Identity and ideology come to the fore again in another element of the Middle East conflict. This time it's over a ramp leading to the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif. But why conflict over what seems a necessary project for all concerned?
One of the latest flare-ups in the Middle East conflict concerns the Israeli reconstruction of a ramp leading to the Mughrabi Gate, adjacent to the Jewish holy site, the Western Wall. Destabilized in a 2004 winter storm and a small earthquake, the ramp has allowed visitors access to the Wall and the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif with its Dome of the Rock shrine and al-Aqsa mosque.
Now it is undergoing archeological excavation and reconstruction work. It seems that no one would object to making the area physically safer for all concerned or the discovery of artifacts from the area's Muslim, Christian and Jewish past. But passions are easily inflamed when identity and ideology are involved and here they certainly are. It doesn't help that there's a long history of provocation on all sides when it comes to the Wall and the Haram (see more details in my recent book, Identity, Ideology and the Future of Jerusalem).
The gate takes its name from the Mughrabi Quarter that once stood next to the Wall. The gift of the son of Jerusalem's 12th century Kurdish-Muslim conqueror, Salah al-Din, the site was designated a waqf or religious charitable trust, subsequently protected by Moroccan or Mughrabi shaykhs for 600 years. It happened to become the home of the Muslim clerics who performed religious duties at al-Aqsa mosque. As a child, Yasir Arafat lived there for a time with his mother's family following her premature death (see previous post) and heard Friday sermons from his uncle.
In 1967, the Israelis demolished the quarter in the aftermath of their capture of the Old City. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered the clearing of the area to accommodate a wide plaza in front of the Wall to allow Jewish worshipers open access to their most sacred site. He would have liked to do more, as he said at the time, by bulldozing a road through the hills, wide enough to allow "every Jew in the world to reach the Western Wall." His actions caused the Jordanian government to complain to the UN about the danger they believed the demolition posed to the Haram and its Muslim holy sites.
Today, the situation is very different, but the complaints are similar. Perhaps the offer by the Turkish prime minister to send a technical team to assess the danger, if any, to al-Aqsa, will help. Perhaps the Israeli installation of web cams at the site will also set some minds at ease. Israeli authorities and the notable archeologist, Eilat Mazar, have said there is no risk (see Mazar's response to questions about the situation).
All sides stand to gain by the construction work and the potential archeological finds, which may include artifacts from the Umayyad, Byzantine and Herodian periods--representative of Jewish, Christian and Muslim attachment to the area.