Muslim cleanup project ‘illegally disturbed, removed’ ancient soil on Temple Mt
Zachi Dvira: 'This is clearly a show of who is in control'

Muslim cleanup project ‘illegally disturbed, removed’ ancient soil on Temple Mt

Ramadan ‘beautification’ effort was deliberately provocative, part of bid to erase traces of pre-Muslim era heritage, claims activist-archaeologist; Israeli authorities checking

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Archaeologist Zachi Dvira (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    Archaeologist Zachi Dvira (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • A Muslim volunteer is filmed while participating in an allegedly illegal 'beautification' project on the Aqsa Compound during the last days of Ramadan, June 2018. (screenshot)
    A Muslim volunteer is filmed while participating in an allegedly illegal 'beautification' project on the Aqsa Compound during the last days of Ramadan, June 2018. (screenshot)
  • The day after the end of the Ramadan celebrations, the Temple Mount / Al Aqsa Compound is empty save for a few tourists, June 18, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    The day after the end of the Ramadan celebrations, the Temple Mount / Al Aqsa Compound is empty save for a few tourists, June 18, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Archaeologist-activist Zachi Dvira examines what he said was damage to a mound of ancient dirt atop the Temple Mount, June 18, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    Archaeologist-activist Zachi Dvira examines what he said was damage to a mound of ancient dirt atop the Temple Mount, June 18, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • A Bobcat front-loader moves earth on the Temple Mount in July 2011. (Zachi Dvira)
    A Bobcat front-loader moves earth on the Temple Mount in July 2011. (Zachi Dvira)
  • Palestinian Muslims perform the morning Eid al-Fitr prayer near the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque / Temple Mount compound, Islam's third most holy site, in the Old City of Jerusalem on June 15, 2018. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)
    Palestinian Muslims perform the morning Eid al-Fitr prayer near the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque / Temple Mount compound, Islam's third most holy site, in the Old City of Jerusalem on June 15, 2018. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

Hundreds of Muslim volunteers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound atop Jerusalem’s Temple Mount illegally disturbed and removed archaeologically rich earth and ancient stones during a communal cleanup project in the final days of Ramadan last week, an Israeli archaeologist and activist has charged.

Video footage of the multi-day project at the contested holy site shows volunteers with shovels and rakes last week shifting and removing portions of two mounds on the eastern side of the compound made up of earth dumped by the Muslim Waqf custodians during unauthorized excavations since the early 2000s, said Zachi Dvira on behalf of the Committee to Prevent the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount (CPDATM).

The 37-acre walled compound — Judaism’s holiest site as the place of the biblical Temples, and the third-holiest spot in Islam — is the most politically volatile location in the country.

Due to the highly sensitive nature of the site, archaeologists have never been permitted by Israeli and Muslim authorities to examine the soil in the mounds, and it is unknown what treasures, if any, may be found in the estimated 112 truckloads of dirt there.

With irregular, mixed provenance, the earth in the mounds has a varied timeline dating back as far as 3,000 years — covering the First and Second Temple periods. Earth from similar illegal excavations on the mount which was dumped outside the compound in the nearby Kidron Valley, and retrieved by Dvira in the late 1990s, has yielded important finds, including extremely rare coins and early evidence of ancient Hebrew writing.

The mounds atop the mount are a de facto local dump for unwanted earth, largely taken from the controversial Solomon’s Stable excavation in the 1990s, as well as other subsequent Waqf renovations in 2000 and 2004. Today, the ancient soil is mixed with modern building debris and garbage, and topped with native species of upstart trees that flourish in loose earth.

The Israel Antiquities Authority said Thursday it was looking into the issue of the alleged disturbance of the archaeologically rich earth.

Salvaging the artifacts discarded during the 1999 unsupervised renovation of the Temple Mount’s Solomon’s Stables (pictured) was the genesis of the Temple Mount Sifting Project. (Temple Mount Sifting Project)

Prof. Ronny Reich, a prominent archaeologist of ancient Jerusalem who has excavated extensively in the Old City and its surroundings, told The Times of Israel on Thursday that because the mixed pile of dirt has been taken out of its original context, it has “limited value” as an archaeological site. He noted, however, that its artifacts offer an important statistical analysis of the periods of human settlement on the mount, quite apart from any rare inscriptions or art that may be found in the pile.

