It is time to put an end to this sad affair, which has been blown beyond all proportion. The temporary bridge leading to the Temple Mount must be replaced with a permanent one.
During the winter of 2004, the sand embankment in Jerusalem’s Old City known as the Mughrabi Ascent – which provides access to the Mughrabi Gate of the Temple Mount from the area of the Western Wall – collapsed due to rainstorms, snow and a minor earthquake. The gate is the only entry point for non-Muslim visitors to the mount, and it also provides access for Israeli security forces in time of emergency.
After the collapse, Israel hastened to erect a temporary wooden bridge on the spot.
Now, nearly eight years later, Israel is about to replace the hazardous, temporary bridge with a more stable, permanent bridge. This has elicited severe criticism and baseless incitement against the State of Israel in radical Muslim circles, who accuse Israel of endangering the mosques on the Temple Mount and scheming to seek their collapse as part of a plot to Judaize Jerusalem.
In fact, the gate is located on top of the Western Wall and is named after the Mughrabi neighborhood that existed next to the Wall prior to the Six Day War. On the night of June 10, 1967, three days after Israel captured the Temple Mount, Israel evacuated the residents of the Mughrabi neighborhood and demolished the buildings.
The families were compensated and received assistance in finding new homes.
At the beginning of the 1970s the Ibn Saud houses (part of the Mughrabi neighborhood) that adjoined the Mughrabi Gate were also removed. The remains of those houses and a layer of sand that was poured on top of them created a sand embankment that was paved with concrete and became known as the Mughrabi Ascent. This ascent replaced the original road from the Mughrabi neighborhood to the Mughrabi Gate.
After the Mughrabi Ascent collapsed on February 14, 2004, Israeli officials, sensitive to repeated accusations that Israel seeks to undermine the mosques on the Temple Mount, invited one of the Waqf leaders to the site and showed him what had transpired. The Waqf representative promised to convey the facts to his colleagues, but the very next day Israel was accused of conspiring to cause the collapse of the Temple Mount mosques.
At the same time, Jerusalem Police Superintendent Mickey Levy ordered the construction of an alternative, temporary wooden bridge to restore access to the Mughrabi Gate.
Levy termed the new bridge a security structure and the East Jerusalem Development Company built it quickly, facilitating renewed entrance for Jews, tourists, non-Muslims and security forces.
A FEW months after the collapse, an inter-ministerial staff began planning a new bridge. Architect Ada Carmi proposed a bridge of glass and steel 200 meters in length (the original Mughrabi Ascent had been 80 meters long), extending from the Dung Gate in the Old City walls to the Mughrabi Gate.
The bridge was to be supported by seven pillars, some of which would stand in the archaeological park area.
A vast amount of work was invested in the plan, but it was dropped due to protests by archaeologists who were apprehensive about damage to the archaeological park and the concealment of the Western Wall, and also because the building permit for it had been issued in January 2007 in an abbreviated and irregular process. A month later, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski canceled the building permit and a more orderly approval process was initiated.
The planning work was accompanied by archaeological rescue excavations that took place in summer 2007, which were a precondition for the issuance of a building permit for the new bridge.
Israeli law determines that whenever a building or excavation is planned on a site where one could presumably encounter antiquities, it is mandatory to first examine the ground at the planned building site in order to rescue the antiquities that may be buried there.
IT IS hard to imagine a more likely place for discovering antiquities and archaeological findings than the area surrounding the Temple Mount.
In the Old City, as well as around the country, Israel has taken care to rescue and preserve antiquities, irrespective of age, period and national or religious affiliation.
Many findings from the Muslim periods of Jerusalem have been uncovered and preserved, including the north wall of a palace from the Ummayad period, a public building from the Mameluke period, the remains of a prayer niche (mahreb) from an Ottomanera mosque that existed at the site and ceramics and coins from the Fatimid era.
