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The Dig Print E-mail
By Jay Bushinsky
February 19, 2007


JERUSALEM -- It was June 7, 1967.  Israeli paratroopers had just taken Jerusalem's Temple Mount, the holiest place on earth for Jews, one of the holiest for Christians and the third holiest for Muslims.

Then-Col. Motta Gur, their commander (later to become military chief of staff) was sitting in a stupor on an outer ledge of the exquisite Dome of the Rock, the Islamic shrine built over the enormous rock upon which the Hebrew Patriarch Abraham was to have sacrificed his son, Isaac.  A Muslim sexton inside said the intended victim was not Isaac, but his first-born, Ismail, revered as the father of the Arab nation.

That remark made it clear that the ancient platform built by Judea's King Herod forthe Second Temple would continue to be a contentious issue between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

In any case, the atmosphere that day was reserved if not somber.  The soldiers were  exhausted after more than 48 hours of non-stop combat.  Col. Gur quietly entered the mosque, viewed its Armenian-designed tiles, scanned the interior and left without saying a word.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, the ultimate hero of Israel's Six-Day War, soon made an unexpected and unprecedented decision.  Instead of hoisting the Jewish state's blue and white flag over the expansive site, known in the Bible as Mount Moriah, he left it under the administrative authority of a Muslim religious council known in Arabic as the 'Waqf.'  Moreover, he recognized Jordan's ongoing responsibility for its religious edifices and the adjacent structures and grounds.

This was a far cry from the Romans' behavior when they laid siege to the Jews' Second Temple, destroyed it and erected a pagan house of worship in its stead.  And it was unlike the medieval Crusaders' conduct when they took Jerusalem and transformed Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holies shrine, into a church or vice versa, when the Muslims Arabs seized Jerusalem in the seventh century and turned the mosque's Christian architectural predecessor (it was built as a Byzantine church) into an Islamic edifice (known then and today as Al-Aqsa because it is at the Temple Mount's furthest end).

In Arabic the mount is called the Noble Sanctuary - Haram a-Sharif). All of this history, ancient, medieval and modern (the latter aspect based on eyewitness presence and on-scene coverage of the Six-Day War's most dramatic moment) contradicts the campaign being waged by contemporary religious extremists against the rescue dig authorized by the Israeli Antiquities Authority at the foot of the Temple Mount.

The excavation's sole purpose is to save the objects below ground before constructionof a new foot bridge from Judaism's Western Wall to the Temple Mount's Mughrabi (Arabic for Moroccan) Gate is completed.

Sheikh Raed Salah, an Israeli citizen and leader of this country's Northern Islamic Movement has whipped up passion and anger over the Israeli undertaking.  He charges that the archaeologists are deliberately undermining the foundations of Al-Aqsa and that Israel's goal is to cause its collapse and pave the way to construction of a Third Temple. Nothing could be less accurate or reasonable.

From the date of the Israeli takeover and Dayan's decision to entrust the TempleMount in the Supreme Muslim Council no digs were permitted there.  This was in keeping with legislation enacted by Great Britain during its League of Nations Mandate over Palestine from 1921 to 1948.  In 1996, Sheikh Salah spearheaded an  excavation there anyway to facilitate construction of the Marwan mosque at the site of Solomon's Stables.

The ongoing dispute is both tragic and superfluous.  From the outset, Jews werediscouraged by their rabbis from visiting the Temple Mount because it is impossible to determine where the Second Temple actually stood and therefore they might tread on the site of its Holy of Holies, the sacred chamber to which entry was restricted to the High Priest.

Sheikh Salah has profited politically from his activity.  He gained fame here and abroad.  But he overstepped the mark when he delivered an ad hoc sermon in one of Jerusalem's Arab quarters a kilometer from the Temple Mount (the Israeli police ordered him to keep his distance), saying Israelis have the blood of Palestinian Arab martyrs on their uniforms, medals, flag and even the bread they eat. This diatribe may sound familiar to students of medieval anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, Turkey, the overwhelming majority of whose citizens are Muslims, issending an investigatory team to ascertain whether Al-Aqsa and the rest of the Temple Mount are in danger.  It will take courage to come out with the truth, that there is no such danger.
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