JERUSALEM – Did Israeli police allow the Muslim custodians of the Temple Mount – Judaism’s holiest site – to carry out illegal construction on the Mount last week that may have damaged antiquities and make it more difficult for archaeologists to find temple artifacts?
That’s the question being asked by Temple Mount activists and archaeologists here after it was discovered the Waqf, the Mount’s Islamic custodians, last week used a heavy tractor to lay massive stone tiles over an area of the Mount in which some archaeologists believe a Second Temple wall was recently discovered.
Pictures of the purported wall surfaced after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last summer gave the Waqf permission to use tractors to dig a 1,300-foot trench around the periphery of the Mount. The Waqf claimed the trench was necessary to replace electrical cables outside mosques on the site.
Possible carved stone from Jewish Temple era exposed by digging at Temple Mount in Jerusalem
Allowing the use of bulldozers at any sensitive archaeological site is extremely unusual, particularly at the Temple Mount, which experts say contains sealed layers of artifacts as shallow as two to three feet below the surface.
The Mount has never been properly excavated. Heavy equipment could easily damage any existing artifacts, stress Israeli experts, who assert the area should be excavated slowly and carefully by hand.
This week, the Jerusalem police reportedly stopped Waqf workers from continuing what police chief Aharon Franco described to the Jerusalem Post as unauthorized “surfacing work.”
“It is our duty to ensure that the status quo is maintained on the Temple Mount,” Franco said.
The surfacing work involved the Waqf using a tractor to raise the ground on the northern side of the Temple Mount, according to witnesses speaking to WND. Workers then laid stones that were about nine inches thick along a large area in the north near where some Israeli archaeologists believe a Second Temple wall was found during this summer’s Waqf construction.
The stones change the status quo in the area by covering the ground with a thick layer, thus making excavations less likely, Temple activists charged.
The Palestinian Authority’s Waqf director Jerusalem Affairs Minister Adnan Husseini labeled the construction as “restoration work” of “deteriorated tiles.”
“They are not digging or doing anything there but restoration,” Husseini said.
The police Thursday stopped the Waqf work, which was taking place during the two hours in the morning in which Jews are allowed to ascend the Mount.
Due to Israeli restrictions, the Temple Mount is open only to non-Muslims Sundays through Thursdays, 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m., and not on any Christian, Jewish or Muslim holidays or other days considered “sensitive” by the Waqf, the Mount’s Islamic custodians.
“I personally watched the workers use a tractor and place thick stones into the ground in the area where the trench was dug this summer. It looked like the work began weeks ago. The whole area was raised up, a lot of work was done and big stones were being placed,” said Rabbi Chaim Richman, director of the international department at Israel’s Temple Institute.
Richman said he was on the Mount Thursday when a scuffle ensued during which the Jerusalem police stopped the Waqf construction. But the Waqf still managed to cover a large section with the deep stone tiles, a Waqf worker told WND.
The Waqf worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was “surprised” the police acted to halt the stone-laying, since, he said, Jerusalem police forces did not stop the Waqf or question the Islamic custodians last month when they transported the large stones onto the Mount.
Jerusalem police spokesman Shmulik Ben Ruby yesterday denied the Waqf construction even took place.
“The Waqf is lying. They didn’t do anything or cover anything. What happened was a bunch of Islamic Movement members from the north tried to ascend the Mount and place stone tiles on the floor and we stopped them,” Ben Ruby told WND.
The Islamic Movement, a Muslim Temple Mount activist group, denied they were involved in last week’s incident.
When quizzed about the witnesses who saw the Waqf construction, the PA Waqf director who commented on the construction and Ben Ruby’s own police chief issuing a statement regarding the construction, Ben Ruby persisted: “You can quote me here saying the Waqf is lying.”
Yoli Shwartz, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Antiquities Authority, the government agency charged with protecting the archaeological integrity of the Temple Mount, told the Jerusalem Post the police had alerted the authority about the issue, and that it would be “examined” in the coming days.
Prominent, third-generation Temple Mount archaeologist Eilat Mazar slammed the Antiquities Authority:
“They continue to disappoint us. The Authority failed to protect the mount last summer when the Waqf tore into the ground and destroyed priceless artifacts,” Mazar, a senior fellow at Israel’s Shalem Center and member of the Public Committee for Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on Temple Mount, told WND.
“The Antiquities Authority is charged with the mission of protecting the Temple Mount but instead time and time again they turn a blind eye to Waqf destruction,” Mazar said.
Mazar’s much-discussed discovery in the City of David, a neighborhood just south of Jerusalem’s Old City Walls, is a massive building that dates to the 10th century B.C. is believed is the remains of the palace of the biblical King David, the second leader of a united kingdom of Israel, ruling from about 1005 to 965 B.C.
In August, when the Waqf dug their massive trench, the Mount’s Islamic custodians were caught red-handed by WND destroying Temple-era antiquities. The Waqf had used tractors when the Muslim diggers came across a wall Israeli archaeologists believe may be remains of an area of the Second Jewish Temple known as the woman’s courtyard. The Antiquities Authority did not halt the dig.
WND at the time obtained a photograph of the massive Waqf trench. In view in the picture are concrete slabs broken by Waqf bulldozers and a chopped up carved stone believed to be of Jewish Temple-era antiquity.
