A Bridge Too Far

The debacle concerning the Mugrabi bridge is part of the battle over control of the Old City in general, and the Temple Mount in particular.

A few months ago, when he was still the minister of science, culture and sports, Ophir Pines-Paz met with the director general of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), Shuka Dorfman. Pines-Paz is an archaeology buff, but the meeting had nothing to do with leisure activities. The Ministry of Science, Culture and Sports is responsible for the IAA, and Dorfman wanted to ask the minister for permission to build a bridge at the Mugrabi Gate, near the Western Wall, where part of the dirt ramp leading up to the Temple Mount had collapsed. Today, in retrospect, the request seems strange to Pines-Paz.

"The bridge is, after all, a security issue," says Pines-Paz, who, as the new chairman of the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, presided over the session that dealt with the subject this week. "I would have expected that the security forces would have been the ones to take care of the matter. Now it turns out that the IAA took the issue of the bridge upon itself - as if they were the police, the Ministry of the Interior, everything. It's absurd."

What is even more absurd is what happened after this week's meeting. Pines-Paz relates that he rejected Dorfman's request: "I told him that I cannot approve the bridge. True, it's outside the Temple Mount, but it's a sensitive area and I want to study the matter." Dorfman did not come back to the minister to whom he was answerable, but this week, at the committee meeting, Pines-Paz discovered that the IAA's director general had continued with the project as if nothing had happened.

"I told him 'no' and he just kept going," Pines-Paz explains. "They presented me with a partial picture. They didn't show me the opinion of the municipal comptroller, who said that it was illegal to build the bridge. They didn't tell me about the opinions of senior archaeologists, who said that the plan was delusory. What they did present me with was designed to promote a very specific objective."

Dorfman denies that he continued the work without authorization from Pines-Paz. "I updated the minister about the collapse [of the old ramp] and what plans there are at the site, since he is responsible for the Antiquities Law. I never asked him for approval, and he didn't say that to the committee," says Dorfman - although the official announcement issued by the Internal Affairs Committee contradicts his comments.

"The IAA was not involved in getting authorization," he continues. "The opinion of the municipal comptroller was recorded, to the best of my knowledge, only after [Pines-Paz ended] his tenure as minister. Furthermore, I was never sent that opinion. I only saw it a few days ago, after it got into the media." The comptroller's letter cites the IAA, along with the East Jerusalem Development Authority, as initiators of the project.

Today, a week and a half after work began at the Mugrabi Gate - and after it turns out that the emergency project aimed at protecting worshipers at the Western Wall can wait a year until it has received the requisite permits from the various planning and construction committees - it is hard to say what the bottom line is in this story.

The keys to the gate

The ramp to the Mugrabi Gate (Bab al-Mugrabi in Arabic) did not always look like the miserable pile of dirt that appeared this week on television as the center of all the action. Until 1967, it was part of the Mugrabi quarter that was built almost up to the Western Wall. Right after the Old City was captured by Israeli forces in the Six-Day War of June, 1967, the quarter was demolished overnight, in order to make way for the Western Wall plaza of today. A few years later, Israel demolished the old buildings that were left on the incline that led up to the Mugrabi Gate. The dirt ramp is the last remnant of that neighborhood.

Since 1967, Israel has held the keys to the Mugrabi Gate - the only one of the Temple Mount gates that is entirely under Israeli control. It serves as the access route for Israeli visitors who want to explore the mount, and was popular before the intifada, but the traffic there has dwindled to a mere trickle today. Its chief purpose is to allow Israeli policemen to reach the Temple Mount "if the need arises." The Waqf (Islamic religious trust) is not happy about this arrangement. "Israel holds the keys as an occupying power," says Waqf director Adnan al-Husseini. "It has no right to do this."

But this arrangement has been in place now for 40 years.

