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Commentary Last Updated: Feb 14th, 2007 - 00:54:35

Digging up religious hatreds
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Feb 14, 2007, 00:52

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A guest on a Doha Debates �Special,� Israel�s Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres did his utmost to convince an audience consisting mainly of Arabs that Israelis overwhelmingly seek peace.

If I�d been there I would have asked the veteran politician why each and every time peace appears on the horizon, Israeli governments go into provocation mode.

In September 2000, when peace talks were still underway between the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Ariel Sharon visited the Al Haram Al Sharif together with hundreds of armed men, triggering the Second Palestinian Intifada.

In March 2002, the Arab League proposed a comprehensive peace plan, endorsed by all 22 members, and Israel�s response a month later was to send its tanks and bulldozers into Jenin, a Palestinian refugee camp, where homes were demolished over people�s heads and civilians were used as human shields.

It seems Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has adopted Sharon�s bloodstained mantle with indecent fervour. Just six months after he launched a war against Lebanon taking the lives of over 1,200 Lebanese civilians, his army has crossed the Israel/Lebanon border and fired on the Lebanese army. Israel insists it is acting in self-defence even though that border is supervised by up to 15,000 United Nations troops.

But this controversial foray pales in comparison to Olmert�s latest provocation that has upset the entire Muslim world as well as disparate entities and individuals such as Churches for Middle East Peace, Americans for Peace Now, Israel�s own Political-Military Bureau, and Defence Minister Amir Peretz.

The row is over a new pedestrian walkway that Israel is building up to the Mughrabi Gate at the Al Haram Al Sharif, home to the golden-domed Al Aqsa mosque. The Israeli government insists the old walkway is dangerous and says it is Israel�s sovereign right to construct as it deems fit.

However, those protesting against the bridge are concerned that accompanying excavation works, required by Israeli law, risks undermining the foundations of one of the Muslim world�s most holy places.

Jordan, Syria and Egypt have asked Israel to stop work given heightened sensitivities but thus far Olmert has refused claiming there is absolutely no danger to the historic site.


Although Palestinian leaders warn of a possible third Intifada, Olmert remains stubborn. Many are unconvinced of the necessity for a new walkway, including the Israeli archaeologist Meir Ben Dov, who told Israel Radio the excavations are illegal and required permits had not been received.

In truth, if the Israeli prime minister truly wanted peace, he would give in to demands to stop work. He might be right that the foundations of the Al Haram Al Sharif will not be affected by excavation pits some 70 metres distant but, in this case, being right could turn out to be costly.

It�s odd that Olmert didn�t learn a lesson from his days as mayor of occupied Jerusalem. In 1996, a Benjamin Netenyahu-led government drilled a tunnel under the complex causing outrage that sparked the deaths of more than 50 Palestinians and 15 Israelis.

Olmert could easily avoid a replay and the erosion of relations with Israel�s neighbours by simply repairing the existing pedestrian structure, which would not necessitate excavation. The chairman of Pakistan�s Muslim League, Raja Zafar ul Haq, has asked Muslim countries to break off ties with Israel if it proceeds.

Why all the fuss about a bridge you might wonder. In truth, there is much more at issue. At the heart of the matter is Israel�s belief that Solomon�s Temple, destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, once stood in the same place as the Al Haram Al Sharif, known to the Jews as �The Temple Mount.� The Romans were later to destroy the second Jewish Temple, built on the same spot.

Religious Jews dream of the day the temple will be rebuilt and the Sanhedrin, an assembly of Jewish judges, reconstituted.

Messianic Evangelical Christians also want the temple to be rebuilt as they believe this is a prerequisite to the �second coming� of Jesus.

In the absence of proof in the form of artifacts, Muslims refute any assertion that the Al Haram Al Sharif was built on the place where the Jewish temples once stood. In the late �80s, Jewish claims were bolstered by a tiny ivory carved pomegranate alleged to have originated from Solomon�s Temple, but the museum where it was on display eventually admitted it was a fake.

Muslim suspicions that the Israeli government is using the new walkway as a pretext to dig for artifacts to support its contention are, therefore, understandable, as are their fears that Israel�s long-term goal is to demolish Muslim holy sites to make way for a new temple.

In an article, Digs, lies and the Mughrabi Bridge, published in Ha�aretz, Nadav Shragai perfectly illustrates the other side�s view. �Muslims fear these excavations, not because they physically endanger Al Aqsa�s foundations, but because they undermine the tissue of lies proclaiming that the Jews have no valid historical roots in the city and its holy sites,� he writes.

Late on Sunday, the mayor of occupied Jerusalem postponed construction of the walkway until the objections of residents can be considered but salvage excavation by the department of antiquities is expected to continue.

There is one very small positive offshoot out of this ongoing controversy. Feuding Palestinian factions have come together to form a unity government, perhaps swayed in part by a common desire to fend off threats to the place where the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) ascended to heaven on a winged steed.

Olmert should take note. If any harm comes to the noble sanctuary, Muslims everywhere will be both united and ignited; hopes for peace incinerated for all time.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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