Thursday, February 08, 2007

Inciting the Faithful: Construction near the Temple Mount

Al Aqsa from behind the wall (Summer 2006)

ADDENDUM: I wrote the post below before the riots that erupted on the Temple Mount on Friday. Protesters in Nazareth, meanwhile, carried signs calling on the Muslim world to react to the "Jewish assault on [al-Aqsa]."

There has been a great deal of commotion about Israeli construction and excavation projects near the Temple Mount in recent days. Accusations by the waqf and by various Palestinian groups that Israel is damaging the al-Aqsa mosque in particular or the Haram al-Sharif more generally are longstanding. In several instances in the past, Muslim leaders have complained about the "desecration" of these areas by the State of Israel or by Jews. All too often, these accusations have been utterly spurious, serving to incite Arabs in Israel and abroad.

This time around, there is controversy about two different projects. The first is the excavation of a tunnel under the City of David by two Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists. Archaeologists recently discovered what they believe to be a road used by pilgrims during the Second Temple era that led through Jerusalem and to the temple. They are planning to lay bare the whole road, from the village of Silwan to the Bab al-Mughrabi [Mughrabi Gate or Gate of the North Africans, also known as the "Dung Gate"] and perhaps even to the Temple Mount. It turns out that the excavations that have been going on recently are actually illegal under Israeli law, as it is proceeding without a license (Ha'aretz).

A different project is the construction of a new bridge to replace the old ramp to the Bab al-Mughrabi, which collapsed. It is important to point out that this gate, which in Hebrew is called the שער האשפות (Garbage or Dung Gate) is also the only one by which Jews and other non-Muslims can currently access the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif, whichever you prefer. All the other gates are open to Muslims only. It was to be expected that the inflammatory leader of the Islamist Movement's Northern Branch in Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah, would protest any construction by Israel. But now even the Egyptian Foreign Ministry is weighing in. In a statement to the Israeli ambassador, the Egyptians declared that
the sacredness of the site makes any movement inside or around it a very sensitive issue for Arab and Muslim peoples, in a way that could cause the situation to explode (Ha'aretz).
Never mind that it is also Judaism's holiest site.

Interestingly enough, the waqf itself has not yet launched protests against this construction, which is taking place entirely outside the Temple Mount. The Islamist Movement seems to have taken the opportunity to incite its followers once again. This is in line with previous statements by the Sheikh to the effect that Israel was preparing to seize the al-Aqsa mosque.


Jeha said...

There are 2 underlying tones to the controversy, which is not limited to just the "sacredness of the site";

First, many (or most?) Islamists consider that the Jewish temple was never anywhere near the site. The most reasoned argument I would hear from them is based on arguments that the wailing wall may actually be the remains of the Roman structure that was erected there. I often point out to them that, even if that were the case, that would still mean that temple mound was the location of the Jewish temple. But no dice; this tendency to "extrapolate" from the scientific questions is widespread.

Second, the timing is politically convenient to the Palestinians; what better to focus the minds of a people on the verge of civil war? Of course, this can easily get out of hand...

The issue will remain controversial in the future. it is possible for wider, more inclusive archeolgic comission, to dampen controversy, but I fear the "city of Peace" will never really live up to its name. Maybe Monotheistic beliefs are boring; when people cannot worship many gods, they tend to worhip different versions of the same god. The golden calf was never really gone.

Amos said...

Thanks, Jeha. There was an article about a year ago that examined the history of some of these controversies. It turns out that claims that many of these kinds of claims about the Western Wall and the Temple are actually fairly recent - i.e., from the last century. I'll try to find it.

Yes, the timing is convenient for some among the Palestinians in the territories - though the riots erupted after what seems to be the successful agreement on a unity government (for now). However, the Islamist Movement, which is composed of Israeli Arabs (or Palestinians) living inside Israel proper, has been agitating about this for a long time.

John said...