In the winter of 2004, after a week of snow and a slight earthquake, part of the Mugrabi ramp collapsed and a few stones fell onto the Western Wall plaza. Both the police and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation (the organization that oversees activity at the Western Wall and the Western Wall Tunnel) were alerted. The police were concerned that they would no longer be able to send forces freely through the Mugrabi Gate to the Temple Mount; the foundation was worried about the safety of the worshipers.

The question of access to the Temple Mount was resolved relatively quickly. Instead of the path that had collapsed, a temporary wooden bridge was built. Its municipal permit says that it is designed for the safety of the police forces that may need to use it; the danger to worshipers is not mentioned. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation did not like the temporary bridge because it reduced the women's prayer area and was unaesthetic to boot. The rabbi in charge of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, recalls that former city engineer Uri Sheetrit sent the people from the foundation to architect Ada Karmi-Melamede, to ask her to build them a new, permanent structure.

Karmi-Melamede designed a bridge that would start at the Dung Gate, several hundred meters from the Mugrabi Gate. It would be three meters wide and be supported by seven pillars, and would meet the police demand "to hold 300 policemen at one time," according to the letter sent by the head of the coordination division of the Prime Minister's Office to the acting city engineer, Osnat Post. Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, asserted this week that the bridge was intended to allow Israeli security forces "to conquer the Temple Mount." The letter suggests that even if Salah is paranoid, it doesn't mean there's nobody out to get him. The purpose of the bridge is to allow very substantial forces to reach the Temple Mount.

Rabbi Rabinowitz relates that there were "dozens of discussions" about the bridge with the previous prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and with the present one, Ehud Olmert, with the participation of the Jerusalem Municipality, the police and the IAA. Only one subject was forgotten during those dozens of discussions: a legal permit for the project. And it's not as if the planners were unaware that there was a problem. Jerusalem city comptroller Shlomit Rubin wrote two letters, one in March and the other in October of 2006, in which she states "categorically" that without a rezoning permit from the local and regional planning committees, construction of the bridge would be illegal.

The municipality blithely ignored the warnings. On November 26, 2006, a request for permission to build the bridge was submitted to the municipal licensing authority - a lesser body to which the general public has no access, which usually deals with approving additions of balconies to existing buildings. The description of the request - the result of "long and precise planning," according to Ya'akov Edri, the government minister responsible for Jerusalem affairs - was summarized in one sentence: "We now wish to build a permanent bridge, on seven support pillars, from the entrance to the Western Wall plaza to the Mugrabi Gate." Within four days the request was approved, illegally, without any public discussion, and that paved the way for the construction work and for the riots and international censure that followed.

Up to this point, this might seem like just a typical Israeli snow job. However, attorney Danny Seidman of the Ir Amim organization, which promotes Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, sent a letter to the Jerusalem Municipality just before the work began, in which he carefully detailed the legal issues concerning the building of the bridge. Of course, no one paid attention to him. Just as no one paid attention to the warnings of Yosef "Pepe" Alalu, a Jerusalem city councilman for the Meretz party, or to the report published by Ir Amim that correctly predicted the events that came to pass in recent days. But this disregard could also be part of the debacle that climaxed with the impressive back-flip executed by the municipality. It decided this week to waive the permit it already held, and to submit a request for a new one from the relevant planning committees as the law dictates - one step before the attorney general decides that the municipality's previous actions had been illegal.

But nobody in Jerusalem, neither Jew nor Arab, thought for a moment that the problem of the bridge was just a planning issue. The problem of the bridge is part of the battle over control of the Old City in general, and the Temple Mount in particular. The struggle was very visible this week in the Old City, which looked just the way it did 40 years ago: as an occupied city. Every few meters was a group of armed policemen. More than 2,000 were assigned to keep order during the excavation at the bridge site - more than the number of Israeli soldiers in Motta Gur's paratroop brigade that captured the Old City in the Six-Day War of 1967.

