What Israel Should Do when a Stone Falls
out of the Western Wall

, August 1, 2018

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 18, No. 21

  • In the past, Muslims have raised many obstacles and objections – religious and political – regarding maintenance, engineering, and safety work on the walls around the Temple Mount.
  • Israel has acceded to too many of their demands in this regard.
  • Now, the time has come for Israel to demonstrate its sovereignty over the Temple Mount. After all, neither Jordan nor the Muslim Waqf possesses sovereignty there, only Israel.

The stone that fell out of the Western Wall is inspected by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat

The stone that fell out of the Western Wall is inspected by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (left). (Jerusalem Municipal Spokesperson)

The site where the stone fell out of the wall.

Engineers inspecting the site where the stone fell out of the wall.
(Screenshot: Kikar HaShabbat and YNet)

The Herodian-era stone that fell from the Western Wall (in its less-visited southern part) last week miraculously missed worshippers. But even before the dust had settled, Palestinian spokesmen were tying the event to their mantra “al-Aqsa Is in Danger,” a canard they’ve been heaping on Israel for decades.

Declarations on this issue were heard, for example, from Osama Kawasme, Fatah’s spokesman. He said that the stone’s fall is “a dangerous reminder of everything that is happening in the al-Aqsa mosque and its environs.” Like other Palestinian commentators in the past, Kawasme connected the archeological work that has been going on in the area of the Temple Mount for many years to the “danger to al-Aqsa.” However, the facts tell a very different story.

The archeological work around the Temple Mount, as shown time after time, is conducted under exacting scientific and engineering supervision. It does not endanger the walls of the Temple Mount. The matter was investigated in this author’s book, The “Al-Aksa Is in Danger” Libel: The History of a Lie, which analyzed this false claim. Published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Maariv Library, the book surveyed eight archeological digging sites and found these claims to be baseless. Sometimes, they are so outrageous that is hard to take them seriously. For example, the claim was made that the work to renovate the Churva Synagogue endangered al-Aqsa. The synagogue, blown up by the Jordanians in the 1948 War of Independence, stands in the center of the Jewish Quarter, about 400 meters to the south west of the Temple Mount compound. Its floor level is about 50 meters higher that of the mosques.

Jerusalem’s Old City.

Jerusalem’s Old City. Note the distance from the synagogue dome and the Temple Mount mosques’ domes. (Frank Mason Good, 1860s, Library of Congress)

On the contrary: if there were any basis to the claim that al-Aqsa was in danger, the claim would promptly  come from the Waqf, the Muslim management of the Temple Mount, and it would be one of the objections that the Waqf raises with the Israeli authorities, who seek to care for the ancient 2,000-year-old walls, monitoring their stability, and even strengthening them.

Two examples stand out over the recent decades:

At the beginning of the 2000s, cracks and bulges began to appear in the southern and eastern walls of the Mount. The assessments of the engineers from the Israel Antiquities Authority asserted that there was an actual danger that these walls would collapse. The weakening of these two walls (caused partially by the Waqf’s unauthorized construction of the large underground al-Marwani Mosque, according to engineering authorities) created a real danger to the stability of “Solomon’s Stables” Temple Mount area at the end of the 1990s.

The police, in coordination with the Antiquities Authority, did not allow the Waqf to use the area around the eastern wall of the Temple Mount inside Solomon’s Stables due to concern that the volume of worshippers would cause the eastern part of the Stables to fall away. However, the Waqf was very hesitant to obey this order. It repeatedly accused Israel of getting involved in the internal affairs of Islam and using the authority that it didn’t have over al-Aqsa, and it even defied the legal authority of the country to supervise the site. The Waqf acceded to the multiple pleas only when Israel threatened the Waqf that it would close the Solomon’s Stables mosque to Muslim worshippers.  Thus began the maintenance and reinforcement work on the inner part of the eastern wall, which is also the eastern wall of Solomon’s Stables.

To overcome the resistance of the Waqf (and also for other reasons), then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to give a Jordanian delegation the task of restoring the areas damaged in the eastern and southern walls.

The Old City’s southern wall.

The Old City’s southern wall. The damaged and bulging section was on the right. (Wikipedia)

Afterward, it became apparent that this was a serious mistake. Not only did Israel yield the symbol of its sovereignty over the historical aspect of Jewish identity, but it set a problematic precedent. When, a few years later, in 2004, the Mughrabi Bridge, a dusty rampart with a path leading to the Mughrabi Gate, collapsed, Jordan demanded from Israel that a Jordanian team repair it. Furthermore, it even imposed a veto on changing the temporary wooden bridge that Israel built in lieu of the rampart.

