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The Mughrabi Gate Crisis - Background and Analysis by Danny Seidemann

The Mughrabi Gate Crisis - Background and Analysis

by Daniel Seidemann begin_of_the_skype_highlighting    

Feb. 8, 2007

Of all of the gates providing access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the Mughrabi Gate is both unique and the most sensitive. The keys of the other gates remain in the hands of the Waqf, the Islamic administrative authority responsible for the Haram al-Sharif, which also control access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound (with Israeli police remaining on the periphery nearby). However, since 1967 the direct control over the Mughrabi Gate has remained with the Israeli authorities. It is via the Mughrabi Gate that the periodic and often tense and controversial visits by Jews to the complex take place, and it is via this route that the Jewish extremist organization, the Temple Mount Faithful, carries out its perennial provocations, trying to illegally access the Mount, contrary to police orders. It is also the primary route of access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for Israeli security forces when disturbances erupt.

Timeline of Events

1967-2004: a loose earthwork ramp connects the Western Wall compound to the Mughrabi Gate.

February 14, 2004: torrential rains lead to collapse of the centuries-old Mughrabi Gate access ramp, leading from the Western Wall plaza onto the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound, immediately giving rise to a dilemma for Israeli authorities: how to restore access to the Mughrabi Gate, given the deep sensitivities that exist with respect to changes in the status quo in this area?

February 1, 2005: a permit is granted to erect a temporary wooden structure on seven support columns in the approximate location of the collapsed earthwork ramp.

February 2005-January 2007: Pressure mounts from various quarters - including settler organizations, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation (an association close to the settlers, which has responsibility for the Western Wall compound and the Hasmonean Tunnel), and the Israeli Police - to provide a more permanent access structure to the Mughrabi Gate, in a manner that goes well beyond a return to the status quo that existed between 1967 and 2004.

June 28, 2006: Deliberations take place regarding this matter in the Prime Minister's office, chaired by the Prime Minister's Military Secretary and with the participation of the Israeli Police, the General Security Services, the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Jerusalem Municipality, and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The Police assert an acute operational need to ensure that new arrangements at the Mughrabi Gate would allow 300 policemen to assemble on the access ramp simultaneously in order to access the Mount. Others complain that the position of the existing (new) ramp limited the available prayer space for women at the Western Wall. The Antiquities Authority insist that whatever decision was taken, any works at the site should be carried out in a manner preventing damage to the adjacent archeological sites, particularly the Southern Wall excavations.

November 15, 2006: The Jerusalem Municipal Licensing Committee approves building permit for the construction of a permanent bridge between the Western Wall compound and the Mughrabi Gate, subject to a number conditions, such as approval by Police and the Antiquities Authority. The approval is legally questionable: the Town Planning Scheme which governs the Old City and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif area requires a Specific Town Plan, subject to public review, prior to the issuance of such a permit. This requirement was waived - based in part on a legal opinion provided by an attorney who has worked closely with the settlers. The design of the new bridge differs considerably from both the pre-collapse earthen ramp and the temporary wooden structure. The original (collapsed) ramp was approximately 75 meters long, extending from the base of the Mount's containing wall in the Western Wall plaza to the Mughrabi Gate. The new (planned) bridge will be approximately 200 meters long and will extend from the Southern Wall excavations near the Dung Gate.

January 22, 2007: The Jerusalem Licensing Authority issues a building permit for the Mughrabi Gate bridge. This permit is, it appears, issued illegally.

January 24, 2007: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approves the Mughrabi Gate bridge plan.

February 5, 2007: Ir Amim and Jerusalem City Council Pepe Alalu formally requested the immediate intervention of the Attorney General and Legal Advisor of the Municipality of Jerusalem to stop the plan.

February 6, 2007: Israel begins excavation work to prepare the way for construction of the new Mughrabi Gate access ramp, leading to an outcry from within Israel, from Arab and Muslim leaders across the region, and from leaders throughout the world.

Basic Objections

1. Implementation of the plan is illegal. Ir Amim contends that it is illegal to proceed with the plan at this time. Danny Seidemann has in his possession a series of letters written by the Inspector General of the Jerusalem Municipality, backed up by expert legal testimony - going back as much as 5 years - which establish that it is illegal to grant a building permit in this area without first undertaking a protracted process to obtain a new zoning plan for the area. Such a process would include making the plans subject to public review. No such process has been undertaken and no new zoning plan for the area has been approved.

2. The plan is unsound and irresponsible from an archeological standpoint. In March 2006, 18 prominent Israeli archeologists notified Israeli authorities that they objected to the plan. They warned that the plan, as presently envisioned, will cause grave damage to one of the most important archeological sites in Israel. From an archeological viewpoint they call the plan "surrealistic" and argue that a plan of this importance and magnitude should be subject to public review, including, and especially, review by objective and politically disinterested archeological experts.

3. The plan is politically explosive and reckless. In their notification to the Israeli Authorities, Ir Amim and Alalu drew attention to the fact that similar construction schemes in the Old City have in the past led to heightened tensions and have triggered outbreaks of violence. They urged utmost caution and strict adherence to the law.