“It is impossible to just leave it lying [in the Aqsa compound]. It needs to be treated [properly], and the head of the IAA needs to speak up on its behalf,” said Reich, who was among the founding management of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Last week, Muslim volunteers of all ages were filmed on the Temple Mount raking earth and carving out an improvised staircase leading to the top of one of the two dirt mounds on the eastern side of the compound. There, they used stone planks they found inside the mound to build benches and tables.

At the foot of the small hill, the volunteers set up makeshift retaining walls, using stones sorted from the mound, with the aim of holding in the mound’s ashy gray earth. Later inspection showed that chunks of the mound were shifted and even removed altogether during the project, said Dvira. It was unclear where such chunks of earth would have been moved to.

The plaza next to the Solomon’s Stables subterranean mosque. These terraces, said Zachi Dvira, were formed through illegal excavation and the removal of over 9,000 tons of dirt. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

All unauthorized construction or renovations on the mount are infractions of the fragile status quo that was cobbled together by Israel and the Waqf, the Muslim Jordanian administration of the site, after Israel captured the Old City in the 1967 Six Day War. (Israel extended sovereignty to encompass the Old City and East Jerusalem, but allowed the Waqf to continue to administer the compound.)

Furthermore, any movement of the potentially artifact-laden excavated mounds of earth atop the mount is expressly forbidden by an Israeli High Court injunction, written in response to a petition brought by the CPDATM in 2004.

Dvira sounded the alarm about the disturbance and the removal of the earth based on the footage, posted to social media, depicting the cleanup project.

“Taking advantage of the limited police [presence], and [the] ban of all non-Muslims from the Temple Mount because of Ramadan, these archaeologically rich mounds of earth have been irreconcilably damaged,” Dvira wrote in a blog post last week. “This is a clear violation of the law, a violation of basic morality and respect, and an absolute destruction of the heritage of Jews as well as Christians and Muslims.”

The CPDATM organization consists of several well-known Jerusalem archaeologists and activists who are concerned with the preservation of Jewish ties to the mount. Prominent CPDATM member, the veteran Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkay, co-directs the Temple Mount Sifting Project with Dvira.

The Sifting Project, currently under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University, was founded to examine 9,000 tons of haphazardly discarded earth that was excavated during the Waqf’s unauthorized expansion of a subterranean prayer space at the mount in the late 1990s in the so-called Solomon’s Stables area, now known as the El-Marwani Mosque.

Some 400 truckloads of the soil from that unauthorized excavation were dumped and discarded by the Waqf near the Mount of Olives. Through wet-sifting of this soil at a facility it established in nearby Emek Tzurim, the Sifting Project has uncovered some one million artifacts — including large piles of archaeological evidence dated to the First and Second Temple periods. (The project is currently searching for a new permanent location.)

أكثر من ألف معتكف ساهموا في إعمار و إحياء منطقة باب الرحمة شرقي المسجد الأقصى طوال ليلة ٢٧ رمضان .ونشطاء يطلقون وسم #باب_الرحمه_النا ، ووسم #عند_باب_الرحمة_اعتكافي . كتابة : جمان أبو عرفة تصوير : محمد الفاتح

Posted by ‎مركز قلنديا الاعلامي‎ on Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The 2004 High Court injunction was turned into a legal ruling in 2005. In 2004, the IAA gave the Sifting Project authority to research the earth, said Dvira. Due to the mixed time periods, studying the soil is a complex, technically difficult task and there is ongoing debate among CPDATM members over where and how to best accomplish it.

The 2004 court order also stated that the removal of dirt from the Temple Mount must be overseen by authorized archaeologists, and only be implemented after the state gives 30 days notice of intent.

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II to discuss regional conflict and stronger economic ties. According to a Prime Minister’s Office press release, “Prime Minister Netanyahu emphasized the obligation of Israel to maintain the status quo at all holy sites in Jerusalem.”

A Bobcat front-loader moves earth on the Temple Mount in July 2011. (Zachi Dvira)

While there is no indication that the PMO statement on upholding the status quo was a direct result of concerns over the disturbed earth, Israeli radio and news reports quoted the Waqf as saying a new police outpost had been put up last week near the dirt mounds, adjacent to the Golden Gate, to observe the “beautification” project. According to the Waqf, the observation point was torn down a day after the Netanyahu-Abdullah meeting. (Despite repeated attempts, the Waqf did not respond to The Times of Israel’s queries.)

Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld denied the Waqf’s claims and told The Times of Israel that during and following Ramadan, there were “no changes [made by Israel] on the Temple Mount and no new observation points.”

“Regular police activity and security measures are taking place on the Temple Mount,” Rosenfeld said. “Regular heightened security and coordination took place to prevent security-related incidents, and at the same time allow thousands of people to arrive in the area of the Old City and the Temple Mount for the Ramadan celebrations.”