At the site of the Mughrabi Ascent, remnants from houses of the Mughrabi neighborhood during the Jordanian era and the close of the Ottoman era were uncovered and preserved, despite the fact that formally and by law they were not antiquities.
They were preserved as an Israeli gesture of consideration and sensitivity, and in an attempt to counter Muslim accusations concerning alleged damage to things sacred to Islam or plans to Judaize Jerusalem.
Alas, these gestures were to no avail. In February 2007, at the time of the archaeological rescue excavations, violent disorders broke out on the Temple Mount instigated by Sheikh Raed Salah, the head of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel.
Rioters threw rocks at the police, wounding 15. Expressions of incitement against Israel reached new heights, iand Salah declared, “Whoever is playing with fire should know that the fire will consume him. Whoever schemes to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque will have his house destroyed.”
Khaled Mashaal, head of the Hamas political bureau, furthered the sentiment, telling a press conference in Damascus that “Israel is perpetrating a new attack on al- Aqsa Mosque.”
Islamic Jihad in Gaza launched rockets toward Sderot to protest the work and Hamas television warned viewers that “a danger hovers over Jerusalem.”
Not to be outdone, the bureau chief for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Rafiq al-Husseini, said “The Palestinian Authority will provide every assistance to the struggle against the Jewish excavations under the Temple Mount.”
THESE AND similar claims that frequently appear in the Arab media are baseless.
Israel did not cause the collapse of the Mughrabi Ascent; natural climatic forces were responsible. The archaeological excavation was a direct outcome of the plan to build an alternative bridge, and the discoveries that were revealed were precisely from the eras of Muslim rule over Jerusalem.
Likewise, the erection of the temporary wooden bridge was designed to answer real and pressing needs: allowing tourists and non-Muslims to enter the Temple Mount and providing access for Israeli security forces during emergencies.
The erection of the temporary bridge did not damage either the Temple Mount or its mosques. The bridge is hundreds of meters away from the mosques and could not undermine or damage their foundations.
In fact, the erection of the bridge only damaged the Jewish side. The iron scaffolding for it was erected inside the women’s prayer section of the Western Wall Plaza, reducing its area by a third.
This caused insufferable crowding, primarily during the Jewish holidays, and led to understandable pressure from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the rabbi of the Western Wall to erect a permanent bridge quickly and restore the previous situation in the women’s prayer section.
The Israel Antiquities Authority even stationed cameras at the excavation site in order to document what was occurring and transmit pictures in real-time to the entire world to demonstrate that the Temple Mount and its mosques were not in danger. In addition, Israel allowed all interested parties to visit the site and examine the claims. Representatives of the Jordanian government visited the site, as did a delegation from Turkey and a delegation on behalf of UNESCO.
Lastly, the new Mughrabi Bridge, as well as the temporary bridge, is located outside the Temple Mount and the Waqf does not have any pretext to claim that it enjoys any status with regard to it.
The Waqf was accorded religious and administrative autonomy within the areas of the Mount but not outside it.
Needless to say, there has never been any basis to the venomous claim that Israel is endangering the Temple Mount mosques or seeks to cause their collapse. Radical elements such as Raed Salah have utilized the events at the Mughrabi Ascent to increase their own status, to incite against Israel and to attempt to destabilize Israeli sovereignty in a unified Jerusalem.
It is time to put an end to the Mughrabi Gate affair, which has been blown beyond all proportion, and to speedily replace the temporary bridge with a permanent one. There is no need for stealth or covert action. It should be done openly and with full transparency, just as Israel has acted so far, while displaying consideration and sensitivity for the ties of various Islamic and Arab bodies to the site.
However, a clear line should be drawn, one that distinguishes between consideration, sensitivity and respect, and the conduct befitting a sovereign nation that is obligated to manage crises, but also to reach decisions and execute them, even in the highly sensitive area of the Temple Mount.
The writer is a veteran journalist who has covered Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria.
This article originally appeared as part of the Jerusalem Viewpoints series, published by the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.