The Waqf is about to begin restoration and repairs that were initially denied by the Israeli security authorities. But behind what should be a simple story, lies an ongoing strategy to exert control of Judaism’s holiest site.
Waqf Begins Repairs Without Permits
The story began several weeks ago when the Waqf (the Muslim authority that has a custodial role in managing the Temple Mount) had scaffolding erected in the Dome of the Rock and the silver-domed Aqsa Mosque in order to carry out restoration on the intricate paintings and calligraphy on the ceilings.
The site has great archaeological significance and the Waqf has destroyed artifacts in previous reparation projects. As a result, the Israeli security authorities shut down the project being carried out by the Islamic Waqf Rehabilitation Committee.
Bassam al-Halak, head of the committee, accused the Israeli government of preventing the fixing of water leaks as well as restricting building materials required for the renovation to be brought to the site. Halak also said that the Israeli government claimed that the renovations weren’t approved and on Friday they completely halted the work without giving any explanation.
Director of the Al-Aqsa Mosque Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani,, called Israel’s policy “outright meddling with the authority of the Islamic endowment department that belongs to Jordan.”
The move by the Israeli security authorities quickly escalated into an international incident. The Jordanian Foreign Ministry sent a protest note calling for “an end to the provocations” and to “respect the mandate” which entrusts the management of the area to Waqf. The Jordanian Foreign Ministry criticized Israel’s intervention, claiming that the Waqf “is the sole authority responsible for the care and supervision of the compound”. The Jordanians claimed the Israeli police were in violation for “photocopying the identity cards of workers and technicians.”
The work was halted for four days. After meetings between Israel and Jordan, work was resumed, upon which the Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi declared his country’s “firm and supportive position towards the Palestinian cause, and the daily and continuous coordination with the Palestinians in this regard.”
A Cycle of Power Games That Is Often Repeated
Assaf Fried, the spokesman for the Temple Organizations, watched the episode unfold with equanimity.
“This is how it goes every time the Waqf wants to do repairs on the Temple Mount,” Fried said. “It is reasonable to expect repairs and renovations on such an ancient site to be subject to scrutiny by the archaeological experts. This is how it works everywhere in Israel and in all of modern society.”
“But the Waqf cannot do this,” Fried explained. “To request a permit or to request permission or even advice from the Israeli authorities is an admission that they are not the ultimate and exclusive rulers on the Temple Mount. So to save face, the Waqf must begin work in an intentionally provocative manner and then call foul when the Israeli authorities rightly step in.”
“In the end, some of the restorations, mostly cosmetic, were permitted by the Israeli authorities while other projects were not allowed, Fried said. “Both Muslim buildings are ancient, though they do not, of course, date back to the Temple period. The work really does demand expert oversight. It is absurd that the Waqf does not request help from the experts.”
Repairs or Destruction?
Fried emphasized that unrestrained and unmonitored Waqf construction has, in the past, resulted in irreparable damage at the site. In August, a large truck engaged in illegal construction broke flagstones on the Temple Mount, revealing a previously unknown tunnel that ran under the holy site. Much to the dismay of the archaeologists who identified the tunnel as dating to the First Temple Period, the Waqf had the opening filled with cement.
Another example of the Waqf destroying Temple Mount artifacts in the name of restorations resulted in the Sifting Project. In 1999, the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement conducted illegal renovations on the Temple Mount and disposed of over 9,000 tons of dirt mixed with invaluable archaeological artifacts. Though Israeli antiquities law requires a salvage excavation before construction at archaeological sites, this illegal bulldozing destroyed innumerable artifacts: veritable treasures that would have provided a rare glimpse of the region’s rich history. The earth and the artifacts within were dumped as garbage in the nearby Kidron Valley. In a bold move, archaeologists Dr. Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira retrieved the matter from the dump, and in 2004, they started sifting it. Their initiative became the Temple Mount Sifting Project (TMSP) with the goal of rescuing ancient artifacts and conducting research to enhance our understanding of the archeology and history of the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount Sifting Project’s finds constitute the first-ever archaeological data originating from below the Temple Mount’s surface.