- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2002

JERUSALEM A bulge in the wall of Jerusalem's Temple Mount, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims, has introduced a new and potentially explosive element into the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.
Jerusalem's mayor and Israeli conservationists warn that some of the massive stone blocks lining the southern wall of the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al Sharif, are shifting and in danger of crashing down on worshippers unless the affected section is dismantled and rebuilt.
"In my view we have reached the moment of truth," Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said. "There are serious grounds for fearing that it could collapse."
Muslim religious authorities deny that there is any danger of collapse and reject the Israeli warnings as a politically motivated attempt to establish Israel's authority over the Mount.
"I can't say when, but it is certain that the wall will fall if nothing is done about it," said Israeli conservationist Giora Solar, who has been a senior adviser on conservation to U.N. organizations. He said the problem can be solved if the affected area is dismantled and rebuilt.
However, Adnan Husseini, director-general of the Wakf, the Muslim religious trust that administers Islamic sites in Jerusalem, rejected such a procedure and said no outside interference will be acceptable.
Mr. Husseini said the bulge in the wall has not grown or shifted for about 30 years and poses no immediate threat.
"This bulge is under our monitoring since the '70s," he told the Associated Press. "It is stable. We don't feel that there is any dangerous situation."
Mr. Husseini warned of dire consequences throughout the region if Israel attempted to undermine Islamic authority on the Temple Mount.
"The Israeli side is trying to make from this problem a very dangerous political issue," he said. "They want to gain a foothold."
Israeli radio reported that UNESCO, the U.N. educational and cultural agency, has offered to examine the bulge. Thus far, neither the Wakf nor Israel has reacted to this offer.
While Israel claims sovereignty over the Mount since capturing it in the 1967 Mideast war, it has left de facto control to the Wakf. Any attempt by Israel to assert its authority there is bound to draw strong reaction throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
The Temple Mount is a large esplanade originally built by King Solomon on a hilltop 3,000 years ago to house the first Jewish temple. King Herod expanded the esplanade 1,000 years later and rebuilt the temple.
It was this temple and esplanade that Jesus visited. Within a century, the temple was destroyed by the Romans. Six centuries later, the Arabs conquered Jerusalem and built on the Mount the Al Aqsa Mosque, which became the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad rose to heaven from the Dome of the Rock on the Mount.
The Western Wall, a retaining wall of the temple compound, is just around the corner but is not affected by the bulge. With Jews kept off the hilltop by Muslim restrictions and rabbinical bans, the Western Wall, believed to be the last remnant of the Second Temple destroyed by Roman conquerors, is the holiest place where Jews can pray.
The head of Israel's Antiquities Authority, Shuka Dorfman, said this week that the bulge in the southern wall appears in photographs taken in the early part of the 20th century. However, it has become increasingly prominent in recent years, with a protuberance of up to 30 inches on a 2,000-square-foot section covered by scaffolding near the top of the wall.
The antiquities authority has written to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about the bulge, and the Israeli government is expected to convene within the next few days to discuss the situation.
What makes the situation particularly volatile is that the inner part of the wall an underground area known since the Crusades as Solomon's Stables has been cleared by the Wakf in recent years of debris and turned into a prayer area.
Israeli archaeologists complained that in doing so the Muslim authorities destroyed antiquities belonging to the Jewish past, a charge denied by the Wakf.
If the Israeli authorities declare the area to be unsafe, they could close the underground area to the public, a move that would almost certainly be met by charges that it is restricting religious freedom.
Non-Muslims, including tourists, have been barred from the Temple Mount for security reasons since the Palestinian uprising broke out in September 2000 after a visit to the site by Mr. Sharon when he was opposition leader.
In the past, Israeli authorities and the Wakf had good, if discreet, working relations that enabled the solution of such problems, but these relations have been severed since the outbreak of the intifada.

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