The compound was closed to non-Muslims at the end of Ramadan and the following feast day of Eid al-Fitr. On Monday morning, the first possible opportunity, Dvira ascended the mount to discern the possible damage, accompanied by this reporter.

Palestinian Muslims perform the morning Eid al-Fitr prayer near the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam’s third most holy site, in the Old City of Jerusalem on June 15, 2018. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

What was disturbed and what’s at stake?

As captured on film, during the week of June 10, dozens, and possibly hundreds, of Muslim volunteers answered calls in local Palestinian media to fulfill the commandment of “I’etikaf,” in which Muslims perform charitable work for the community.

In addition to the contentious beautification effort, volunteers constructed a vigil tent near the Golden Gate (known in Hebrew and Arabic as the Gate of Mercy) in honor of a female Palestinian medic, Razan al Najar, who Palestinian officials reported was killed by IDF fire during violent mass protests at the Gazan border on June 1. (The IDF said later it had not deliberately targeted her.)

Several local Jerusalem Arabic news sites, including Quds Media and Kalandia Media Center, highlighted the “beautification” project. In a clip portraying the work there, the subtitled script depicted a secondary meaning behind the good deeds.

מבצע נקיון באלאקצא

צמד ידיעות בנושא הפעילות באל-אקצא לרגל עשרת הימים האחרונים של חודש הרמדאן:"האעתכאף [1] בחודש הרמדאן במסגד אל-אקצא לא כולל רק תפילות, אלא יוזמות לניקיון מספר מקומות בתוך הרחבה, שהחשוב שבהם הוא אזור באב א-ארחמה [שער הרחמים]."- אל-קודס אוולאן[תרגום הכיתוב בסרטון:]"ריבאט וגאווהנקיון ושיקוםהאעתכאף הוא לא רק תפילה ועבודת האל, אלא עשיית חסד ושיקוםהמקיימים את האעתכאף במסגד אל-אקצא החלו במבצע ניקיון ושיקום של האזור המזרחי שמול באב א-רחמה. עשרות בחורים, שיח'ים ונשים השתתפו בניקיון האזור, סידרו אותו מחדש וייפו אותו. ההשתתפות הרחבה במבצע השיקום היא מסר ישיר לכיבוש, אשר מנסה לשים את ידו על השטחים הללו שאינם כשירים לשימוש ולתפילה, כדי לממש תוכניות לחלוקת המקום של מסגד אל-אקצא המבורך.אולם, הדבר לא ייתכן בשום פנים ואופן."***"בעזרת אללה, החל מיום שני רחבת מסגד אל-אקצא תיהיה עדה למספר רב של מתפללים אשר באים מהגדה המערבית, אל-קודס ואנשי 'הפנים הפלסטיני' [כינוי לערבים החיים בשטחי 48'], לקראת ציונו של לילת אל-קדר [2] באל-אקצא המכובד. מי ייתן ואללה יקבל את תפילותיהם של כולם."- חלק מתוך פוסט בדף הפייסבוק 'עיון מקדסיה'—הערות מערכת 0202:1. "אעתכאף" הוא מנהג מוסלמי שכולל שהייה רצופה במסגד תוך התמסרות לעבודת האל, בעיקר בעשרת הימים האחרונים של חודש רמדאן.2. "לילת אל-קדר" (מילולית: ליל הגורל או הגזרה) הוא הלילה שבו הורד הקוראן מהשמיים, לפי המסורת המוסלמית. המועד המקובל לציונו הוא הלילה ה-27 ברמדאן ובו לפי המסורת חורץ אלוהים את גורל בני האדם לשנה הבאה. 3. לפוסט קודם על ההיערכות הצפויה לקראת לילת אלקדר, ראו:רמדאן #אלאקצא #לילת_אלקדרالاعتكاف في شهر رمضان بالمسجد الأقصى ليس صلاة فقط…بل مبادرات لتنظيف عدد من المناطق داخل الساحات، أهمها منطقة باب الرحمة.- القدس اولا- Jerusalem First***ستشهد باذن الله اعتبارا من صباح يوم غد الاثنين باحات المسجد الاقصى تواجدا مكثفا للمصلين القادمين من الضفة الغربية وأبناء الداخل الفلسطيني والقدس استعدادا لأحياء ليلة القدر في الاقصى الشريف. اسال الله للجميع القبول..- عيون مقدسيه

Posted by ‎0202 – מבט מירושלים המזרחית‎ on Monday, 11 June 2018

“The extensive participation in the rehabilitation operation is a direct message to the occupation, which is trying to get its hands on these areas that are not fit for use and prayer, in order to implement plans to divide the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque. However, this cannot be the case,” read the clip’s subtitles.

