Peace and Archaeology in the Middle East

The sign caught my eye: It held far more than the intended meaning. It hung on a corrugated metal fence in the antiquities park that faces the southwest corner of the Temple Mount, and it said:

Archaeological Excavation
Danger of Avalanche
Do Not Enter

You can read that as a simple description of physical peril. Last winter, when I visited the same spot, Israel Antiquities Authority laborers were carefully removing buckets of dirt from a pit just behind where the fence now stands. Others were digging into a nearby slope, with sandbags steadying the damp hillside. Soon after, the excavation was halted. A careless tourist wandering in here might bring everything tumbling down, despite work done afterward to stabilize the site.

But the sign also told a much larger story. Archaeology in the Holy Land is laden with ideology and danger. Sticking a shovel in the ground near the Temple Mount, a.k.a. Haram al-Sharif, always threatens to trigger political avalanches. The real risk of collapse comes not from careless tourists, but from reckless political leaders -- Israeli and Palestinian -- eager to demonstrate patriotism or faith by asserting ownership over the world's most contested holy site.

One more blow-up was averted this week, or rather postponed -- most likely, to the next extremely inappropriate moment. On Sunday, the daily Ha'aretz reported that a ministerial committee had quietly voted to resume the excavations at the southwest corner of the Mount. The Jordanian ambassador to Israel warned that renewing the dig could wreck the U.S.-sponsored peace summit planned for next month. If that's not precisely what the ministers involved had in mind, it's likely that they were posturing their undying commitment to Israeli sovereignty in the Old City -- and outflanking Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from the right as he prepares for the Annapolis summit.

The workers didn't start digging this week, because Science Minister Ghaleb Majadele -- the first Arab minister in an Israeli government -- appealed the committee decision to the full cabinet. If Olmert is sensible, he'll put the matter far down the agenda. That's a large if. Olmert, too, will want to show fealty to continued Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount area. In the meantime, the affair holds some lessons about archaeology, Jerusalem, and the challenges facing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as she shuttles about the Mideast, preparing for the summit.

Officially, the excavation near the Mount is a "salvage dig" -- the kind that the Antiquities Authority does before a construction project to rescue ruins before foundations are carved out of the history-saturated earth. Officially, the problem is merely municipal -- the need to replace an unsafe public access route. An earthen ramp used to lead from the plaza at the Western Wall to the Mughrabi Gate of the Haram. Under arrangements imposed by Israel after it conquered the Old City in 1967, Jews and other non-Muslims may visit the 35-acre Haram compound, but not pray there. The Islamic trust, or Waqf, continues to administer the Haram, but Israel has ultimate authority for maintaining security. Non-Muslim visitors and Israeli police enter via the Mughrabi ramp.

The arrangement is unsteady but makes the best of poor political conditions. It acknowledges that the Haram is a living, functioning Muslim holy place, the site of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque -- and also that Jews have a deep historical and religious connection to the Temple Mount. It keeps worship separate – Jews at the Western Wall, Muslims within the Haram.

It does not, however, adjudicate the seemingly irreconcilable claims to holy ground. It leaves the Muslim holy place under Jewish rule and has helped make Al-Aqsa into the symbol of Palestinian demands for independence. Israeli rightists can be anything from dissatisfied to furious with Muslim autonomy at Judaism's holiest site. Ever more publicly, Palestinians claim that there is absolutely no Jewish history at the Haram. Now and then, an Islamicist adds the Western Wall also belongs to Islam, that it's where the Prophet Muhammad tied his winged steed on his night journey to "the furthest mosque." As even leftwing Israelis hear this, the subtext is that Jews are colonists with no historical tie to any part of the land.

When Muslims engage in construction and renovation at the Mount, both Israeli rightists and archaeologists will inevitably insist that historical remains are being destroyed. Whatever the actual damage, the anxiety is that memory itself is being suppressed. When Israelis dig for ruins near the Haram, Palestinians and other Muslims reflexively claim that the Jews seek to undermine Al-Aqsa. The unspoken anxiety is that ruins confirm memory and thereby undermine the Muslim claim to the site. Every action is symbolic; the subterranean overlaps the subconscious.

The earthen ramp to the Mughrabi Gate was no more stable that the political arrangement. In 2004, the ramp collapsed during heavy rain. In its place, the government put up an ugly temporary wooden structure. Last year, the government began planning a new, longer ramp. According to Danny Seidemann, an Israeli attorney long active in East Jerusalem issues, the police wanted a staging ground for a much larger force to enter the Mount. Activists linked to the settler movement wanted to improve Jewish access to the site -- and perhaps use the construction to reveal more ruins connected to the ancient Temple. When the Antiquities Authority began salvage digs last February, the predictable happened: international protests, a riot at the Haram after Friday prayers, a Palestinian official accusing Israel of undermining the mosque.

Fortunately, Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski, stopped the work, saying it lacked local planning approval. A new plan, for a smaller ramp, is working its way through the bureaucracy. So there's no need yet for salvage excavations -- except perhaps that Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, who helped push through the move, is a rival of Olmert within the ruling Kadima party, and feels a need to show who's really loyal to national symbols.

So far, a loosely parallel affair at the Haram itself has been better handled. In July, an underground electrical cable to the Dome of the Rock failed. Using the shrine required repairs, which required digging a trench, which required an Israeli permit, which the Waqf on principle won't request lest it recognize Israeli rule. According to Seidemann, discreet and intense talks between the Waqf, the police and the Antiquities Authority led to agreement to let the work go ahead, with an IAA staffer present. That hasn't stopped rightists and some very vocal archaeologists from insisting that terrible damage is being done to antiquities.

From these stories you may learn that there is no such thing as a mere municipal issue in Jerusalem. You may also learn that if you read about an archaeological controversy in Jerusalem, the argument is not over science -- at least, not only over science. Some incredible paleontological discoveries have been made in Israel. They don't get press, because no homo erectus national movement is claiming the land.

It should also be noted that the ministers who voted to resume digging are not religious Jews. Knesset Member Mohammad Barakeh, who condemned the decision to renew the excavation, represents the Communist Party. The Haram and the Western Wall are religious sites, but for the last century they have also been symbols for the Palestinian and Jewish national movements. Faith alone isn't to blame here.

The final, most important lesson is that the current informal arrangements on and around the Temple Mount are rickety. No peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians will hold up unless it resolves the sovereignty issue, restricts the actions of both sides at the holy places, and requires each side to recognize the other's connections to the sites. The inability of Israelis and Palestinians to compromise over holy space was proven at the Camp David summit in 2000, and it lead to an explosion.

An essential requirement for the Annapolis summit to succeed is for the U.S. to put forward its own proposal and lean on both sides to accept it. If Condoleezza Rice is not pushing such a proposal in back rooms, it doesn't matter how long she stays in the region. There's already a sign up marking the place for the avalanche.

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