Ministers renew contested digging at Mugrabi gate
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) is set to renew its excavations in the coming days at the Mugrabi Gate near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which may exacerbate tensions with neighboring countries ahead of next month's planned Annapolis peace summit.
The excavations, to prepare for the construction of a new bridge to the Mugrabi Gate, between the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, were stopped in June after they sparked protests from the Palestinian Authority and Arab countries. However, the Ministerial Committee on Jerusalem approved their renewal about two weeks ago.
The Jordanian ambassador to Israel, Ali Ayed, asked for clarifications on Friday from the Foreign Ministry and warned that a renewal of the excavations might sabotage next month's Annapolis summit.
The committee's decision was approved by ministers Avi Dichter, Rafi Eitan and Jacob Edery, over the objections of the Foreign Ministry, whose representatives told the ministerial committee Israel had pledged to several countries to prevent increased tensions around the Temple Mount. Minister of Culture, Science and Sport Ghaleb Majadele, under whose aegis the IAA falls, told the committee that renewing the work was not in keeping with the desire to promote a diplomatic process, and that the all such work should be coordinated with the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust.
Haaretz has learned that the decision to renew work came after pressure on the government by the rabbi in charge of the Western Wall and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which is in charge of maintaining the Western Wall plaza and surroundings.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's bureau said it saw no problem with renewing the work, and its halt in recent months reflected planning problems, and not a political decision.
The IAA said conservation and documentation had been ongoing, and that excavations would be renewed when the appropriate instructions were received.
The IAA began a salvage dig at the site at the beginning of the year as part of a Jerusalem municipality plan to build a new bridge for tourists from the Western Wall plaza up to the Temple Mount. In the face of opposition in Israel and abroad due to possible undermining of the foundations of the Temple Mount, and following a visit to the site by experts from Turkey, the municipality stopped the excavations and announced they would resume only after the plan was authorized as part of the city master plan.
The Jerusalem Planning and Construction Council gave the green light on a program last August that was much more modest than the original. Now in the final process of approval, it takes into consideration architects' and archaeologists' concerns that the bridge could cause damage to the antiquities and obstruct the view of the Temple Mount's western and southern walls. Another objection raised was that the project would involve construction in the Southern Wall Archaeological Park, which was said to be a dangerous precedent that might spread to other such sites.
The Ir Amim association demanded over the weekend in a letter to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz that he instruct the relevant bodies, including the IAA, not to reopen the dig at the Mugrabi Gate until the bridge is approved as part of the municipal master plan and receives all appropriate authorizations.
Ir Amim's legal counsel, Danny Zeidman, wrote Mazuz that the excavations were not for maintenance purposes only, but were extensive and intended to expose and remove archaeological strata from the modern and Ottoman periods.
Ir Amim warned that if work was begun before authorization for the bridge was completed, it would put the legality of the construction to the test. The association said the law required reporting such work to the local planing and construction committee at least 15 days before the work started. As far as is known, such a report was not made to the authorities in Jerusalem.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has listed the Mugrabi Gate as a World Heritage Site. A UNESCO source told Haaretz that in June the Foreign Ministry told the UN body that the work had been stopped except for "stabilization work."
The chair of the government committee that oversees UNESCO work in Israel, Professor Mike Turner, wrote in a position paper in July that the conservation and protection of the archaeological remains from various historical and cultural periods and their integration into the archaeological park in the Western Wall plaza area must be assured; that safe access must be provided to the Mugrabi Gate in consideration of historic pathways; and that the site must be designed in an authentic manner and ensure the integrity of the site while leaving the option of an overall plan for the area from the Western Wall to the Old City walls. Turner said his statement was prepared in cooperation with the IAA. Turner also stated that Israel had to coordinate its construction at the site with UNESCO.