Israeli reports noted that the demonstrations against the excavations at the ramp below the Mugrabi Gate drew fewer people than expected. Everybody I spoke with this week hinted broadly that the Waqf "shut its eyes" to the digging, because it had reached an understanding with Israel. Nothing, however, infuriates Adnan al-Husseini, director general of the Waqf, more than this comment. "Minister Edri says that they informed us [about the dig], but he doesn't say that he informed us and we rejected it," says Al-Husseini, who also admits that few Palestinians took part in the demonstrations against the dig. "The city is suffering," he says. "We are living in a military camp."

A Fatah activist from Jerusalem expands on this point: "It's very hard to get people involved," he explains. "Our natural mother, the Palestinian Authority, has abandoned us, and our stepmother, Israel, screws us. People are afraid to come out on the streets." In his opinion, the only leader that Jerusalem Arabs trust is Raed Salah. "Everybody believes him when he says that the Jews want to tunnel under the Temple Mount."

That is now the real battle, the battle over what is going on under the surface. The construction of the bridge has been postponed indefinitely. The municipality says that "if there will not be objections," the deliberations will be finished within a year. If the objections are serious, it could take far longer.

'Judaizing' the Old City

Strangely enough, despite the fact that the purpose - construction of the bridge - for which the excavations were undertaken in the first place is now in doubt, the IAA says the dig will continue, and is indeed "irreversible." According to IAA director Dorfman, the excavations carried out until now have exposed "how great the danger" is that the ramp at the Mugrabi Gate will collapse, because of the deep water cisterns that were discovered there.

"There is no doubt that the ramp is more dangerous now than it was in February 2004," says Rabbi Rabinowitz. "As soon as most of the ramp has been removed, the danger to the worshipers will be eliminated as well." That is exactly what Al-Husseini is afraid of. "Demolishing this hill," he says, "means destroying our history."

Senior personnel at the IAA, who are unhappy with the current events, say that the organization is digging itself into oblivion and that everything is being funded by Jewish organizations whose declared purpose is to "Judaize" the Old City. There is no shortage of examples of this. In the old Ohel Yitzhak synagogue, which was discovered about 100 meters from the Temple Mount, an IAA dig has been funded by the Ateret Cohanim organization. According to an official map in the possession of Haaretz, which appears here for the first time, the excavations extended underground beyond the synagogue area, and reached a point that is just a few dozen meters from the wall of the Temple Mount.

Other information published here for the first time concerns a plan to dig a tunnel from what is called Zedekiah's Cave (also called Solomon's Quarries in English) - the remnant of an ancient cavern that can only be accessed from outside the Old City walls, near the Damascus Gate - to Beit Hatzalam in the Muslim Quarter, which Ateret Cohanim purchased some years ago. This would involve an excavation of several dozen meters, which would approach a point that is within about 150 meters of the Temple Mount. The organization is already in contact with the IAA regarding the tunnel, which has been described as an "emergency exit" from the ancient cave.

"The IAA has become enslaved to the settlers," says one of its archaeologists. "Almost any Israeli archaeologist is excited to dig and discover finds of the Second Temple period." Furthermore, such projects help fill the IAA's coffers. Over half the organization's budget comes from private initiatives, like those of the Jewish organizations in Jerusalem. Taken together, these considerations may explain the intense involvement of director general Dorfman in the excavations near the Mugrabi Gate.

Indeed, rabbi of the Western Wall says that it is the excavations, not the bridge, that really disturb the Muslims. "It infuriates the Muslims that the Jewish people were here first," says Rabbi Rabinowitz. "Every excavation brings to light another 'mikveh' [ritual bath] and other Jewish finds. True, the Muslims distort every fact, but how far can you twist the truth?"

According to Kamal Khatib, a leader of the Islamic Movement, it is the Jews who are distorting the truth. There was never any Jewish temple on the "Temple Mount," he asserts, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque was according to tradition built by the first man. The Waqf's Al-Husseini is somewhere in the middle on this issue. "The Old City is suspended in mid-air," he says, without even knowing the extent of the excavations of the IAA and the Jewish organizations below the city. "One earthquake, and half the city could disappear."

And then rubble would bury everybody's truth - that of the Jews and that of the Muslims.