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The Politics of Archaeology in Jerusalem

The Israeli arrogance of being the regional military super power, unequivocally backed by the U.S. world super power, is dictating a kind of politics that deals trivially with the national and religious grievances of Israel’s geopolitical neighbors, whom the Jewish state is supposedly aspiring to live with in peace and as a regional integral part, while at the same time she is pursuing policies that antagonize those same neighbors to preclude altogether whatever potential is left for peace.

Ahead of a trilateral U.S.-sponsored Palestinian-Israeli summit on February 19, a meeting of the Quartet of international Middle East peace mediators on February 21 and amid daily clashes between native Palestinians and more than 3.000-force of special military and security units deployed within an area of five square kilometers in the Israeli-occupied Old Jerusalem, Israeli bulldozers embarked on Thursday on an eight-month excavations project some 50 meters from the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque, but on the grounds of the Islamic Haram al-Sharif, Islam’s third holiest site, amid clashes that wounded scores of Palestinians and hopeless prayers they would not develop into bloodletting.

Highlighting Israeli destructive arrogance of power, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday trivially dismissed the protesting Arab, Muslim and Christian outcries as merely “Arab extremists inciting violence,” adding: “There is no religious issue here,” immediately after his cabinet “approved continuation of construction at the approach to the Mughrabeh Gate within the proposed framework, at all possible speed,” spurning a call by his “defense” and two other cabinet ministers to consider halting the excavations and ostensibly expecting world public opinion to believe him and belie more than two billion Arabs, Muslims and Christians who have confirmed there was a very sensitive and highly-explosive “religious issue” and moved towards the United Nations and UNESCO in the hope they could overcome Olmert’s arrogance of power in a new round of lost battles between might and right.

Among the louder protesting voices whom Olmert dismissed as “extremists inciting violence,” in addition to Israel’s PLO partner in Oslo peace accords and Israeli Arab-Palestinians, are Jordan and Egypt, both U.S. allies and the only Arab countries to sign peace treaties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, another U.S ally and initiator of the Arab League-adopted initiative to make peace with Israel, the Turkish Secretary General of the OIC, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, whose country is a an important regional friend of Israel and a NATO member, and the Churches for Middle East Peace whose board chair Maureen Shea and executive director Corinne Whitlatch on Friday sent letters to the U.S. administration warning that “peacemaking may be overwhelmed by the consequences of Israel’s actions in the Old City of Jerusalem,” to name a few.

The eye of the present storm is Bab al-Magharibah, located in the southern section of al-Haram al-Sharif’s western wall, which connects Al Aqsa Mosque compound with Jerusalem’s southern neighborhoods; it was used by the residents of the Magharibah Quarter which was demolished by Israeli bulldozers in June 1967 to build the “Jewish Quarter” in its place. On 28 September, 2000, the comatose former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, used Bab al- Magharibah as his entry point to “visit” the Haram al-Sharif, igniting a firestorm of protest and sparking the Al Aqsa Intifada (uprising), which brought the peace process to a deadlock until now. In August of 1929, the same site sparked an uprising known in Palestinian political literature as the “Al-Buraq Revolt.”

Al-buraq is the Arab-Islamic name of Al Aqsa compound’s western wall, which the Jews called the “Wailing Wall” before changing it to the “Western Wall (of the Temple Mount, a widely-spread knowledge that has yet to be vindicated by historical fact or archeological findings) after the creation of Israel in 1948. The Israeli Occupying power after its overwhelming victory in 1967 confiscated by force the keys to Bab al-Magharibah from the Islamic Waqf to make them ever since Israel’s “Achilles’ heel” or “Joha’s nail” to claim its imposed “partnership” on the Haram al-Sharif, later using that self-proclaimed “partnership” at the Camp David negotiations in 2000 to demand joint sovereignty over the mosque area.

Jordan says Israeli excavations violate the peace treaty with Israel; according to this treaty the Jewish state accepted Jordan’s custody of the Islamic and Christian holy places in eastern Jerusalem. The OIC says they are a flagrant violation to international law and that the occupying state is irreconcilable to alter the shape of religious and historical sites. Palestinians say the Israeli excavations are in violation of the status quo accord that governs Jerusalem since the British mandate. The Palestinian Authority Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “Israel exploits the unlimited support from the USA and the unexplainable indifference on the part of the international community.”