Mazar analyzed the photo and said the damaged stone displays elements of the second Temple era and might be part of the Jewish Temple wall Israeli archaeologists charge the Waqf has been attempting to destroy. She said in order to certify the stone in the photo, she would need to personally inspect it.
But Israel blocked leading archaeologists from surveying the massive damage Islamic authorities are accused of causing to what may be the outer wall of the Second Jewish Temple.
“It’s crucial this wall is inspected. The Temple Mount ground level is only slightly above the original Temple Mount platform, meaning anything found is likely from the Temple itself,” Mazar told WND in August.
Fed up, Mazar and other top archaeologists ascended the Mount to hold an August news conference and inspect the site without government permission, but they were blocked from the trench by the Israeli police.
“It is unconscionable that the Israeli government is permitting the Waqf to use heavy equipment to chop away at the most important archaeological site in the country without supervision,” Mazar said.
“The Israeli government is actively blocking us from inspecting the site and what may be a monumental find and is doing nothing while the Waqf destroys artifacts at Judaism’s holiest site,” she said.
After Mazar was barred, the Muslim Waqf custodians of the Temple Mount also banned WND from inspecting and filming their massive trench.
The confrontation was captured on video by InfoLive.tv, a new, Internet-based television network broadcasting in four languages.
WND and the InfoLive.tv camera crew ascended the Mount to obtain footage of the trench, but Waqf guards backed up by the Israeli police stopped the news agencies from approaching open sections of the trench. The guards told WND only closed areas of the trench could be filmed. Sections of the massive trench were being closed up with dirt today before archeologists were able to inspect the site.
After persisting, one Waqf guard asked WND to shut off the camera and vacate the Temple Mount.
History of destruction
The last time the Waqf conducted a large dig on the Temple Mount – during construction 10 years ago of a massive mosque at an area referred to as Solomon’s Stables – the Waqf reportedly disposed truckloads of dirt containing Jewish artifacts from the First and Second Temple periods.
After media reported the disposals, Israeli authorities froze the construction permit given to the Waqf, and the dirt was transferred to Israeli archaeologists for analysis. The Israeli authorities found scores of Jewish Temple relics in the nearly disposed dirt, including coins with Hebrew writing referencing the Temple, part of a Hasmonean lamp, several other Second Temple lamps, Temple-period pottery with Jewish markings, a marble pillar shaft and other Temple period artifacts. The Waqf was widely accused of attempting to hide evidence of the existence of the Jewish Temples.
Temples ‘never existed’
Most Palestinian leaders routinely deny well-documented Jewish ties to the Temple Mount.
Speaking to WND in a recent interview, Waqf official and chief Palestinian Justice Taysir Tamimi claimed the Jewish Temples “never existed.”
“About these so-called two Temples, they never existed, certainly not at the Haram Al- Sharif (Temple Mount),” said Tamimi, who is considered the second most important Palestinian cleric after Muhammad Hussein, the grand mufti of Jerusalem.
“Israel started since 1967 making archaeological digs to show Jewish signs to prove the relationship between Judaism and the city, and they found nothing. There is no Jewish connection to Israel before the Jews invaded in the 1880s,” said Tamimi.
The Palestinian cleric denied the validity of dozens of digs verified by experts worldwide revealing Jewish artifacts from the First and Second Temples, tunnels that snake under the Temple Mount and more than 100 ritual immersion pools believed to have been used by Jewish priests to cleanse themselves before services. The cleansing process is detailed in the Torah.
Asked about the Western Wall, Tamimi said the structure was a tying post for Muhammad’s horse and that it is part of the Al Aqsa Mosque, even though the wall predates the mosque by more than 1,000 years.
“The Western Wall is the western wall of the Al Aqsa Mosque,” he said. “It’s where Prophet Muhammad tied his animal which took him from Mecca to Jerusalem to receive the revelations of Allah.”
The Palestinian media also regularly claim the Jewish Temples never existed.
Judaism’s holiest site
While the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism, Muslims say it is their third holiest site.
The First Jewish Temple was built by King Solomon in the 10th century B.C. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The Second Temple was rebuilt in 515 B.C. after Jerusalem was freed from Babylonian captivity. It was expanded by King Herod in 19 B.C. shortly before the birth of Jesus. That temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire in A.D. 70. Each temple stood for a period of about four centuries.
The Jewish Temple was the center of religious Jewish worship. It housed the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant and was said to be the area upon which God’s “presence” dwelt. The Dome of the Rock now sits on the site and the Al Aqsa Mosque is adjacent.
The temple served as the primary location for the offering of sacrifices and was the main gathering place in Israel during Jewish holidays.
The Temple Mount compound has remained a focal point for Jewish services over the millennia. Prayers for a return to Jerusalem have been uttered by Jews since the Second Temple was destroyed, according to Jewish tradition. Jews worldwide pray facing toward the Western Wall, a portion of an outer courtyard of the Temple left intact.
The Al Aqsa Mosque was constructed around A.D. 709 to serve as a shrine near another shrine, the Dome of the Rock, which was built by an Islamic caliph. Al Aqsa was meant to mark where Muslims came to believe Muhammad, the founder of Islam, ascended to heaven.
Jerusalem is not mentioned in the Quran. Islamic tradition states Muhammad took a journey in a single night from “a sacred mosque” – believed to be in Mecca in southern Saudi Arabia – to “the farthest mosque” and from a rock there ascended to heaven. The farthest mosque later became associated with Jerusalem.
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