I've also read of documents and writings published by Muslim notables from Jerusalem (perhaps even by Ruhi al-Khalidi?) in the early 1900s in which al-Haram al-Sharif is described as being built on the site of the Jewish Temple. In those days, no attempt was made to deny Jewish religious claims in Jerusalem.

The current controversy seems to be mainly the result of political incitement from two sources:
1) that of Ra'id Sallah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel (they are indeed, Islamists, but their proper name is al-Haraka al-Islamiyye = התנועה האסלאמית)
2) The Palestinian unity agenda

I think that what is key here is that the Waqf did not participate in the demonstrations. From what I read several days ago in Ha'aretz, the Waqf was actually briefed of the intended renovation of the bridge by the Jerusalem police before the construction began. They didn't have the choice of vetoing the project, but they were apparently not perturbed enough by it to organize demonstrations. Of course, the contacts between the Israeli police and the Waqf in East Jerusalem are a very sensitive matter - the meetings are supposed to be secret because too much exposure to them is bound to put the Waqf in a very awkward position.

I don't understand why the Egyptians and the Jordanians are exacerbating the situation rather than restraining it. The Egyptian statement cited in Amos's post did not claim that the renovations would do actual damage, but they did lend legitimacy to these politically motivated protests. Perhaps the Jordanians are peeved that they were not properly consulted over the matter (they should have been, because they pay the Waqf's salaries, from what I remember. I'm sure that this entire matter could have been handled better by the Israelis, but that in no way justifies the cynical exploitation and incitement of thousands of Muslims over a project that does not endanger the al-Aqsa mosque in any way.

John said...

From an article in the New York Times:
In the past, Muslim authorities have carried out renovations of their own at the mosque compound. Seven years ago the Waqf removed thousands of tons of dirt in trucks to make way for a staircase. Israeli archaeologists complained that the work removed many artifacts from the periods of the First and Second Jewish Temples, and that the dirt and the artifacts were tossed into a garbage dump.

Just last month, Mr. Husseini, the director of the Waqf, complained that he wanted to carry out additional renovations that were being prohibited by Israel.

Amos said...

I am amazed by the incitement and by the explicit use of theological prejudices (such as talk of Jewish "usurpers") by both supposedly secular Arab leaders as well as Islamist factions. What's interesting is that there is not even an effort to couch this in universalist terms. From Ha'aretz:

The Arab League meeting was also attended by Palestinian presidential aid, Nabil Shaath, who openly accused Israel of threatening to destroy Islam's third-holiest shine, the Al-Aqsa.

In Jordan, Islamists called for holy war, or jihad, to save the mosque and vowed revolt against their Arab rulers if they do not protect the Jerusalem flashpoint site from Israeli actions.

The committee of Muslim scholars in Jordan's largest political opposition group, the Islamic Action Front, or IAF, said in a statement that they "urge ... proclaiming jihad to liberate Al-Aqsa and save it from destruction and sabotage from Jewish usurpers."

Jeha said...


Welcome to the club, this "incitement and [this] explicit use of theological prejudices" are part of the picture. Dictators have to find a way to distract the masses.

This is not about the merits of any archeological evidence, as John pointed out, the "studies" timing is rather suspicious, and the sources less than reliable. However, the Israeli government should try and learn more about the region they live in.

All too often, they blunder in battles that were never theirs to fight; in Nazareth, they played a less than stellar role, supporting fundamentalists who were going to build that mosque, even against even Saudi's advice and wishes.

John said...

Whoah, jeha, I don't recall there being Israeli government support for the building of that mosque. Enlighten me on that if you can. I don't think it really matters how careful the Israeli government is on Jerusalem - it will be the target of incitement from the usual suspects no matter what.

Jeha said...


I am sure that you can find the evidence in Israel, and I am sure that many people in Nazareth would oblige with proof.

Do not misunderstand me; I am not part of the "always blame it on Israel" crowd, but the Israelis do have quite a few morons in their government. Too many people in Israel have no notion of what the Middle East reality; they tend to substitue their own assumptions to facts, and follow short term policies without looking a the larger scope.