Dvira charged that the shifting of soil, stones and artifacts was part of a conscious, ongoing Palestinian effort to assert sovereignty over the eastern, somewhat barren corner of the mount.

“This is clearly a show of who is in control, and a message from the Waqf to the world that they don’t need permission from Israel to do anything on the Temple Mount, and that no one can stop them,” said Dvira.

He called it a literal attempt to change the facts on the ground.

At the Temple Mount, near the Golden Gate, chunks of ancient earth were illegally removed and a makeshift stone wall constructed, June 2018, said activist-archaeologist Zachi Dvira. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Under the tenuous status quo, while the compound is administered by the Jordanian-funded Waqf, it is guarded by Israeli police. With a mix of conflicts kept at a precarious balance, issues such as “important dirt” often fall through the cracks.

A dirty business

A day after the final celebrations marking the end of Ramadan the compound looked a little hung over. When this reporter visited with Dvira, prayer rugs were still being collected and piled on a small Bobcat tractor, falling off its roof every few meters, as it slowly progressed. Detritus blew through the plaza; a few dirty diapers littered the ground.

The mount is reached from the Jewish quarter, near the Western Wall’s egalitarian prayer platform, by walking up the Mughrabi Bridge to the Mughrabi Gate — the only one of the compound’s 11 gates that is still open to non-Muslims.

A group of ultra-Orthodox Jews pray near the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, June 18, 2018. Officially, Jewish prayer atop the mount is forbidden (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Home to the easily identifiable golden Dome of the Rock, the Aqsa Compound is located above the Kidron Valley on the edge of Jerusalem’s Old City and is revered by the three major monotheistic religions. Islamic occupation of the mount began in the 7th century CE, with a short pause for the temporary conquering Crusaders in 1099. Through the passage of time and several earthquakes, Muslim architecture dominates the plaza today.

From previous visits and his activist work with CPDATM, archaeologist Dvira is a known figure to the Israeli police who maintain order on the site. Before allowing him to wander freely, an officer warned him not to touch or collect any dirt.

Strict rules are imposed on non-Muslims when visiting the site today. Dictates from a 1925 Waqf guide to the compound did not restrict Jews, prohibit prayers, or forbid visits on Saturday. Some 90 years later, all three are forbidden. In agreeing to the Waqf’s continued authority at the site, Israel’s government since 1967 has outlawed Jewish prayer there.

Today, aside from days of rest and unrest when they barred altogether, non-Muslims are only able to enter the compound from Sunday to Thursday for four hours each day — and often under direct Israeli guard. A modest dress code is enforced (many shorts-wearing tourists can be spotted draped in the Waqf’s gratis unisex “skirts”) and non-Muslims are no longer permitted to enter the mosques.

Archaeologist Zachi Dvira next to what he said was a damaged mound of ancient dirt atop the Temple Mount, June 18, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Dvira cautioned before the visit against bringing any books into the compound: So great is the Waqf’s fear of pirate Jewish practices, he said, that even novels could be misconstrued as religious incitement. He eschewed wearing a hat that sunny morning, so as not to be taken as a religious Jew and put under strict police supervision while touring the site.

In addition to his activism and work with the Sifting Project, Dvira is a PhD candidate at Bar-Ilan University researching historical archaeological excavations on the Temple Mount and their findings. As he walked, he called out to correct overheard errors in explanations being offered by a tour guide to a group nearby, while detailing to this reporter the slight changes at the site he said he noted from his previous trip a few months earlier. Here, a vast temporary shade structure had been erected for Ramadan, he said; there, he spotted a new home for ancient marble column capitals.

Evidence of pre-Muslim eras is hidden in plain sight, he said. When walking in front of the majestic golden dome, Dvira pointed out what he said were the remnants of a step from a Second Temple staircase leading to the mount’s pinnacle. Elsewhere, there were large swaths of flagstones from the same period.

As Dvira neared the eastern part of the compound and the contested dirt mounds, he said he was concerned about getting kicked off the mount (as he had been in the past) before completing his assessment of the damage.

