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
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
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
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
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
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,�
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
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
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.
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.