John said...


I'll definitely look into it. I've heard people say that the dispute was manipulated by the authorities to shore up tensions between Christians and Muslims in Nazareth. I also recall vaguely that there was a lot of vacillating and flip-flopping from Netanyahu to Barak on the issue. But I'm definitely not an expert.

Don't worry, no one here considers you part of that crowd - we read your blog after all :)

As for the issue of the "Middle East reality" and how Israeli officials/Israelis interpret it, I would be careful about postulating the existence of any one reality or Middle Eastern "rules" - it's too deterministic for my liking. You seem to assert that there is some kind of objective expertise and knowledge about the Middle East, and that having it would translate into better results for Israeli foreign policy. Do the Arab governments in the region necessarily pursue wiser foreign policies? I doubt that this is the case, yet we could hardly claim that they misunderstand "Middle Eastern realities", whatever they may be.

In any case, my critique of your use of that term is more academic. I actually wrote my thesis on a group of Israeli Arabists who believed themselves to be experts on Arab matters and were convinced that there was an Arab nature/way of doing things, etc. A number of these individuals were Jews of Middle Eastern origin. Anyway, their claims to expertise were based on the assumption that there is some kind of "Middle Eastern" way of operating and doing things and that policies should be formulated in accordance with it.

If you'd like, I'll send you an interesting article by Gil Eyal, one of my thesis advisors on the evolution of "Arabist expertise" in Israeli military intelligence...

Jeha said...


Indeed, the "Middle Eastern" way of doing things is real. The following attempt at describing it is a bit rambling;

Actually, It cannot be really described, but you can get a very good demonstration of this "method" at work when you study the dynamics between Lebanon and Syria, among the leaders of each side. This allowed Syria to keep enormous staying power in Lebanon, even with its troops out.

One indirect way of looking at this is historic; we Arabs do not have a smilar "epic" sense to other people. While Arabic poetry has all imaginable genres, it lacks a truly "Epic" genre. The closest that comes to it is "sirat 3antar", a highly individualist biography of a black slave, who rose to earn his freedom and lived to tell about it.
Philippe Hitti once said that Arabs built their monuments in words, so 3antar's name became the arabic word for bravey...

On the information that you suggested, please email me the data if you can. That would be definitely interesting, and I will find a way to forward them to some Lebanese academics who might be interested in reading them.

Incidentally, what do you think of Avi Shlaim's work? I found the "Iron wall" rather interesting, though some aspects of his work may have been simplistic..

Amos said...

Two items of interest in the latest coverage in Ha'aretz:

Police say intelligence points to efforts by both Fatah and Hamas to fan the flames in the capital.

How credible are these reports?


The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee announced Saturday that it does not recognize Israeli sovereignty in the vicinity of the construction.

"The Israeli government or any Israeli institution has no legal, political or sovereign right to take action in occupied Jerusalem," a statement released by the committee said.

In light of all the other things coming out of the Higher Arab Committee, I cannot but view such statements with great concern. All of this posturing is deliberately presenting the construction outside Mugrabi gate as an incursion by an alien body (Jewish, Israeli) into something that supposedly belongs only to Muslims. Of course, as the waqf apparently knows, the construction is going on outside the Temple Mount. But let's say that some of the construction were going on beyond the gate, is this a legitimate reason for rioting? Furthermore, the rhetoric used by Israeli Arab groups continues to astound me; it clearly implies that Jews have no claim at all to the Temple Mount, and that even the presence of Jews in the vicinity must be viewed as a threat to the integrity of al-Aqsa. It's a rather twisted view of things.

John said...

From an article published by Nadav Shragai in Ha'aretz (English Edition) today, February 11, 2007:

Still, one good thing did happen. The Mugrabi bridge plan exposes the great Muslim denial - the denial of the Jewish bond to Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and the Temple. Dr. Yitzhak Reiter described the whole story in his study, From Jerusalem to Mecca and Back - a must for anyone wishing to understand the roots of Muslim behavior, even in the Mugrabi bridge affair - but his work remained, regrettably, an academic study, failing to prompt an appropriate public relations campaign on Israel's part. Now the public is receiving another demonstration.