4. The plan conflicts with Israel's international obligations. In their notification to the Israeli Authorities, Ir Amim and Alalu also asserted that such construction is contrary to Israel's international obligations, since the site is part of a UNESCO world heritage site. In the 30th Session of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, which took place last July in Vilnius, it was resolved that the Committee: "Reiterates its concern as to the obstacles and practices, such as archaeological excavations or new constructions, which could alter the outstanding universal value of the cultural heritage of the Old City of Jerusalem, including its urban and social fabric as well as its visual integrity;" and "Asks the Israeli authorities to provide the World Heritage Center with all relevant information concerning the new buildings planned in and around the Western Wall Plaza, including the plans for the reconstruction of the access leading to al-Haram ash-Sharif."

5. The plan is motivated by ideology, rather than legitimate issues of access. The Mughrabi Ramp is the sole access for the settler organizations entering the Temple Mount/Haram compound. The current construction scheme goes well beyond restoring the status quo ante prior to the collapse of the previous ramp and is a transparent attempt to radically change patterns of movement, for the benefit of radical Jewish settler organizations and activists. Claims that this enhanced access is necessary in order to respond to existing demands is disingenuous at best.

Political Implications

It is clear that plans at the Mughrabi Gate go well beyond the restoration of the status quo ante but rather seek to effect a major change in the delicate "eco-system" in and around the Temple Mount/Harem al-Sharif.

It also is clear that the plans are motivated not only by a desire to renew pre-existing, customary access for both Israelis and security forces, but to allow mass access to the Mughrabi Gate, now or in the future, from the Western Wall compound and Jewish Quarter (a point of access manifestly not intended for use by Muslims). Together, this signifies not only a major deviation from the physical status quo ante, but a significant prospective change in the patterns of movement in this sensitive area. The planned bridge is consistent with the impression that the government of Israel is seeking, for the first time since 1967, to change the political/religious status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif through the creation of this new access route clearly intended to enhance Jewish access to the Mount/Haram, consistent with the aspirations of Israel's most extremists national/religious elements - elements that have been actively involved in the decision making process relating to the new bridge.

Even ignoring the significant design issues (and some of Israel's prominent architects have dubbed the new bridge as a "rollercoaster-like" structure implanted in Israel's most important religious and national site), the project does not augur well for continued stability in and around the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

The Stakes

The issues involved in the Mughrabi Gate story transcend those of preservation of World Heritage sites, archeology and even "fair play" - as important as these may be. Far more important is the potential for this project to reverberate violently not only in Jerusalem but throughout the area.

Jerusalem has an undeserved reputation for being nitroglycerin, where any random "bump" may ignite the city. In reality, Jerusalem is more like a small atomic device: a short list of very specific phenomena threaten to destabilize the city, causing a conflagration which can extend well beyond the city's borders. That short list is made up - entirely - of events focused on the Old City and in particular the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. During the past century - from the Parker excavations of 1911 through the opening of the Hasmonean Tunnel in 1996, to the visit by Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in 2000 - perceived threats to and changes in the informal status quo, particularly relating to access, construction and excavation in and around the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif - have been the triggers.

Moreover, this construction scheme is not taking place in isolation. Domestically, in Israel/Palestine, Islamic fundamentalism is on the ascendancy, even on the Haram al-Sharif. Simultaneously, virtually all archeological, national and historic sites in and around the Old City and its historic basin have been turned over to the extreme Jewish settler organizations. Internationally and regionally, this is all taking place against the backdrop of heightened tensions between Islam, the Arab world and the West, with the symbol of the Haram al-Sharif figuring prominently both in the genuine concerns of moderate Moslems and in the propaganda of the fundamentalists. It is important to note in this regard that perceived threats are as potentially volatile as real ones. This is the stuff of which visions of Holy War, Jihad, Wars of Mitzvah and Armageddon are made.

The construction of the new access bridge may or may not provide the trigger - but it will certainly contribute to the critical mass which, if current trends continue, will contribute to the likely eruption.

The Conclusion

It is unreasonable to expect that a natural collapse of an access ramp should deprive Israelis and Jews, or, if need be, Israeli security forces, from accessing the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in a scope and manner customary since 1967 - provided that the planning and execution of any new construction are done legally and in accordance with Israel's responsibility as steward over the World Heritage site that is the Old City and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound. However, it is equally unreasonable to allow this state of affairs to allow Israel to engage in radical changes in the status quo outside of the framework of understandings with the Waqf authorities. Such a step would be inequitable, unwise and potentially dangerous.

The conclusion is clear. Failing an agreement with the Waqf authorities (something that is unlikely under the current political constellation), Israeli action in this regard should be limited to modest construction of a permanent access ramp to the Mughrabi Gate at its historic site, thereby restoring the status quo ante rather than radically altering it, at peril to domestic, regional and global stability.


Ir Amim ("City of Nations") is a non-partisan Israeli organization, working for a stable and equitable Jerusalem with an agreed political future.