"Mugrabi Gate is the only entrance to the Temple Mount for non-Moslems - Jews, tourists, and others, according to an agreement reached after the Six Day War. Only Moslems are permitted to use the other gates.
Artist's rendition of new Mugrabi Gate ramp (Israel Antiquities Authority)
Islam has three holy cities: Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. In Mecca this week, the chiefs of Fatah and Hamas assembled in order to put an end to the mutual killing and set up a unity government. While the attention of the concerned Palestinian public was riveted there, Olmert struck in Jerusalem.
As pretext served the "Mugrabi Gate", an entrance to the Haram-al-Sharif ("the Noble Sanctuary"), the wide plaza where the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located. Since this gate is higher than the Western Wall area below it, one can approach it only over a rising bridge or ramp.
The old bridge collapsed some time ago, and was replaced with a temporary structure. Now the "Israel Antiquities Authority" is destroying the temporary bridge and putting in its place - so it says - a permanent one. But the work looks much more extensive.
The Israeli government argues that the bridge is separate from the Temple Mount. The Muslims insist that the bridge is a part of it. Behind this tussle, there is a lurking Arab suspicion that the installation of the new bridge is just a cover for something else happening below the surface.
At the 2000 Camp David conference, the Israeli side made a weird-sounding proposal: to leave the area itself to the Muslims, but with Israeli sovereignty over everything beneath the surface. That reinforced the Muslim belief that the Israelis intended to dig beneath the Mount, in order to discover traces of the Jewish Temple that was destroyed by the Romans 1936 years ago. Some believed that the real intention was to cause the Islamic shrines to collapse, so a new Temple could be built in their place.
These suspicions are nurtured by the fact that most Israeli archaeologists have always been the loyal foot-soldiers of the official propaganda. Since the emergence of modern Zionism, they have been engaged in a desperate endeavor to "find" archaeological evidence for the historical truth of the stories of the Old Testament. Until now, they have gone empty-handed: there exists no archaeological proof for the exodus from Egypt, the conquest of Canaan and the kingdoms of Saul, David and Solomon. But in their eagerness to prove the unprovable (because in the opinion of the vast majority of archaeologists and historians outside Israel - and also some in Israel - the Old Testament stories are but sacred myths), the archaeologists have destroyed many strata of other periods.
But that is not the most important side of the present affair. One can argue to the end of days about the responsibility for the Mugrabi walkway or what it might be that the archaeologists are looking for. But it is impossible to doubt that this is a provocation: it was carried out like a surprise military operation, without consultation with the other side.
Nobody knew better what to expect than Olmert, who, as mayor of Jerusalem, was responsible for the killing of 85 human beings - 69 Palestinians and 16 Israelis - in a similar provocation, when he "opened" a tunnel near the Temple Mount. And everybody remembers, of course, that the Second Intifada started with the provocative "visit" to the Temple Mount by Ariel Sharon.
This is a provocation against 1.3 billion Muslims, and especially against the Arab world. It is a knife in the back of the "moderate" Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Olmert pretends to be ready to have a "dialogue" - and this at exactly the moment Abbas reached an historical agreement with Hamas for the formation of a national unity government. It is also a knife in the back of the king of Jordan, Israel's ally, who sees himself as the traditional protector of the Temple Mount.
What for? To prove that Olmert is a strong leader, the hero of the Temple Mount, the defender of the national values, who doesn't give a damn for world public opinion.