Who among us knows, for example, that the al-Aqsa Mosque, which according to contemporary studies was built some 1,400 years ago, is now claimed to have been built at the time of the world's creation, during the days of Adam or Abraham? And who is aware of the fact that increasing numbers of Muslim academics and religious leaders claim it existed even before Jesus and Moses and that Islam preceded Judaism in Jerusalem?

Today, thousands of Islamic rulings, publications and sources deny the Jewish roots in Jerusalem and its holy places. They claim that the Temple didn't even exist in Jerusalem but was located in Nablus or Yemen. An Islamic legal pronouncement (fatwa) on the Jerusalem Waqf (Muslim religious trust) Web site says King Solomon and King Herod did not build the Temple at all, but merely refurbished an existing structure that had been there from the days of Adam. Today, many Muslims call the Temple "the greatest fraud crime in history" and many Muslim adjudicators attach the world "so-called" to the word "temple."


Muslim religious leaders, with at least partial academic backing, are today rewriting Jerusalem's history and introducing new terms and content into Muslim and Palestinian discourse. These terms are total nonsense, even according to known Muslim historians like al Makdessi (who lived in the 11th century). In recent years, this new terminology has penetrated the discourse of Palestinian and Muslim politicians as well. Ehud Barak, Shlomo Ben-Ami and the members of the Israeli delegation were horrified to hear it at the Camp David Summit of 2000 from Yasser Arafat and members of his delegation.

Reiter's book, From Jerusalem to Mecca and Back has yet to be translated into English. However, a n English summary and table of contents can be viewed at:

Jeha, your views would ironically be anathema in most post-colonial Middle Eastern Studies departments, including that of Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva. The same is true for most North American universities. If I were to have talked about "Middle Eastern" ways of doing things in a graduate seminar, I would probably have gotten a copy of Edward Said's Orientalism tossed at my head. :) I'm gonna e-mail you that article I mentioned earlier...

Shlaim and Benny Morris (my other thesis supervisor, btw) are great old-fashioned historians. Their books are definitely worth reading.

Jeha said...


Indeed, most "arabist" or "orientalists" are litterature types, with little "field" experience. I would not rank Edward Said in this crowd, though; I feel that he is a uniquely insighiful thinker, poorly "translated", however. Most of the rest of the crowd are holdovers from the leftish ideologies, and a few are too close to syrian National Socialist thinking; they hate it when I debate them... In addition to being an engineer, I have had a lot of "field" experience, interacting with many "real" people of different persuasion, and not always in the best of settings. This allows me to realize that there is a lot that idealists miss.

An analogy for Israel would be Jacobitsky's idealism contrasted with the realism of "field" people such as Aaronson. Those people actually had to implement the "vision" on the ground, and knew what works.

I was consistently impressed by Morris and Shlaim. There were a few things I would nit-pick about, but their analysis often insightful. As for Shlaim, I was underwhelmed by some of his later articles, basically stuff that post dated his "Iron wall"...

Anonymous said...

We have been seeing more and more manifestations of the self serving nature of morality in contemporary Arab/Muslim culture. Professor Landes discusses this on his augean stables blog. It is as if there is no ability to look at the other side and the whole picture. Unfortunately after failing to defeat Israel militarily they are now resorting to tactics of cloaking the conflict as your run of the mill anti colonial human rights struggle - and many gullible Westerners are buying it. Part of this includes the audacity of criticizing Israeli democracy when their regimes are far less democratic

Anonymous said...

Whatever Israel does will be wrong. If Israel stays in Gaza they are wrong, if they leave Gaza they turned into an "open air prison". If Israel leaves Lebanon they are still violating Lebanese air space so they did not "really" leave.
If Israel hires Palestinians they are exploiting cheap labor
If Israel doesn't hire Palestinians they are being negligent to their humanitarian crisis.