This is going to be a very disturbing post about an incident that happened two days ago. A group of our researchers was attacked while on an archaeological learning tour of the Temple Mount.
We had doubts if we should publish these kind of things, which do not deal directly with our research and the goals of our project, but since it is already widely circulated in the media, and the details are not clear or accurate, we decided to post the facts about what exactly happened and that we are all safe and sound.
This week we conducted two tours for our staff of researchers. On Monday we toured archaeological excavation in Jerusalem to learn about new discoveries at current and ongoing excavations in Jerusalem. We were guided by the excavation directors at various sites and it was a very positive experience for the whole staff.
On Wednesday, we went to the Temple Mount itself. This tour was designated for our new research staff and our directors Gaby and Zachi taught about the archaeology of the Temple Mount. At first, the tour went very well and was very interesting. We learned about the history of the current structures on the Temple Mount and were able to identify many building materials in secondary use on the site. We had the chance to go into in depth discussions at various spots on the Temple Mount and reconsider common assumptions. Below: Learning about archaeology on the Temple Mount.
We walked freely and independently with no policemen or Waqf guards following us. For those of you who are not aware, the tours for religious Jews at the site are limited. Because of the objection of the Muslim organizations to religious Jewish presence at the site, religious Jews are accompanied by policemen that guard them as well as Waqf guards that look carefully at their lips to ensure that they do not mumble any prayers. Non-Muslim prayer at the site is forbidden. Since our group didn’t include any member who outwardly looked religious, we were treated as regular tourists. At the entrance, we immediately encountered the Waqf’s guards who shouted at one of our members that she could not enter the site with only a short sleeved shirt. Luckily she had a scarf in her bag that she could cover herself with. Later on, when we had a long talk near the Al-Aqsa mosque about the different construction phases of the building. One Waqf guard, who was nearby, decided we had spent too much time standing in one place and that we should move on. We did so.
In spite of those two, rather common, incidents, the tour continued with no serious interruptions and we could freely move around as any other tourist can. After two hours, we reached the remaining debris heaps that are still lying on the Temple Mount in the eastern olive grove (the same material that we have been sifting for the last 11 years). We stopped under the shade of one of the olive trees, and one of our group members sat down while listening to our director speak about the dirt. She realized that she was sitting on a rusty, modern, bent nail and picked it up. One Waqf guard who was watching us from a distance began shouting at her. He came over and she handed the nail over to him. He said we should not pick up olive pits.
At no point, did any member of our group pick anything from any of the olive trees or pick up any olive pits from the ground.
The guard begun following us, and asked us to leave the area. Gaby and Zachi continued explaining things as we moved, and we also discussed a large heap of ancient marble architectural fragments that appeared near the path. Then for some reason, the Waqf guard, and another Waqf official who joined him, ordered us to leave the site immediately. We didn’t understand that they wanted us completely off of the Temple Mount. We wanted to go up to the raised platform and ask the police to interfere, but the guards told us that the police are not the ones in charge on the Temple Mount and that they are the ones in charge. They can ask us to leave before visiting hours are over without a reason. They pushed us and ordered us to leave the site immediately while yelling at us for not respecting the site because we were stealing their olive pits. Again, the guard knew that our staff member had picked up a modern nail because he had put it in his pocket.
The police are scattered in many spots on the Temple Mount, but there were no police in sight on the eastern side. We wanted to go up to the upper level so that we could get eye contact with a policeman, but the Waqf officials physically prevented us from doing so. Zachi tried to call the police, but there was no answer on the phone.
One of our staff members (who would like to be anonymous) decided to take photos of the Waqf yelling at Zachi and getting very close to him, but two more Waqf guards came over and they started yelling and pushing him while blocking his photos. The situation was clearly getting out of hand. At this point, the guards pushed him, he fell backward onto the ground and all four guards started beating him. Thank goodness he did not need medical treatment, but he did walk away with several bruises from being kicked in the stomach and back as well as a cut on his neck that was bleeding. Below: camera blocked by Waqf guards – pictures taken before being pushed to the ground.
Zachi finally managed to reach the police by calling a policeman he knows on his cellphone. The officer immediately reported the incident on the radio. Zachi then began video filming the Waqf guards beating our staff member on the ground, and their focus then switched to him. One guard attacked him and grabbed his phone. He continuously pushed Zachi away and wouldn’t return the phone. He erased the video (we are in the process of restoring the deleted files).
The police still didn’t arrive.
Zachi told the Waqf guards that their actions were disrespectful to Islam and to this holy site, and that he would file a complaint about them in the Waqf administrative office. At this point, the guards decided to give him back his phone and speak differently, although there was still a lot of yelling on both sides. Only then did the police finally arrive. We managed to show some pictures of the altercation from another camera, and two Waqf guards were immediately arrested. We were safely escorted off the Temple Mount by police.
The police took this incident very seriously and urged us all to file complaints and give testimony. We spent the rest of the day at the police station. As far as we know, the court allowed the police to extend the arrest of three Waqf guards involved until 11:00am this morning. We very much hope that the police will finish the investigation quickly and press charges against them.
This incident was very disturbing and is deeply felt by all of our staff and not just the 7 of us that were on the tour. For some of us, it was our first experience with the Temple Mount. Ironically, before the tour, we took all precautions to ensure that the tour would go smoothly without interruption. Zachi Dvira and Gabriel Barkay are very experienced in guiding tours at this highly politically sensitive site, and know how to avoid negative encounters with the Muslim authorities. Yet this time, it seems that our professional interest in spots and issues that are uncommon among tourists aroused their suspicion. The Waqf’s demands were unsolicited and absurd, especially when they prevented us from seeking out the police. Officially, the Waqf guards have no authority upon tourists walking in the open courts of the Mount. Their only authority is inside the Mosques, in which tourists are not allowed. The only official authority are the police, and it is sad that these types of incidents are often overlooked due to political concerns and that the Waqf guards can harass innocent tourist. Since this event, we have received many other testimonies from tourists who were harassed by Waqf guards, and also about other cases where tourists were bullied and physically pushed out of the site.
The Sifting Project is an archaeological research project and does not deal with the political status of the Temple Mount. On the other hand, we are not deterred by conducting research in such a sensitive site with limited access to it. We see it as a challenge, and we will continue to pursue all possibilities in order to discover the archaeological evidence that exists in the site, preserve and study it, and publish our results to the public worldwide.