Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Unruly bridge and tunnel crowd

UNESCO, the Paris-based international culture agency which recently inspected Israel's controversial archaeological salvage tunnel near the Temple Mount, is expected to release its report today, urging Israel to halt its excavation until international experts can oversee it. These United Nations bureaucrats, who were led around by the outspoken Israeli archaeologist, Dan Bahut, seem to be sending a decidedly mixed message, even though local press reports stressed that no official statements about the UNESCO conclusions were expected until next month and that a policy of transparency is accomplished with an online video camera focused at the site round the clock.

Fears that Muslim holy sites were being undermined by Israeli shovels appear to be unfounded. King Abdullah II of Jordan had pleaded last month for restraint by the so-called "Temple Raiders" and Islamic riots resulted in Kashmir when Israeli digging commenced.

After clashes between 3000 security police and Muslim residents of East Jerusalem led to a couple dozen injuries from stun grenades, clubs, and stones outside the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert invited the UN into the fray. The new report, which examined exploratory digs for antiquities which were undertaken to prevent possible damage when Israeli engineers erect new support pillars for a collapsed walkway, seems to be quite cautious. It points out that Israel has not violated any norms. Yet religious sensitivites concerning this locale, where a ramp allows non-Muslims--mostly soldiers, tourists, and settlers ---to ascend and overlook a site which is sacrosanct to three monotheistic religions, are volatile. This was the magnificent Second Temple of Solomon, demolished by the Romans; the same temple where Jesus once threw out the Philistine money-changers; the place where Mohammed embarked on a night ride that revealed the Koran. That's why UN experts recommend scrupulous restraint. Israel is expected to consult with authorities from Jordan and from the local Islamic Waqf board before any further work gets underway on the Temple Mount. Nearly 100 arrests for inciting or participating in violence were made in February. A spy drone hovered overhead on subsequent Fridays, tourist visits were cancelled, and only middleaged Muslims over the age of 45 were allowed to worship. Younger Muslims were prevented from entering, and Islamic schools near the site were closed. A rabbi recently purchased a flock of sheep which he grazes on the grassy slopes outside the walled city; his reasoning reportedly is to be ready in case the temple is re-erected and a call for sacrificial animals results.

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