Generally, Israeli archeologists shy away from the media. Accustomed to spending months and years on end excavating dusty, sun-baked sites, they will go to almost any length to keep journalists and souvenir hunters away from an excavation in progress. Yet at this very moment, the country's archeologists are begging international journalists to report on Palestinian digging and building at the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism and the home of the Al Aksa mosque, which Muslims say is their third-holiest.
The archeologists are accusing the Wakf -- the Islamic body that has sole control over everything but security at the Temple Mount -- of recklessly destroying large parts of its ancient infrastructure in the process of building a new mosque and performing maintainance work around the site of the old one.
The worst desecration, experts say, occurred in the late 1990s and year 2000, when the Muslims built a new mosque in an area known as Solomon's Stables. After Wakf officials requested and received a permit from the Israeli government to open an emergency exit in the new mosque, for reasons of safety, the Muslim authority tried to break through four of the underground arches in the northern part of Solomon's Stables.
According to a report in Ha'aretz -- a liberal, secularist daily -- the Wakf "dug a huge hole 60 meters long and 25 meters wide in the earth of the Temple Mount… A fleet of dozens of bulldozers and trucks was put to work on the Temple Mount, and 6,000 tons of earth from the Mount was dug up and removed. Some of it was scattered at dumpsites. Some was dumped in the channel of the Kidron River. Antiquities dating back to a number of periods [including the first and second Temple eras] were tossed on garbage heaps. The Antiquities Authority managed to salvage but a small part of all these treasures."
"The Wakf took advantage of this permission," says Einat Mazar, a professor of archeology at Hebrew University. "They worked continuously for three days and nights, with big tractors, and dug a huge pit. They loaded up 250 trucks, dumped it and mixed it with modern garbage to make it twice as difficult to search. What was dumped was lost for all eternity."
Jon Seligman, the Israel Antiquity Authority's Jerusalem region archeologist, says that the Wakf's work continued, on and off, through January 2000. "It stopped when, for the most part, the construction work was completed. Second, the Israeli government decided to block the entry of building materials into the Temple Mount, and that's the situation today."
Many other archeologists believe that the Wakf is continuing to dig, build and prod below the Temple Mount, out of reach of Israeli authorities.
In November 2001, an organization of archeologists and Israeli intellectuals known as the Committee to Prevent the Destruction of Temple Mount Antiquities submitted a list of Wakf violations to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The list included the construction of a large memorial to the late Palestinian Authority minister for Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini; the excavation of water wells; and work in the area of the Al Aksa mosque.
According to the committee, work is currently under way to clean out underground areas in the large stretch between Solomon's Stables and Al Aksa mosque, "probably for the purpose of turning it into a new mosque, as part of general efforts to turn all of the Temple Mount into one huge mosque."
If these reports are true -- and this has been impossible to confirm because, since Prime Minister Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000, the Wakf has refused to admit non-Muslims, including archelogists, to the site -- why does the Israeli government allow it?
The answer lies partly in history, partly in politics.
When Israel captured East Jerusalem, where the Temple Mount is located, in 1967, it permitted the Wakf to retain its civil and religious authority over the Temple Mount compound. The decision, which some government officials now regret, was meant to prevent international outrage over the Jewish takeover of a Muslim holy site.
The Rabbinate permitted this decree on the grounds that the Holy of Holies would be given to the Jewish People upon the coming of the Messiah. Until then, the rabbis said, the site should be off-limits to Jewish worshippers. The Western Wall, of course, was opened to Jewish worship.
Like all other antiquity authorities before it, the Israeli Antiquities Authority has refrained from any digs on the Temple Mount, out of respect for its holy nature. Until the Wakf ordered them off the mount after the start of the second Palestinian uprising, the archeologists oversaw and protected the site but did not excavate it.
Gabriel Barkay, an archeologist at Bar Ilan University, grows incensed when he considers what the Wakf has done. "The Temple Mount was never touched archeologically. Would anyone in the civilized world agree if some bulldozers were working on the Acropolis in Athens or the Pantheon in Rome, particularly without any type of archeological supervision. Why does the world cry out when the Taliban destroy Buddhas but not when Palestinians are destroying thousands of years of cultural heritage on the Temple Mount?"
Seligman says the lack of archeological supervision "has meant a great loss to all of humanity. It was an archeological crime. The world authorities must make it clear to the Wakf Authorities that this sort of behavior is unacceptable."
While there is some disagreement over whether the desecration is taking place right now, the archeologists and their supporters concur that the Wakf's intention is to destroy evidence of Jewish and Christian religious and historical links to the the Temple Mount complex.
While rejecting the notion that Muslims are destroying antiquities, Abdel Husseini, director of the Wakf, told JUF that "it is G-d's will that this place is a mosque, and this declaration of G-d is more important than the declaration of Jews or Christians. G-d's declaration says this is an Islamic place called the Al-Aksa mosque. What others like to claim from there and there, we have nothing to do with."
He adds that "it is the Israeli archeologists that have destroyed things."
Statements like these infuriate Barkay. "The Temple Mount is the Acropolis of Jerusalem, the place where there is a concentration of palaces and important structures from the First Temple Period, beginning in the 10th century BCE, to the destruction of Jewish Jerusalem in 70 CE. It has always been the focus of the Jews, who always face the Temple Mount and Jerusalem in their prayers."
Barkay notes that Islam reached Jerusalem only in the 7th century. "At that time, influenced by Jewish traditions, they sanctified the place. Only then did it become the heart of Islamic sanctity in the Holy Land."
Though Jews have been the most vocal in their indictment of the Wakf, some non-Jews have also taken up the fight. Clarence Wagner Jr., the director of the Jerusalem-based Christian organization "Bridges for Peace," has lambasted the Muslim's activities on several occasions.
"For the Muslims to declare that the Temple Mount has never had a Jewish history not only undermines Jewish history at the site but also Christian history," Wagner said in a commentary on Bridges' website. "If there was no Temple on the site, as the Muslims declare, then the events of the life of Jesus and the early Church that occurred on the Mount could not have taken place either."
It is time, Wagner said, "for Christians, Jews and all people of goodwill to raise their voice in protest in an effort to stop the continued Muslim destruction of the Temple Mount, which affirms biblical history on the site."
Ra'anan Gissin, advisor to Prime Minister Sharon, told JUF News that a new government committee "is looking into the matter. One must understand that this is a highly sensitive issue. We know what is going on there and are looking for a way to prevent it. But one must be careful to prevent any flare-up that results from our actions."