Archeological destruction

(June 29) - Paeans of devotion to Jerusalem are so common in Israeli politics that they have lost all meaning. This is perhaps the only explanation for Prime Minister Ehud Barak's complicity in the wanton disregard of archeological norms regarding Israel's most holy and significant ancient site, the Temple Mount.

When arguing for the transfer of Abu Dis, the Arab neighborhood on Jerusalem's outskirts, to full Palestinian control, Barak somewhat glibly pointed out that Jews had not prayed to return to Abu Dis for the past two millennia. The same cannot be said of the Temple Mount, site of the First and Second Temple, and the Western Wall which is today the holiest site in the world to the Jewish people.

For the past 33 years, since Mordechai (Motta) Gur emotionally declared "the Temple Mount is in our hands," Israel has in fact delegated almost all authority over the Temple Mount to the Moslem Wakf. The reason for this was to scrupulously uphold Israel's commitment to respect each religion's authority over its own holy places. Accordingly, Israel distilled its entire connection to the site that was Judaism's crucible into one peripheral spot, the Western Wall, leaving the actual site where the Temples stood to the Moslem shrines and mosques that were subsequently built there.

In response to its possibly unparalleled act of enlightened restraint, Israel has not only received little recognition, but is denied a modicum of reciprocity. Incredibly, the Moslem Wakf denies any Jewish connection to the site where tradition holds that Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac, King David established his capital, and his son Solomon built the First Temple. Just to make sure, the Wakf has prevented archeologists from plumbing one of the world's most prominent ancient treasures for its secrets.

Israel has accepted its inability to actively explore the Temple Mount, including a tantalizing passageway in the structure's western side that the Wakf sealed with concrete soon after its discovery. It is one thing, however, to prevent exploration and quite another to bulldoze through ancient structures without any archeological supervision.

Last November, the Wakf opened what it called an "emergency exit" to the mosque it had built in the chambers under the Temple Mount surface known as Solomon's Stables. By now this exit has expanded into a gaping hole 2000 square meters in area and up to 12 meters deep. The "exit," it seems, will become a monumental entrance area to the mosque. Thousands of tons of fill from the site, subsequently found by archeologists to contain First and Second Temple artifacts , were unceremoniously dumped into the Kidron Valley.

Now, somewhat belatedly, a public effort within Israel has galvanized to demand a stop to the construction and destruction on the Mount. An urgent open letter sent to the prime minister this month warns that "a serious act of irreparable archeological vandalism and destruction is being carried out without archeological supervision, while abrogating the Antiquities Law and Antiquities Authority remains inactive." This public effort is notable for its political diversity - the open letter was signed by former mayor Teddy Kollek and current mayor Ehud Olmert, authors Amos Oz and Haim Gouri, and by 82 MKs ranging from Meretz to Shas and Likud. Indeed, it should not be surprising that Israelis of all stripes are appalled that the law requiring almost every road and building site to submit to archeological supervision is brazenly suspended on the Temple Mount, potentially one of the richest archeological sites in the world.

Responding to the public pressure and constant bustle of unknown construction activity on the Temple Mount, Barak finally met yesterday with the relevant authorities to decide what to do. In an Orwellian statement released after the meeting, the Prime Minister's Office declared that Barak remained committed to "preserving the status quo and preventing archeological damage." National Security Adviser Danny Yatom later explained that Barak's idea of "status quo" was not to prevent the Wakf from continuing its unsupervised construction.

Such obfuscation, accompanied by an illegal attempt to prevent the press from visiting the area, is unacceptable. The claim that "security concerns" require Israeli acquiescence is widely, if unofficially, disputed by former and current security authorities, who agree with public demands to stop the movement of construction equipment and materials in and out of the Temple Mount.

The current stage of the peace process, far from being an excuse for inaction, increases the urgency of asserting Israel's right and duty to prevent archeological atrocities. The Wakf's history of outrageous disregard for the archeological patrimony of all three faiths to whom the Mount is holy is reason enough not to perpetuate its current degree of authority in the context of a final-status agreement. If Israel is considering enshrining the Wakf's authority by agreement, now is the time to enforce international standards of preservation and respect for ancient sites. If Israel does not exert its authority when it nominally has the power and responsibility to do so, it will hardly be in a position to demand that others do so in the future.