Begging his or her pardon in advance, the reader is asked to imagine a Muslim cemetery alongside the Western Wall. Horrific? Inconceivable? Yet this is precisely what is happening before the very eyes of the police and Jerusalem municipal authorities just across the Temple Mount, at its Eastern Wall.
The gloomy story is as follows.
The Ophel is the biblical name given to the hilltop just south of the Temple Mount, from which the City of David slopes downward. It is mentioned several times in the Bible: twice in Chronicles II as the site of Jewish royal construction, and also in Nechemiah as a place that was resettled during the Return to Zion after the First Exile.
Its Jewish history is also traced to the times of the Mishnah, as it is mentioned in the Tosefta of Taanit in connection with the neighboring Kidron Brook and prayers for rain.
Keren HaOphel, or the Ophel Corner, is the present-day area that features the southeastern corner of the Old City and the Temple Mount. Its upper half towers 20 meters (six and a half stories) above the hill; its lower half is buried another 20-25 meters deep in the ground.
As anyone standing across the valley on the Mt. of Olives can see, most of the 800-meter long Eastern Wall is already dotted with Muslim graves, marring the presence of two prominent Old Jerusalem entrances there: Lions’ Gate, through which the Israeli forces entered and liberated the Old City in the Six-Day War, and Golden (Mercy) Gate, which has been sealed up for nearly five centuries.
However, the southernmost 80 meters are still mostly untouched, and are in fact protected, by law, from being built up or upon. Yet over the past several months, Muslims have been flagrantly violating the law and long-time custom by holding funerals there and adding new graves.
Dozens of graves have even been illegally dug with nothing but tombstones atop them – “saving” the space for future bodies.
“Keren HaOphel is a key site for studying the ancient remnants of the Temple Mount,” according to veteran Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar, “[in terms of] history, architecture, topography, Hasmonean construction…. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the seven wonders of the world. We cannot allow ourselves to lose this treasure.”
Jerusalem lands activist Aryeh King told us that in 2004 he filed a court suit against allowing Muslim burials there – “and in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that I was right. It also stated that the area must be preserved as the National Park that it is, and in fact, appropriate steps were taken in this direction.”
“But of late,” King continued, “shortly after Niso Shacham became police chief in Jerusalem, things started to change for the worse. It’s interesting that Shacham was responsible for holy sites in Jerusalem around the time of my original court suit – and now that he is police chief, the situation has again deteriorated.”
According to King, the problematic situation has caught the eyes of the residents of Givat Assaf, Migron, and the Ulpana neighborhood in Beit El. What’s the connection?
“The Supreme Court set a date for the demolition of their communities,” King said, “and the government seems prepared to follow the ruling, down to the last letter. [Editor’s Note: The destruction, thought to be imminent last month, has been put off at least until another hearing, to be held by next summer.]
“But the same Supreme Court has also determined that graves must not be dug at the Ophel, and so these people are asking why there is no date for the implementation of that decision. The graves should be dug up and relocated, just like occurred in Gush Katif.”
This option has barely been considered, as even just enforcing the law on no funerals and no new graves is not done, due to fear of Arab riots. Many feel this will lead to a “weeping for generations,” as Mazar put it.
Yaakov Yaniv, a former Arab Affairs Department head in the Shabak, has written, “The authorities are totally mistaken in enabling the Arabs to continue to take control of the Keren HaOphel via illegal burials. Without enforcement of Israeli laws there, lawbreakers are liable to sell burial plots elsewhere as well. Via burials of this nature, the entire Ophel and promenade area there is likely to lose the status of National Park and archaeological site.”
Keep Jerusalem-Im Eshkachech invites you to do your part in keeping Jerusalem united under Jewish sovereignty. Fax your concerns regarding Keren HaOphel to Minister of Public Security Yitzchak Aharonovitch at 02-6496188, and/or visit www.keepjerusalem.org or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to receive updates on our bus tours of critical parts of Jerusalem and more.
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 is a long-time writer and editor. Both have lived in Jerusalem and now reside in Beit El.