Latest update: May 24th, 2013
In Jerusalem, even when it’s relatively quiet on most of the city’s fronts, the tensions always zero in on one place: The holiest spot in the world, the site of the Beit HaMikdash – the Temple Mount. Current events show once again that it is here that the battle to keep Jerusalem Jewish will be decided.
Even a seemingly simple issue such as the need to repair or replace an entrance ramp to the Temple Mount – used only by non-Muslims, incidentally – is enough to bring about a major international crisis.
The entrance in question, known as the Mughrabi Gate, is the only one permitted for Jewish use. Anyone who visits the Western Wall can’t miss it, as it’s right there, just above and to the right of the women’s section. Israel’s closure last week of the ramp – because it is shaky, weak, a fire hazard and all-around dangerous – has brought on an onslaught of protests and anti-Israel threats by Arab countries.
It will be recalled that immediately after the 1967 Six-Day War, the Arab houses that reached almost up to the Kotel were razed, in order to create the broad Western Wall plaza in use today. The estimated 8 million worshipers and visitors who frequent the Kotel every year (including repeat visits) enjoy the open area either for praying, or for taking in the full grandeur of the Wall; many still do not realize that it is only a small part of the complete structure that enclosed the entire Beit HaMikdash in days of yore.
However, one large hill of dirt remained standing adjacent to the Wall after ’67. It served for years as a giant ramp by which tourists would enter the holy site – and religious Jews who wished to do the same (after immersing in a mivkeh and taking the other required halachic measures).
In February 2004, after heavy rains and snow, the hill partially collapsed. The Jerusalem Municipality announced that it would remove the hill almost completely – though only after conducting an archaeological dig at the site, as required by law – and then replace the entryway with a new wooden bridge.
After months of work – and Arab protests and threats – the dig was finally completed and the wooden bridge was erected. It was meant to be temporary – but no specific plans were made for its replacement. Then it happened: Two months ago, Jerusalem City Engineer Shlomo Eshkol officially informed Rabbi Shlomo Rabinovitch, the chief rabbi of the Holy Places, and Soli Eliav, the director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, that the structure is officially “condemned” and must be replaced within 30 days.
The matter was not one for those two to decide, of course; anything having to do with the Temple Mount and the Western Wall has international repercussions and must be decided on top governmental levels. Prime Minister Netanyahu originally agreed to replace the bridge, but then reneged because of pressure from Egypt, Jordan and other Arab states. The city engineer’s “condemnation,” therefore, trumped Netanyahu’s “no decision” – and the bridge is now closed. Ignoring for a moment the Arab anger at this decision – tourists now have no way to enter the Temple Mount – the question is, where does this leave the many religious Jews longing for the Beit HaMikdash who wish to visit the site in purity?
The answer is: They are furious. They originally supported the decision to replace the dangerous bridge that they use to ascend to and descend from the Mount, but they also expected that an alternative approach would be offered them, as in the past, while works were underway. This has not been the case – and they are now concerned that it could be a year or more before they are again afforded the chance to frequent the holy site.
“We call upon the Government of Israel,” the Temple Mount Foundation said in a statement, “to activate its sovereignty over its capital, and to use this opportunity as well to reconsider the absurd regulations by which 12 Temple Mount gates are open to Muslims 24/7, and only one gate is open to Jews, and that for 3 hours a day, 5 days a week…. [The government must provide] freedom of worship to Jews at their only holy site.”
Meanwhile, the Islamic Movement in Jordan condemned Israel’s closure of the bridge: “There is no way to deal with the ‘occupation’ other than by an international struggle” – often used by Arabs as a euphemism for “war.”
Jordan’s foreign minister said that his country “rejects every Israeli attempt to influence the holy sites in Jerusalem and the city’s legacy and character.”
Most telling, however, is the way in which Israeli media report the Arab reactions. The Nana10 news site, for instance, wrote: “Many Muslim leaders fear that Israel is acting unilaterally regarding the bridge, thereby shunting aside the Waqf, the Muslim organization that controls the holy sites on the Temple Mount. It should be noted that Jordan, too, has a say in the matter, since it is Islam’s custodian of Jerusalem’s holy sites.”
About the Author: Chaim Silberstein is president of Keep Jerusalem-Im Eshkachech and the Jerusalem Capital Development Fund. He was formerly a senior adviser to Israel's minister of tourism. Hillel Fendel, past senior editor at Israel National News/Arutz-7, is a veteran writer on Jerusalem affairs. Both have lived in Jerusalem and now live in Beit El.
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