The PLO condemned the excavations as “unilateral provocations (which) threaten to undermine a fragile opportunity for peace” and confirmed that, “the Haram Al-Sharif is under the administrative jurisdiction of the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” adding: “Any work potentially affecting the Haram Al-Sharif must be coordinated with the Waqf, according to an agreement with Israel. Current work was not coordinated with the Waqf, in violation of the agreement;” Palestinian and non-Palestinian Islamic authorities agree and add that all renovations should be confined to restoring whatever sites damaged to their status quo ante.

Osnat Goaz, a spokeswoman for the Israel Antiquities Authority rejected statements that the excavations posed any danger to the holy site, but Jordan’s King Abdullah II called them “a threat to the foundations of the Al Aqsa mosque.” 18 leading Israeli archeologists in March 2006 objected to the plan, said it was “illegal” and warned it will cause grave damage to one of the most important archeological sites in Israel and the world.

The 22-member Arab League, the 54-member Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the more than 90-member Non-aligned Movement (NAM) and Churches for Middle East Peace, among many others, were on alert to avert the snowballing confrontation, held emergency meetings, and decided to move to the UN Security Council, hopelessly hoping that their move would not be aborted by the U.S. veto power as it had in previous similar cases; similar moves are planned with the UNESCO. Meanwhile on the ground the Higher Follow-up Committee of Arab Israelis, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the anti-Israeli occupation Palestinian factions are amassing popular peaceful protests amid mounting Israeli military reinforcements to quell such protests. Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat warned: “Enough is enough. Recent provocations risk bulldozing us back into the abyss.” Khaled Misha’al, the exiled leader of Hamas, warned also that Israel “is playing with fire.”

However the Israeli arrogance of power, from previous experience, is betting on the Arab, Islamic and peace-loving roaring protests being without teeth and that they would as in past similar cases subsidize, of course after the usual falling of Palestinian “martyrs!”

The Arab League chief on Saturday said Israel is attempting to alter the features of Jerusalem. Amr Moussa summed up the whole controversy or more closer to the truth the whole conflict, which the latest Israeli excavations are only an episode in a 60-year old Israeli pre-planned non-stop effort to follow up the ethnic cleansing (see “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” Ilan Pappe, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, England, 2006) and the destruction of the material existence of Palestinian communities with a cultural cleansing that will erase the Palestinians from the world memory as it wiped out their country from the map of the world.

Whatever name you give to it — being “construction,” “modernization,” “renovation,” “Judaization” or “archeological excavations” — a process of cultural cleansing of Jerusalem has been going on in the Holy City since Israel occupied it in 1967.

Islam’s third holiest site in Jerusalem is the heart and soul of the Arab and Palestinian national, religious, historical and cultural heritage and the symbol of their more than 5.000-year uninterrupted existence on the land, long before the Hebrews swept into Palestine through the blood of butchered men, women and children of the completely destructed Jericho, according to the Old Testament. Destruction of Al Aqsa Mosque would, God forbids, crown the Israeli cleansing of the Palestinian cultural structure after obliterating their existential infrastructure.

Robert Bevan, author of “The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War,” should have visited Jerusalem or at least should have got access to the Holy City to update his book with the latest example of cultural cleansing in modern history: “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then you have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was,” he wrote in an opening for the second chapter of his book, quoting from Milan Kundera’s The Book Of Laughter and Forgetting.

A reviewer of Bevan’s book, Abe Hayeem, (an architect and member of Architects & Planners for Justice) wrote on 3 February 2006: “Israel’s otherisation’ of the Palestinians by the building of the Separation Barrier, while destroying thousands of houses, trees and farms, and creating what are in effect vast prison enclaves, has ironic echoes of the ghettos that European Jews experienced.” Hayeem missed upgrading his review by how the Israeli occupation has changed Jerusalem’s landscape, including renaming its historical sites and even streets.

Similarly, Afif Safieh, PLO’s envoy in Washington D.C. and former Palestinian delegate to the Vatican and the U.K., seems also to have missed the point when, in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter on January 19, he quoted the Zionist leader Nachum Goldman as saying in the 1970s while commenting on former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy: “It seems to me that diplomacy in the Middle East is the art of delaying the inevitable as long as possible.”

Safieh interprets the inevitable as the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, occupied by Israel in 1967, but the facts Israel is creating on the ground in Jerusalem are pre-empting the creation of such a state and is more realistically making Goldman’s quotation a valid description of the inevitable end goal of the current Israeli policies, a cultural cleansing to crown the eroding Palestinian infrastructural existence in the Holy City, a cleansing that starts with erasing the Arab-Islamic memory of the city and would inevitably make a similar erasing of its Christian memory easier later on.

NICOLA NASSER is a veteran Arab journalist based in Ramallah, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.


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Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Birzeit, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories (     

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