The Temple Mount in Jerusalem (holiest spot on earth for Jews and ranking up there in sanctity also for Christians and Muslims) may soon come partly crashing down.
Despite appearances, the 35-acre Temple Mount plateau is not a natural formation but a man-made esplanade built centuries ago by stacking one large brick-like rock atop another. The wall on one side might cave in due to the fact that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has had administrative control over the Temple Mount since the mid-1990s and since then has made many structural changes, all aimed at increasing Muslim claims to the site.
In particular, the PA converted a long-disused space at the southern end, known as Solomon's Stables, into a mosque. In the process, it took down some supports. These alterations weakened the southern wall; an area - 227 square yards of the wall - now bulges out as much as 28 inches.
The PA professes no concern. "This bulge is under our monitoring since the '70s and has neither grown nor shifted in 30 years," says Adnan Husseini, director of the Islamic religious authority (the waqf) that oversees the Temple Mount. "It is stable, we don't feel that there is any dangerous situation."
Knowledgeable Israelis beg to differ. Back in 2001, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) warned that if not treated, the bulge would cause the Temple Mount "irreversible damage." Today, their warnings are alarmed. That wall is "in danger of collapse," says Shuka Dorfman, head of the IAA. "It could collapse," says Jerusalem's Mayor Ehud Olmert. It "will collapse," warns Eilat Mazar, an archaeologist at Hebrew University. "The central issue at present is whether it will collapse on the heads of thousands of people who are praying there, or whether it will be done in a controlled manner."
The moment of truth might come in November. That's the Ramadan holiday, when thousands of Muslim worshipers will aggregate in the mosque at Solomon's Stables. Their weight and movement could cause the southern wall to give way, causing yard-long rocks to come cascading down on them, possibly killing many.
Judging by prior incidents in Jerusalem - the arson at Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969, the opening of a tunnel in 1996 - this disaster would lead at least to wide-scale fighting in Jerusalem and a heated international crisis. If things really went wrong, it could precipitate a wave of violence in Europe and a full-blown Arab-Israeli war. It could also complicate the war on Iraq, obstruct the war on terrorism and jump the price of oil and gas. At worst, it could unleash an end-of-days messianism in three monotheistic religions, with unforeseeable consequences.
The structural integrity of this ancient wall is, in short, very serious business. And yet successive Israeli governments, both Labor and Likud, have abdicated their role, turning a deaf ear to the increasingly anxious predictions.
Their insouciance has two main causes. First, memories of 1969 and 1996 are enough to make any Israeli leader want to stay away from Jerusalem holy places. Second, it is a well-established tradition that the governing authority in Jerusalem - Ottoman, British, Jordanian, Israeli - endorses the status quo, permits precedent to have sway and stays out of the city's many and hugely intractable religious disputes.
Thus, when Israel captured the Temple Mount in 1967, it permitted the waqf to remain in charge there. The PA has exploited that deference of 35 years ago to increase Muslim claims to the Temple Mount, notably by building the new mosque at Solomon's Stables. That the waqf denies any structural problems means the Israeli authorities just tip-toe away. But they cannot afford to any longer. At issue is not some squabble over who gets to sweep which church step or who gets which hours in a sanctuary; this is a disaster in the making.
As the Jerusalem Post correctly editorializes, that the government of Israel has abdicated its responsibilities is "nothing less than scandalous," and it must now "finally assert its full sovereignty over the area."
Governments around the world, Jewish organizations and others with influence over the Israeli prime minister should get him to attend to the wall before it and much else crashes.
Sep. 24. 2003 update: For updates on this drama, see "Collapse of a Wall at the Temple Mount, Jerusalem."