Accessibility links

Breaking News

Repair of Bulge in Temple Mount Wall Causing New Israeli, Palestinian Dispute - 2003-02-17

A bulge has appeared in the southern wall of the Temple Mount, in the heart of the old city of Jerusalem. And like everything about this site, holy to two religions, it is controversial. Israelis and Arabs cannot agree on how dangerous the bulge is, or who should fix it, or how the site should be cared for.

The Muslim call to prayer is issued from Islam's third holiest shrine, the al-Aqsa mosque. The mosque stands in the compound Muslims call the Haram al Sharif, and Jews call the Temple Mount.

It is in a corner of the old city of Jerusalem, not far from the Via Dolorosa, where the bible says Jesus walked carrying his cross.

Today, it is a market street, crowded with shops selling ceramics, spices, and silver, as well as other treasures of the orient.

Pass through, and you come to the Temple Mount, where the Old Testament says Solomon built the first Jewish temple, where the New Testament says Jesus taught and challenged the merchants, and where in the seventh century the Muslim dynasty of the Umayads built a grand beautiful shrine, the Dome of the Rock, to mark the spot where the Koran says the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.

The glittering, blue-tiled Dome of the Rock still dominates the Jerusalem skyline, and the al-Aqsa mosque stands nearby. Around them is a wall, and its southern side is where the current problem lies.

It's a bulge. The ancient stones are slowly pushing out from a 200-square-meter section of the wall.

"Now it is very obvious and it came to be more than obvious, very risky in a very drastic status," said archaeologist Eilat Mazar.

Ms. Mazar is the grand-daughter of great Israeli archaeologist Benjamin Mazar who excavated the southern wall 35 years ago. She is one of a group of Israeli academics from several fields who wrote to warn Israeli authorities and to ask them to intervene to protect the southern wall.

When asked what the risks are if it's not repaired, Ms. Mazar replied, "It's going to fall. It's very obvious."

But the Islamic committee that manages the site disagrees. Its director is Adnan Husseini.

"We are following the case of the wall, we started to work and they stop us for no reason," he said. Mr. Husseini says they stopped him in April 2002. "You know why? Because they wanted us to work under their supervision and we said 'no,'" he said.

Mr. Husseini contends that Israel is trying to use the bulge to wrest control of the site from Muslims.

"I can only recommend that you go and judge for yourself. I don't think that you would put yourself, your child or any friend under this wall. It's a very risky situation," Ms. Mazar said. "The fact that it didn't fall yet, it's just luck. Who knows? And who can promise us that it's not going to be a greater disaster than just the wall by itself? If tomorrow the wall collapses, who will be blamed?"

Adnan Husseini is quite clear about the answer to that question. He says if the wall falls, it will be Israel's fault.

As this dispute has become more heated, the bulge has grown. With no repairs being carried out, and each side accusing the other of putting the ancient site and people nearby in danger, Jordan stepped in to try to defuse the situation.

Formal responsibility for the Muslim holy site lies with the Jordanian government, not the Israelis or the Palestinians, and Jordan sent in its chief engineer from Amman.

The Jordanian engineer, Reif Nejim is supervising a $250,000 repair job. He has taken core samples from the wall, and he says the problem is water damage, easy - if expensive - to repair.

"There is not a single piece of danger in that wall, [the] wall is too thick, and the bulge to the external surface does not do any harm to the internal oratory," Mr. Nejim said. "The oratory where they pray is on the other surface of the wall, so if any stone falls down it would be on the outside where no one walks, there is scaffolding, even animals don't walk there."

Work on the wall has begun, and Mr. Nejim hopes it will ease everyone's concerns. But now, a second bulge has been discovered, setting the stage for another round in this dispute.