are talking about such an ancient monument . . . such an ancient structure," said Israeli archeologist Eilat Mazar of Hebrew University.

    "I don't see why it should be neglected and deserted and left in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, which are . . . letting this structure be destroyed."

    The Wakf director, Adnan Husseini, said the council is aware of the wall's bulge and it will be repaired in time. Meanwhile, Israeli interference is not welcome.

    "Muslims were asked to be here by God. We believe it is a mosque, an Islamic site, and [we] put a full stop after that," Mr. Husseini said.

    The very geography of the site brings Jews and Muslims into an unwelcome intimacy. Every day, thousands of Jews, many dressed in the long, black coats and hats of the ultraorthodox, worship at the foot of the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall.

    Those who wander the warrens of the Old City of Jerusalem often stumble upon one of the many entrances to the Muslim shrines. But if visitors do not look Arab, they are shooed away by armed Israeli police.

    It is the Israelis who have restricted the site to Muslims alone in recent years, fearing that the presence of non-Muslims on the Haram al-Sharif could spark a riot.

    Traditionally, most Jews adhered to a rabbinical injunction against even setting foot on the site because of its sanctity. But there is a growing push to allow Jews to pray on the Haram al-Sharif, even to build a synagogue.

    Jewish and Christian plots have been discovered to destroy the Muslim structures, and one group is dedicated to laying the cornerstone of a new Jewish temple there. The chief rabbi of Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, recently declared that building a synagogue on the site may be a religious duty.

    Such religious impulses have been reinforced by Israeli nationalists, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who want to stake Israel's claim to sovereignty over all of Jerusalem (a claim the international community has never accepted).

    Mr. Sharon, in fact, was the last Jew other than security officials to walk on the Muslim plaza, a controversial walk that is considered by many to have been the trigger to the Palestinian uprising that began 17 months ago.

    Mr. Sharon has recently hinted he may allow Jews to return, in part because he worries that if they do not, the Muslim monopoly on the site will become entrenched.

    In the meantime, their exclusion has fed Jewish anxieties. Using aerial photographs and pictures taken surreptitiously, a group called the Committee for the Prevention of Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount has tried to demonstrate that the Wakf is undertaking massive renovations.

    There is little doubt that, in the past, the Wakf has sometimes walled over or buried evidence of the pre-Islamic history at the site. Dr. Mazar, a member of the Israeli committee, claims that the Wakf is excavating an area beneath the surface of the plaza (known to Muslims as the Marawani mosque and to Christians and Jews as the Stables of Solomon).

    Not only is the excavation aimed at effacing potential Jewish archeological finds there, she believes, but it is also causing the buckling of the south wall, threatening collapse.

    And if that happens, she believes, "It will be very easy to trick Muslims' minds all over the world in telling them that Israel was destroying the mosque."

    Mr. Husseini said the wall's bulge will be dealt with. But in a place where a single ancient stone can be brandished as a title deed, the Wakf does not want Israelis poking around. He believes the Israelis are trying to muscle in on the archeological work in an attempt to assert their claim of sovereignty.

    "It is not allowed for anyone else to be involved in the work of the mosque because this is an Islamic responsibility," he said.

    If the Haram al-Sharif is reopened to Jews, some will almost certainly try to claim the site as Jewish, either with prayers or with violence. The leading Muslim cleric, the mufti of Jerusalem, Sheik Akram Sabri, predicts trouble if that happens. "If they approach the al-Aqsa mosque," he warned, "our people will guard it."

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