Thursday, February 08, 2007

Dig it--or not?

Mounted police at Jaffa gate, helicopters aloft--- lots of fanfare herald this particular archaeological dig. Historical, hysterical, whatever: the controversial salvage operation going on in Jerusalem's Archaeological Garden, while stone throwers are set to pelt a back-hoe despite the glowering glances of 2000 armed cops, is truly a weird scene.

The plan to refurbish this sensitive place in the Old City has predictably affronted Muslims, who accuse Israelis of defiling their holy places or even plotting to destroy them to make way for a third Temple and bring on Armageddon.

But angry archaeologists are weighing in, too. Some 18 professors of archaeology objected last March to Olmert's office plan to fix a new causeway from the SW corner of the Temple Mount up to the domed Muslim shrine. Their petition was ignored. Historians and Islamic clerics both may feel they get shafted when city engineers dig down into the relic-strewn rubble held holy by three monotheistic religions. There's a rich mother lode of knowledge at stake, and the timing couldn't be worse. (Defence Minister Amir Peretz pointed out yesterday, rather belatedly, that fomenting chaos at a sacred Islamic shrine when trying to initiate a Middle East peace process is counterproductive.) There is a lot of vicious posturing on both sides of this issue

Izzy hopes that the outcry from the Arab street to desist won't make Israeli officials all the more stubborn and maybe spark off a new Intifada. (Though some analysts say that Palestinians will grasp at any excuse to resurrect this ugly option.)

The detention of the Islamic Movement's head and six of his cronies by the border police probably has added fuel to this explosive situation. Prime Minister Olmert may think this is a key issue to show the nation that he does have the stones to lead it. Rock on, Ehud, but choose your moment. Don't antagonize the Muslims just now. If Ariel Sharon could stir from his coma and advise, he'd probably caution about potential riots after Friday's prayer tomorrow in the Old City.

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