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The decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel the demolition of a rickety wooden bridge in Jerusalem’s Old City on Nov. 28, because of threats from Egypt and Jordan, was a mistake. The Jerusalem municipality’s Dec. 12 closing of the bridge to pedestrians may have been a step in the right direction, but that was negated with its re-opening two days later.
This indecisive policy is the result of the government’s timidity in the face of threatened riots and increased tension.
The mostly wooden bridge supported by metal scaffolding was erected in 2004, when some rocks fell off the Mughrabi Ramp. The ramp was a historic pathway that led from the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem’s Old City to the Temple Mount (Haram al Sharif) via the Mughrabi Gate, and allowed non-Muslims access to visit the historic area where the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock are located. Muslims use eight other gates to ascend to their mosque.
When part of the ramp collapsed in 2004, due apparently to particularly harsh weather combined with shoddy efforts to reinforce the pathway, the Jerusalem municipality erected a temporary bridge in the Jewish women’s sections of the Western Wall while the ramp was repaired. However, excavations by the Israeli Antiquities Authority between 2004 and 2007 undermined the ramp and left the area so that only a bridge could span the gap to the Mughrabi Gate. When Muslim voices, particularly Sheikh Raad Salah of the Northern Islamic Movement in Israel and Mohammed el-Katatny of the Egyptian parliament, threatened to start riots and a “third intifada” over the excavations, which they claimed was a plot to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Israel halted the diggings and installed cameras so that the world’s Muslims could view what was really going on.
Israel’s halting of the excavations in 2007 in response to Muslim threats set a precedent for what has happened in 2011.
In October 2011 the Jerusalem City Engineer declared the temporary bridge unsafe. Israel had already been negotiating with Jordan (whose religious ministry technically controls the Jerusalem Wakf) and UNESCO to replace the temporary bridge. However, according to a leaked cable at Wikileaks, Israel told UNESCO in June 2009 “there could be no question of Israel accepting language [about the new bridge] that would call into question Israel’s sovereignty and control over all of Jerusalem.”
In November 2011 the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by the Israeli government in 1988 to run the Western Wall, was ordered by the Jerusalem municipality to tear down the temporary bridge. Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch has maintained that he never intended the temporary bridge, which takes up 40 percent of the Jewish women’s prayer section at the Kotel, to remain in place so long. “We thought the temporary bridge would be there for a few months,” he said.
At the last minute, the King of Jordan and the spiritual chief of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, called on Israel not to demolish the bridge for fear of inciting riots by Muslims across the Middle East. The King told Israeli President Shimon Peres, “Israel must refrain from any measures that could change the features of Jerusalem, or affect Islamic and Christian holy places in the holy city.” Netanyahu ordered a halt, but the city remained adamant that the bridge is unsafe and ordered it closed by mid-December.
Left-wing voices in Israel, such as Ir Amim or Jerusalem City Councilman Meir Margalit, believe that the initiative behind the temporary bridge is the Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s desire to expand the women’s section into the area where the ramp was. The Wakf argues that in fact it is ELAD, an organization involved with the City of David, that wanted to build a giant bridge so more right wing Jews could ascend the Tempe Mount.
However, the Western Wall rabbi never wanted a temporary bridge that would ruin the women’s section for so many years. If he had wanted a bridge in order to expand the Western Wall, why wasn’t it built on the other side of the ramp, in the Davidson Archeological Park? In fact it was built in a bad location precisely because it was supposed to be torn down. Instead, the government vacillated and left it there for seven years.
Now the bridge has become a fixture of the landscape. “Reacting to this, Palestinians officials have likewise called for a halt to the demolition of the bridge, which is considered a major Islamic historic and religious site,” claimed an Egyptian website. The Western press also misunderstands the story. The Guardian reported Dec. 8 that “officials in Jerusalem are set to close a footbridge connecting the region's most sensitive Jewish and Muslim sites, inflaming religious tensions.”
It is partly the fault of the various players involved—the Jerusalem Municipality, the Antiquities Authority, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation—that the bridge was not removed sooner, so that it would not become permanent. Now voices are calling for it to remain for many more years to assuage the tensions, in light of the Arab Spring.
This solution is not fitting. Not only must Israel assert its authority in order to retain its right to the Western Wall, but it is important not to allow Jordan, Egypt and the Wakf a veto over Israeli actions simply through threats. The potential for riots is directly connected to the fact that Jordan’s king does not explain to the press that this is a temporary structure, and instead allows rumors that a “major Islamic religious site” is being demolished.
The meetings between Israeli and Jordanian officials at UNESCO should be made public in the Arab world so that the average person sees what was agreed to. At the same time, the bridge should have remained closed, to put some pressure on the Israeli government to actually deal with the situation. Finally.
Seth J. Frantzman is a writer, journalist and scholar residing in Jerusalem.