Israel fears part of Jerusalem’s most sensitive shrine may collapse under the weight of Muslims due to pour in for Ramadan rites soon and wants curbs on the number of worshippers, officials said on Sunday.
The Islamic trust overseeing the site, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and Jews as Temple Mount, denied the mosque in its Solomon’s Stables area was unsafe and accused Israel of looking for a pretext to take control.
It was the latest controversy to flare over a compound that has been a religious and political tinderbox since Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, and especially since a Palestinian revolt erupted in 2000.
Israel’s Antiquities Authority said the mosque foundations in the galleries known as Solomon’s Stables had become unstable from a combination of neglect, shoddy construction work and a recent earthquake.
Fissures had formed in the roof — where Muslims also pray — and the eastern wall of the underground cavern, according to the Authority. Israeli media said the findings were based on a recent on-site examination by Egyptian engineers.
Without curbs on admission to Solomon’s Stables when an expected 200,000 Muslims crowd into the compound once the holy month of Ramadan begins in mid-October, the eastern wall and roof risk collapse, Israeli officials said.
“We are afraid a disaster will ensue. There is no way we can allow a large number of worshippers to enter this dangerous place,” Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra said on Israel Radio.
“If barriers are not put up blocking entry ..., or if (new) supports are not erected in time, we will have to limit the number of worshippers on Temple Mount during Ramadan.”
He doubted reinforcement work could be completed in time.
Fear of shock waves
Israeli officials said any structural catastrophe at the shrine would be blamed by the Islamic world on Israel and could aggravate violence in the conflict with Palestinians.
Palestinians launched their revolt in occupied territories after then-Israeli opposition leader and now Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the mosque compound under police escort.
Waqf director Adnan Husseini dismissed Israel’s position as part of an “agenda” to wrest control over the compound in a long sovereignty dispute with Islamic authorities and Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem for the capital of a future state.
“I think there will be no disaster here. This place has existed for 1,400 years and we have always received hundreds of thousands of people without any danger,” Husseini told Reuters.
“Ramadan is coming and I wish that Israel will allow Muslims coming from all over Palestine to enter and pray.”
Jews, who regard the site as their most sacred for having contained two biblical temples destroyed in ancient times, have long accused the Waqf of pursuing unbridled construction to erase evidence of pre-Islamic civilizations.
The Waqf, which converted the Solomon’s Stables cavern into a mosque after the 1993 interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, denies damaging any part of the shrine — Islam’s third holiest with the 7th century al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques.
Three weeks ago, Israel’s Supreme Court temporarily barred the removal of tons of rubble generated by construction at Solomon’s Stables.
It acted in response to a petition by Israeli archaeologists who said the rubble must be sifted for possible artifacts before being disposed of. The Waqf said the rubble came from mosque renovations and contained no relics.