Sep 22, 2021
JERUSALEM WEATHER

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The only access Jews have to their holiest site is a slender wooden bridge, built as a temporary measure 14 years ago. Experts have long claimed the bridge was unsafe and in the wake of the Meron Lag B’Omer tragedy, one MK is calling for immediate action.

Mughrabi Bridge: imminent danger of collapse

Last month, Ofer Cohen, a structural engineer, wrote an official letter to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation after finding “extreme dryness” and “many longitudinal cracks” in the wooden footbridge leading up to the Mughrabi Gate on the Temple Mount. Cohen warned that the bridge used by non-Muslim visitors to Judaism’s holiest site was in danger of collapse. Cohen said in his letter that the condition of the wood “doesn’t enable safe use of the bridge over time.” He “unequivocally” recommended the bridge be replaced with a metal structure that would be more durable.

On Sunday, Likud MK Miri Regev called for immediate action.

“It is forbidden to wait another moment with the demolition of the bridge and the construction of a suitable replacement,” Regev said in the Knesset. “It is written on the wall, and there will be blood on the hands of all who sit on the shore and keep silent.”

Regev noted that a collapse would not only threaten those on the bridge but also worshippers standing under the structure.

Regev added that the issue is especially sensitive as Israel is still mourning the Lag B’Omer tragedy that killed 45 in April and bleachers which collapsed in a Givat Ze’ev synagogue in May, killing two and injuring 184. Both incidents happened after safety warnings were disregarded. The possibility of another mass tragedy at a holy site is a sensitive issue in Israel today. 

MK Miri Regev  (Likud) at a ceremony for replacing of the minister, held at the Transportation Ministry in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

“In light of the tragic disasters at Har Meron and Givat Ze’ev, we must not wait another moment to dismantle that bridge. We must take responsibility for human life and discuss the danger that will arise if that bridge collapses. In the next two months…Tisha Be’av, the mass Selichot prayer events and other Israeli holidays all stand to endanger hundreds of thousands of people,” wrote Regev.

“How do we prevent the next disaster from happening? Why does the removal of this dangerous bridge continue to be delayed?” Regev wrote in her resolution. “Will this safety hazard be removed before we pay for it with human lives?”

Calls for action

Calls for action have also come from other quarters. JNS reported that former Jerusalem City Council member Mina Fenton called the police and requested that they place barriers under the bridge to prevent women from gathering under it and to prevent a disaster.

“Of course, nothing was done,” she told JNS. Fenton said she has called upon State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman to “investigate the matter, look at all the bodies involved and examine every detail in order to hasten pulling down the bridge and building a new one.”

“We need to make the public aware so that they can amplify the issue,” she said. “This is political terror.”

Fenton is aware of the political complications that hamper action.

“Are we taking into consideration all the arguments about Jordan and the Palestinians, but not safeguarding our own people?” Fenton said. “We are sovereign in Jerusalem. The first prerogative is to defend the people.”

It should be noted that the bridge itself is not in the Temple Mount area under Jordanian and Waqf custodianship. Construction and repairs do not affect any area considered significant to Islam. The erection of a new bridge is legal from the perspective of both Israeli law and international law.

A group of worshippers who regularly visit the Western Wall petitioned the High Court demanding the state take action. The state has until July 22 to respond.

Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hassan-Nahum was contacted by JNS and also expressed anger over the situation.

“I understand the geopolitical implications, but what do you want to do?” she asked JNS. “Wait until 100 women die? What we have now is an accident waiting to happen.”

Hassan-Nahum also referred to the Lag B’Omer Meron tragedy.

“We are painfully more aware than ever about what happens when professionals are ignored, and everyone thinks you can wait and sort it out and it’s no one’s priority,” she told JNS. 

“Life,” she emphasized, “comes before anything.”

Mughrabi Bridge: History of controversy and danger

The Mughrabi Bridge is a wooden bridge connecting the Western Wall Plaza with the Mughrabi Gate ( or Moroccan gate), the earliest of the gates into the Temple Mount compound. Until 2004, an  800-year-old earthen ramp allowed visitors direct access to the Temple Mount via the Mughrabi Gate, the only entrance the Waqf allows non-Muslims to use. It was also used by Israeli security forces since there is no security presence at the entrances used by Muslims.

In 2004, the ramp collapsed and Israeli engineers suggested that heavy snowfall and a small earthquake might have destabilized the embankment, causing the wall to collapse. The collapse of the ramp posed a danger to tourists ascending to the Temple Mount and to the worshippers in the Women’s Area in the Western Wall plaza below. The site was declared hazardous by the City Engineer immediately after the collapse. 

Hamas blamed Israel, saying the wall fell down because Israel had tried to undermine the foundations of the al-Aqsa mosque, which is situated in the compound. Israeli officials responded that the Waqf might have weakened the area by carrying out unauthorized underground work in the compound.

In 2007, the current wooden bridge was built, originally intended as a temporary measure that would stand for several months until a more permanent bridge was constructed. In order to build a permanent bridge, the remains of the old ramp and the dirt under it had to be excavated, which resulted in accusations by the Waqf that Israel was trying to destabilize the Temple Mount and collapse the Dome of the Rock which resulted in international criticism, violent protests and calls for a third Intifada. As a result, the “temporary” bridge was still standing at the end of 2011, when the city engineer of Jerusalem issued an order to close the structure because it was not safe. 

In 2011, the Jerusalem municipal engineer ordered the bridge closed and attempts were made to replace the bridge. Construction was halted due to Jordanian and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood pressure and the bridge remained open.

In 2012 and 2013, the support scaffolding of the bridge was replaced with a large metal beam structure. 

In August 2014, construction was started on a second bridge in an area near the Mughrabi Gate. This secondary bridge became controversial, and at the wishes of the Jordanian government, work was halted and what had been built was torn down.