Archaeologist Zachi Dvira climbs a makeshift staircase carved out of grey ashy soil on the Temple Mount, June 18, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel

He circled the area, which contains two dirt hills separated by a footpath. The more southern of the two mounds, he explained later, is 220 square meters in surface area. Its average height is about two meters, and he estimated the total volume is about 440 cubic meters. The more northern mound is much larger, about 870 square meters, with a volume of approximately 1,300 cubit meters.

All told, he estimated there are a total of 1,740 cubic meters or approximately 112 truckloads of potentially important dirt in the two piles.

He pointed out what he said was damage to both piles. As he had already seen in the social media film, a makeshift staircase had been constructed in the silty ash of the larger pile, and tables and benches were constructed at its top from stone of various time periods, including contemporary.

Dvira said he was most concerned at the clear evidence that chunks of earth had been removed from the piles altogether — and potentially along with them undocumented historical artifacts.

A call to action

According to a 2014 report from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank called “The ‘Status Quo’ on the Temple Mount,” by veteran Israeli journalist Nadav Shragai, “The considerable expansion of the Muslims’ prayer areas on the Mount is part of a proclaimed intent of the Muslims and the Waqf to turn the whole compound into a prayer area, thereby precluding any possibility in the future of even allocating a corner for Jewish prayer.”

A man holds two Arabic signs next to Al Aqsa on the last day of Ramadan, June 14, 2018. One says ‘Sha’ar Harachamim Hill — Al Aqsa Mosque,’ and the other, ‘Tent for the shaheeda (martyr) Razan al Najar.’ (YouTube screenshot)

Standing next to the rubble, Dvira said he was sure that many of the Muslim volunteers who disturbed the dirt mounds were actually there merely to fulfill the Muslim commandment to perform charitable work for the community. But not all of them.

Having witnessed illicit attempts to dispose of the dirt in the past, he charged that Muslim organizers had again taken advantage of the days in which Jews cannot visit the mount to try to erase historical Jewish ties.

Pointing to relatively new paving stones nearby, leading from the Solomon’s Stables/El-Marwani Mosque area, he said another tactic used by the Waqf was to build in such a way that the area would be “occupied” — rendered unsuitable for any future Jewish prayer site should there one day be a peace agreement that would allow Jewish prayer.

In April 2014, a Waqf street cleaner pours dirt onto the pile of earth from excavations at the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Compound. (Courtesy the Public Committee for the Prevention of Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount)

The damage assessment

Dvira’s visit to the dirt mounds was not disturbed by Israeli police or the Waqf. He then walked toward a group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish visitors, who were touring under heavy police guard. One of the members greeted Dvira warmly and, after singling out his bride-to-be niece, told him to keep up the good work.

After the visit, Dvira reported back in a blog on the Temple Mount Sifting Project site. “The good news, if there is any, is that for most of the mounds of soil, only the outer layers seem to be damaged,” he wrote. He added that there was evidence that “workers scraped the sides of the mounds and sorted finds, including some larger architectural fragments and floor tiles.”

Archaeologist Zachi Dvira stands in front of what he said were improvised tables and benches created from stone slabs found on a mound of ancient dirt on the Temple Mount, June 18, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

“The bad news is that there are four places where the Waqf not only ‘cleaned’ the mounds on the surface, but yet again dug into the interior of them,” his blog continued.

Having left the area of the dirt mounds, as he walked around the Temple Mount perimeter toward the Golden Gate, Dvira pointed to a pile of stone slabs, some of which he said were over 1,000 years old. He said the pile had been reduced by 75 percent based on an assessment from 2013 in which he and others had studied the heap. At the time, they had discerned stones bearing Early Islamic period inscriptions, Second Temple floor tiles, Byzantine church chancel screens, and other important artifacts.

“We published it and no one did anything about it. Today’s visit, and another conducted several months ago, revealed that 3/4 of that material is missing. Where all of this archaeological material is now is a complete guess. We fear that these important artifacts have been lost due to looting,” he wrote in his blog post.

Sections of mounds of ancient dirt and what Zachi Dvira said were newly created low walls at the eastern side of the Temple Mount compound, June 18, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Dvira said police had released a statement following the “beautification” effort last week, saying that they would make sure that earth that was removed was returned to its place.

“We are grateful to the police for making such a strong statement and upholding the law,” wrote Dvira. But he made clear that he was not optimistic.

Everyday life also occurs on the Al-Aqsa Compound — boys play soccer outside a Muslim school tucked into the plaza’s corner, a large olive grove serves as a shady spot for families enjoying picnics.

Dvira acknowledged the living, ever-evolving lay of the land atop the mount. “But there are right and wrong ways to make changes,” he said. “And this was the wrong way.”

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