Cabinet okays renewing controversial Mughrabi excavation near Western Wall
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has been instructed by the cabinet to continue its work at the Mughrabi walkway near the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The cabinet recently instructed the IAA to complete the work "as soon as possible, with full transparency and with the cooperation of the relevant bodies."
Excavations at the site, a walkway leading to the Mughrabi Gate at the Temple Mount, were halted in June after they raised an international protest. At the end of September, following a report in Haaretz that the Ministerial Committee for Jerusalem Affairs had approved the continuation of the work, Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadele appealed the decision to the cabinet secretariat and it was frozen. Two weeks ago, Majadele acceded to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's request to withdraw his appeal.
On November 29, the cabinet approved the Ministerial Committee for Jerusalem Affairs decision, instructing the IAA to "remove any finding that is not archaeological, and provide a solution to elements of conservation, esthetics, security, safety and possible social impairments." The latter element was a reference to homeless individuals who have taken shelter in structures at the site that have no archaeological value.
The cabinet decided to allocate NIS 3.5 million for the completion of archaeological and conservation work. The director-general of the Prime Minister's Office was charged with locating this money, as well as the funds for construction of a permanent bridge at the site, at an estimated cost of NIS 14 million. The budgetary source will be located as soon as the plans are approved by the Jerusalem Regional Planning Commission.
Following the decision of the ministerial committee in September, the prime minister's bureau told Haaretz that it saw no problem in renewing the work, and that if it had been stopped over the previous months it was due to planning problems and did not reflect a political decision.
Majadele told Haaretz last night that he had been assured that no activity would be carried out at the site as long as the regional planning commission had not approved the changes. According to Majadele, when he checked with the IAA he was told that no expert work needed to be carried out at this stage.
"If political elements want to use the IAA as an umbrella, the minister's eye is watching and he will not allow any work to be done that invites friction and disturbances during this period of diplomatic negotiations. I am glad that the prime minister supports the policy of creating understanding and tranquility in order to protect the holy places," Majadele said.
The phrase "removing any find that is not archaeological" refers to all Palestinian finds and most of those of the Ottoman period. The Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman recently published a report stating that a team of Turkish experts who had examined the excavations at the Mughrabi walkway recommended that Israel stop work immediately.
The team's report said that Israel was attempting to disrupt Jerusalem's history by stressing the Jewish aspect of Jerusalem, and that the excavations were part of a plan to destroy cultural elements from the Islamic period in Jerusalem. The report also stated that "the large amount of soil extraction shown to our mission along the Wailing Wall give the impression that this is an intervention of great scale and depth and that this intervention goes beyond scientific purpose."
Attorney Danny Zeidman, legal counsel to the Ir Amim association, which appealed the ministerial committee's decision to the attorney general, said yesterday that an internal contradiction existed between the cabinet decision's call for "transparency" and "coordination" and decisions of an operative nature.
"How can money be allocated for construction at the Mughrabi Gate and the work be ordered completed as soon as possible, when we don't know what is to be built at the site, since the plan has not yet been approved?"
Zeidman said he was surprised that the cabinet was ordering the IAA - an autonomous expert body - how to operate. He said it showed the extent to which archaeology had been politicized, since he claimed a large amount of the IAA's income and almost all its Jerusalem digs were being financed by settler associations in East Jerusalem.