Court Temporarily Halts Removal of Soil From Temple Mount

The High Court of Justice issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAI), the public security minister and the prime minister from authorizing the Waqf (the Muslim Religious Authority) to remove from the Temple Mount tons of soil assumed to be rich in archaeological artifacts.

The soil was excavated some four years ago during the construction of large gates to the underground mosque in the area known as Solomon's Stables. The injunction was issued at the request of the Committee to Prevent the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount. Members of the committee include senior scholars specializing in the archaeology of the Temple Mount and its environs, as well as writers and other public figures.

According to the petition, "At the end of November 1999, the Waqf tricked the government of Israel, and under the pretext of opening an emergency exit to the Solomon's Stables mosque - which had been built illegally and inaugurated in December of 1996 - the Waqf took advantage of the negligence of the government of Israel and its indifference to the fate of the archaeological remains on the Temple Mount, dug a huge 2,000-square meter pit beneath the Temple Mount some 13 meters deep, and opened a main door to the Solomon's Stable mosque 10 meters wide and 13 meters high.

During the excavation, Waqf workers using three bulldozers removed some 12,000-15,000 tons of earth filled with antiquities from all periods, without IAI supervision and without any sifting of the soil to locate and remove archaeological artifacts."

Most of the soil was loaded onto trucks and removed to the city dump in the village of Azzariyeh, and later in the Kidron Valley, until the police put a stop to the removal of the soil. Former IAI director-general Amir Drori called the Waqf's actions at that time "an archaeological crime," and then-attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein called it "a blow to the history of the Jewish people."

Some of the soil reamined in the eastern part of the Temple Mount near the new entrance to the Solomon's Stables mosque, and soil subsequently excavated in order to repave a large part of the Temple mount was placed on top of it.

Included in the petition with the opinions of several eminent archaeologists on the importance of the finds is an affidavit by Zachi Zweig, a Master's student in archaeology, who discovered artifacts from various periods when he went though the piles of soil that had been dumped in the Kidron Valley. An internal document from the IAI was also included, noting that a preliminary IAI examination turned up artifacts from the Iron Age, the Second Temple, Byzantine, Ummayad, Mameluke, and Ottoman periods.

In spite of these finds, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the IAI to authorize the Waqf to remove the soil. The petitioners claim that in so doing, the IAI would be permitting the Waqf to "repeat the archaeological crime of 1999, albeit on a smaller scale."

They also noted that the removal of the soil would constitute "serious and irreparable damage to the excavations on the Temple Mount, which are obviously illegal."

The High Court of Justice also issued a ruling for the state to show cause within 45 days why it should not condition its agreement to the removal of the soil on examination and sifting on the site, and on authorization by a special committee of ministers as required by the Antiquities Law.

The High Court also ruled that the state must explain why it should not prohibit the removal of the soil from the Temple Mount before an engineering survey has been carried out to determine the stability of the site, and assess the impact of the soil removal. Parts of the outer wall of the Temple Mount have shown signs of instability in recent years.