This July, Eric Cantor, the first-term conservative Republican from Richmond, Virginia proposed legislation that would cut off Congressional aid to the Palestinians unless Islamic officials stop excavating and building on the Temple Mount, a 45-acre site in east Jerusalem which Jews, Muslims and Christians consider sacred ground, and which forms a crucial part of the national identities of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
“I visited Israel this July,” says Mr Cantor, a member of the House’s International Relations Committee. “I met Israeli archaeologists who showed me evidence of ancient material being unearthed by construction work on the site. The more I looked into the situation, the more shocked I became.”
In stridently pro-Israeli language, the bill accuses the Palestinian Authority, the nominal government of the Palestinian people, headed by Yasser Arafat, of threatening to “eliminate all historical evidence of Jewish activity on the Temple Mount,” as well as “jeopardising the ability of Americans to understand and promote their Judeo-Christian heritage.” Mr Cantor’s legislation, which has attracted 34 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors, would prevent Congress from providing economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority unless the US President certifies each year that “no excavation of the Temple Mount in Israel is being conducted.” In 2000, Congress voted $400 million for the Palestinians over a three-year period (in contrast, Israel receives roughly $3 billion each year from the U.S. in economic and financial aid). “Simply put,” Mr Cantor adds, “taxpayer money should not support the desecration of Jewish heritage.”
But the situation involving the Temple Mount, or, as Muslims calls it, Haram al-Sharif (the “Noble Sanctuary”) is anything but simple. Considered the holiest site in Judaism, it is the location of the Western, or Wailing Wall, and the place where the First and Second Temples once stood. Muslims venerate the mount as the location of the Dome of the Rock, as well as the al-Aqsa Mosque, the spot where Mohammed, accompanied by the angel Gabriel, made the Night Journey to the Throne of God.
To Christians, the mount is where Jesus taught, suffered the devil’s temptations and excoriated the money changers in the Second Temple. From a more secular point of view, it is a historical and archaeological site without parallel in the Middle East. “This is the ancient Acropolis,” says Gabriel Barkay, an archaeology professor at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. “It is the foundation of Western civilisation.”
“So many people were coming to pray at al-Aqsa that the Waqf [the Islamic religious organisation that has administered the site since the 15th century] wanted to restore the mosque’s basement area,” says Nazmi al-Jubeh, professor of Islamic history and archaeology at Bizreit University in Ramallah. “The upper mosque has a capacity of 10,000, the basement provides space for 15,000 to 20,000 people.” In 1999, the Waqf began constructing two emergency exits and other structural necessities to serve the new mosque, creating a hole reportedly 18,000 square feet in size, and 36 feet deep. “The Waqf presented their plan to Israeli authorities, and the government gave their permission,” adds Professor al-Jubeh.
But this construction work has enflamed other Israelis. “The Waqf never gave details of how extensive the excavations would be and, whoops, suddenly we find the largest mosque in Israel!” says Eilat Mazar, professor of archaeology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and head of the Committee for the Prevention of Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, a private organisation which includes archaeologists, writers, and politicians, including the former and current mayors of Jerusalem.
What particularly alarms Mazar and others are archaeological remains discovered within the thousands of tons of soil removed from the mount by the Waqf and deposited in such places as the nearby Kidron Valley.
Although the reports are sketchy and subject to great debate, this material apparently ranges from pottery shards from the First Temple, to a silver Crusader ring, to paving stones and 16th-century mosque tiles. “It’s an outrage, a violation of archaeological law. A huge amount of archaeological material is damaged and information lost,” says Barkay. “What good is it to sift the dirt at Kidron? If your child is thrown on the threshold of your door dead, it’s too late.”
Fuelling such rhetoric is the fact that since Sharon’s visit to the mount, the Waqf has closed the area off to Israelis and most foreigners, including reporters.
Even more galling to Committee members is the silence of their own government, which so far has refused to act against the Waqf, despite a 1993 Supreme Court ruling that the Waqf’s excavation work violated numerous Israeli laws. “All the time, we hear ‘World War III‚ will start’ if we try to stop the Waqf,” complains Mazar.
“Meanwhile, the Temple Mount has become a home of robbers, trying to steal it from our people.” Not surprisingly, perhaps, Professor Mazar’s group has little credibility with the Israeli government, sources reveal. “The government just says, ‘yes, yes, what the Waqf is doing is terrible, but what can we do?’” one official remarks.
Palestinians are quick to defend their religious organisation. “The Waqf is carrying out purely routine excavation work,” says Hamdan Taha, director of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities. “We, too, are concerned about archaeological remains, so we sent someone in to observe the Waqf without their knowledge, and we found no evidence of any damage.”
The objects in the Kidron Valley date from destruction caused by a massive earthquake in the area in 1927, not the Waqf’s current work, Professor al-Jubeh insists. “Besides, if you dig anywhere in Jerusalem, you’re bound to find archaeological material.”
Staking out a more balanced position is Jon Seligman, Jerusalem district archaeologist for the Israeli Antiquities Authority. “The damage is huge; the excavation cut straight into archaeological levels of primary importance to the Temple Mount. The Waqf has acted thoughtlessly, incompetently and without a real desire to discover any knowledge; but I don’t believe it was malicious.”
As for the importance of the remains, Mr Seligman believes that “some of the claims from the Israeli side are overblown. “Any destruction of objects is terrible, of course, but I think the information provided by what has so far been found has been pretty low.” Mr Seligman notes that about “20-30% of the remains are Jewish material, the rest comes from Byzantine or early Islamic periods.”
Professor Mazar will have none of this, however. She notes that Mr Seligman is a civil servant, who must downplay the archaeological damage to the Temple Mount in order not to contradict the “hands-off” policy of the Israeli government. “Why doesn’t the government pressure the Waqf to let us up there to see the excavation work for ourselves?” she asks. “If we don’t find any damage, then we’ll say fine, and go home.”
But allowing Israelis on Haram al-Sharif is not likely, at least in the near future, according to the Waqf’s director, Adnan Husseini. “Since 1967, the Israelis have attempted to assert their sovereignty over Haram al-Sharif, through the police and through archaeologists. We see no logic or need for their intervention. We have found nothing of interest to Israelis on the site, or anything holy to Jews. This site is very important to Muslims around the world. We will not allow any attempt to change the situation.”
So who is right in this dispute over the religious and archaeological heritage of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif? Given the historical passions and mutual recriminations surrounding the site, not to mention the virtual secrecy which shrouds the Waqf’s activities on the Mount, it is unlikely that a definitive answer will become clear anytime soon.
But the ambiguities of the situation do not seem to concern Mr Cantor, who confirms he met with Professor Mazar and some of the Committee members during his trip to Israel (It is interesting to note that Mazar is a popular figure with Pat Robertson and other pro-Israel Christian fundamentalists, who wield considerable political clout in Virginia.)
Still, observers give his legislation little chance of passing. “This may never even come up for a vote,” says one congressional source. “It could be one of those bills that keeps getting introduced year after year. Its best bet would be to be folded into a larger bill.”
The legislation’s failure would please at least one Israeli politician, who resents Mr Cantor further stirring already turbulent Middle Eastern waters. “This whole Temple Mount situation is absurd. It turns a political problem into a historical and religious conflict,” says Yael Dayan, a left-wing Knesset member and the daughter of Moshe Dayan. “It’s nobody’s business outside of Israel, and not something that should be the subject of another country’s legislation. Eventually, we’ll come to an agreement with the Palestinians. Eventually there will be peace.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Mount of contention'