In the latest instance of illegal Arab takeover of public lands in Jerusalem, observers and witnesses said that Arabs have begun moving to claim a national historic site – the Ophel Corner (Keren Ophel), along the southeast corner of the Temple Mount.
The area around the Temple Mount is all considered a national historic and heritage site. While the Western Wall is well known to all Jews as a place of prayer, and much of the Southern Wall area is currently being explored by Israeli archaeologists, few Israelis visit the eastern reaches of the Southern Wall, and the Eastern Wall itself, which extends for about 800 meters, bounded by the Ophel Road. Along the eastern side of the road is an ancient Muslim cemetery, which is gated and closed; this is the cemetery built opposite the Mercy (Golden) Gate, which according to Jewish tradition was built by Muslims to prevent the entry of the Messiah to the Temple Mount, which Jewish tradition says will be through the currently sealed Mercy Gate.
Between the road and cemetery and the Eastern Wall itself is an area of about 80 meters in width, stretching through several hundred meters along the wall. It is in this area that Muslims have in recent months been illegally burying people, in a crass attempt to turn the area into another Muslim cemetery. Dozens of funerals have already been held, and dozens of graves have been dug, meant to be used by Muslims, who have been sneaking their dead into the graves there under cover of night.
Archaeologists and activists have been demanding for months that police and the government do something about the illegal theft of the land, and last month the Knesset Control Committee discussed a report by the State Comptroller detailing this and other Arab attempts to destroy the Jewish historical connection to the Temple Mount by illegal construction and destruction. Not long ago, the report, which covers the last three years of Arab infractions, the Wakf, which controls the Temple Mount, dug up 400 tons of dirt to build a canal from the northern wall to the Al Aqsa Mosque – destroying artifacts and historical facts covering hundreds, if not thousands, of years of Jewish history, archaeologists say.
No action was taken in that case, or in any other, to restore the archaeological facts where possible, or to punish the culprits, the report said. And instead of authorizing action, the Knesset committee decided to seal the report and not release its contents to the public. In an interview, MK Roni Bar-on, chairman of the Committee, denied that refusing to release the report was a coverup, but a matter of public safety. “This is an explosive document, and does not serve the interests of those seeking the welfare of the Temple Mount,” Bar-on said.
Archaeologists say that the Ophel Corner is of extreme archaeological importance and that the Arab takeover of the site must be halted immediately. It is considered the best preserved area of the Old City area from the days of the Second Temple, as it has been relatively untouched for thousands of years. The juncture of the Southern and Eastern Walls is also the tallest section of the Walls surrounding the Temple Mount, rising 20 meters – with another 20 meters underground, with sections of the Wall dating back to the Hasmonean period. A viewing area was recently opened showing a section of the Wall dating back to the First Temple, built by King Solomon.
“The Ofel Corner is a key site for information about the early days of the Temple Mount,” says Professor Eilat Mazar of Hebrew University. “The site tells us about the history, architecture, and topography of the area, and there are few, if any, other sites on the Mount with this kind of information. As far as I am concerned this is one of the seven wonders of the world, and we cannot lose this treasure in such a foolish manner – it would be a historical tragedy,” Mazar adds.
Activist Aryeh King, who already in 2004 filed suit with the High Court against Muslim burials at the site, plans to hold a large protest at the site in the coming weeks. “I will bring people from places like Migron, Giv'at Assaf, and other places where residents' houses are scheduled to be demolished because they were 'illegally built.' No evacuation orders have been issued for these illegally built graves, and we are going to demand that they be issued immediately,” King said, adding that “there is no reason that they cannot be moved – just like the graves in Gush Katif were moved.”