Temporary Mughrabi Bridge

Temporary Mughrabi Bridge built by Israel for Jews and tourists. (Sharon Altshul)

The Mughrabi Gate is the only entrance to the Temple Mount that is used by Jews and tourists. All of the other nine gates to the Temple Mount are designated for Muslim usage only. The Jordanian claim was that as soon as Israel gave Jordan the right to take care of two of the Mount’s walls, all future handling of the other walls, including the Western Wall, had to be handed over to the Jordanians. Of course, Israel was very opposed to this.

While Israel did not transfer to Jordan the building of a permanent bridge leading to the Mughrabi Gate, until today, it has not dismantled the temporary bridge that replaced the dusty rampart that collapsed. Though it responded to the Jordanian demand not to build a permanent bridge there, it rejected the Jordanian demand that it should handle the matter.

An additional incident regarding the Temple Mount occurred when Israel received a Jordanian demand about the “Small Wall,” which is the continuation of the Western Wall, around 180 meters north of the open prayer plaza. It lies within the Muslim Quarter. The Small Wall is around 20 meters in length. Many years ago, tin sheets were attached to the northern part of the Small Wall, behind which remain construction debris and garbage. The Jordanians are opposed even today to Israel removing those tin sheets, clearing away the debris, and renewing the usage of two meters of the Small Wall alley for local Jewish prayers. Therefore, for many years, Israel has refrained from rehabilitating the site.

The Kotel HaKatan

The Kotel HaKatan (“Little Wall”) in the Muslim Quarter. Note the Herodian-era stones on the left. (Western Wall Heritage Foundation)

The fall of the Herodian-era stone from the southern part of the Western Wall has already raised a similar discussion. The Waqf insists that its own committee investigate why the stone fell off. There can be many reasons why a stone would fall: seepage from sewage water, unusually high rainfall during a particularly hard winter, drainage problems, natural erosion of the stone, earthquakes, and much more. However, our issue is to draw attention to the Israeli sovereignty in this place.

Israel needs to take back the handling, control, and maintenance of the walls of the Temple Mount, not just in the well-known prayer plaza. This is a step that is required from a sovereign for its capital. If, Heaven forbid, more stones from the Western Wall fall, or if the Temple Mount and its mosques are damaged, Israel will be held responsible. Neither the Waqf nor Jordan rules over Jerusalem.

Even in the formal sense, Israel can act as the sovereign in charge of the area of the Temple Mount. The Western Wall has been the main site for the Jews of Jerusalem for hundreds of years, and Jews have prayed along its length for 1,000 or more years. The State of Israel has already declared, officially and statutorily, that it is a Jewish holy site. Part of the Western Wall is 143.72 meters long. The subterranean width of the Western Wall (4.5 meters) and its entire height were nationalized and written into the Land Registry as the property of the State of Israel. This is the area between the southwestern corner of the Western Wall and the Machkama (site of the archeological digs – a total of 87.36 meters – and the open prayer plaza – 56.46 meters). The stone that fell and the area that needs immediate engineering inspection and care are within this location.

If the Waqf prevents Israel in the future from supervising and taking care of Temple Mount walls or any other areas around the Western Wall, it will be necessary to weigh very carefully if it would not be a good idea to annex additional areas. There is no doubt that the Waqf would defer to Israel to facilitate the safety of the Temple Mount as long as it maintains its “ownership” of the other walls.

Nadav Shragai

Nadav Shragai is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as a journalist and commentator at Ha’aretz between 1983 and 2009, is currently a journalist and commentator at Israel Hayom, and has documented the dispute over Jerusalem for thirty years.   His books include: Jerusalem: Delusions of Division (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2015); The Al-Aksa Is in Danger” Libel: The History of a Lie (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2012); the ebook Jerusalem: Correcting the International Discourse – How the West Gets Jerusalem Wrong (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2012); At the Crossroads: The Story of Rachel’s Tomb (Gates for Jerusalem Studies, 2005); The Temple Mount Conflict (Keter, 1995); and the essay: “Jerusalem Is Not the Problem, It Is the Solution,” in Mr. Prime Minister: Jerusalem, Moshe Amirav, ed. (Carmel and Florsheimer Institute, 2005).