(The Jerusalem Post, September 27, 1996) THE archaeological tunnel which this week delineated the explosive fault line between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem had no archaeological purpose when its excavation was begun some 25 years ago, and the fault line it then defined was between Jews alone.
The tunnel was initiated by the Religious Affairs Ministry after the Six Day War in order to expose the subterranean courses of the Temple Mount north of the Western Wall, an area it saw as suffused with holiness.
By law, excavations in archaeological areas are the exclusive province of professional archaeologists licensed by the government. In a deft act of turfmanship, however, the archaeological authorities agreed to let the Religious Affairs Ministry have its dig as long as its functionaries did not attempt to interfere with the major excavation being conducted at the southern foot of the Temple Mount by Prof. Binyamin Mazar.
The ministry had previously attempted to declare the Temple Mount wall being exposed south of the Western Wall as a prayer area and to oust the archaeologists.
Mazar's assistant, archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov, was assigned to oversee the ministry dig on a part-time basis in order to legitimize it, but the effort was more of a mining operation than an archaeological dig.
The Moslem authorities were concerned about the ministry tunnel along the Temple Mount wall, and not without cause. Two incidents during the Mazar dig along the southern wall had sounded alarm bells. Technion engineers had already measured a slight movement in part of the southern wall during the excavations.
Ben-Dov says the finding was based on an instrument misreading, but concrete buttresses were nevertheless put in place to support the wall. The Wakf was dismayed when Ben-Dov, working on the Mazar dig, probed two ancient tunnels at the southern foot of the Temple Mount beneath Al-Aksa Mosque in the area of the Hulda and Single gates, penetrating five meters into one and 30 meters into another, dating from the Second Temple period.
The Moslem authorities prevailed on the government to call off Ben-Dov and the tunnels were resealed. They have remained so ever since.
Apart from their concerns about possible structural damage on the Mount itself, the Moslem authorities were offended by the notion of non-Moslems digging under, or even on the fringes of, a Moslem holy place; the fact that it was also a Jewish holy place was not a mitigating factor to them.
Nor was the excavation of Moslem palaces by Mazar that not even Islamic scholars had known existed a mitigating factor.
The Arabs were no less upset at the political implications of large-scale excavations in the Old City which underlined the extent of Israeli control in Jerusalem.
Although the ministry tunnel was a sideshow compared to the prodigious and enormously rewarding Mazar dig, the Wakf's fears would be realized there both in the physical and political-religious spheres.
The first stage of the ministry operation, in the early 1970s, consisted of clearing dirt from huge arched spaces just north of the Western Wall. These arches, according to archaeologist Dan Bahat,had been built in the 13th-15th centuries by the Mamelukes to raise up to the level of the Temple Mount, a street which crossed the vale bisecting the Old City.
North of these arches, the ministry's engineers drove a narrow tunnel alongside the Temple Mount - the one involved in the current controversy - revealing the enormous stones in its lower courses.
There was no penetration of the Mount itself or danger to holy places, but midway in the tunnel's progress large cracks appeared in one of the residential buildings in the Moslem Quarter, 12 meters above the excavation. The dig was halted until steel buttresses secured the building.
In 1982, one of the most dramatic Jewish-Arab confrontations in post-Six Day War Jerusalem occurred in the tunnel. It involved the late Rabbi Yehuda Meir Getz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, a colorful personality who would pray alone each morning inside the tunnel at a point opposite what he presumed to have been the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount.
One day Arabs on the Mount heard banging from one of its cisterns. When they entered it, they found that Jewish workmen under Getz's supervision had partially broken through an ancient gateway, dubbed Warren's Gate, between the ministry tunnel and the innards of the Temple Mount itself.
In a subterranean scene witnessed by reporters, police separated the two sides, who were on the verge of blows. Government officials, alert to the explosiveness of the situation, hastily ordered the opening resealed, and it remains closed today.
This gate and the steps which had apparently led up from it had played an important role in Jewish life in the medieval period, according to some scholars.
After the Moslem conquest in the seventh century, Jews were permitted to return to Jerusalem, from which they had been barred by Roman and Byzantine rulers. However, they were not permitted back on the Mount. The closest they could come to it, according to Bahat, was the covered staircase inside the gateway, which came to be known as hame'ara, or the cave.
Some believe this was the principal Jewish prayer area in Jerusalem for more than three centuries,until the arrival of the Crusaders. After the Crusaders were defeated, the gateway was blocked by buildings. It was only then, in the 13th century, that Jews began praying at what came to be known as the Western Wall.
Work on the Religious Affairs Ministry tunnel continued over the years under the supervision of safety engineers to avoid further danger to surface structures.
As it progressed, it proved to be of increasing archaeological interest. A few years ago the tunnel,which had been called the "Western Wall Tunnel," was linked up with a water tunnel cut through the rock to the north, apparently in the Hasmonean period. This would lead to its becoming known as the "Hasmonean Tunnel." The water had been required in antiquity to clean the altar area on the Mount, where priests slaughtered sacrifices.
Bahat, formerly in charge of the Jerusalem District for the Antiquities Authority, contends that the finds here change conventional thinking about the history of the Temple Mount.
The Mount built around 970 BCE by King Solomon as a platform for the First Temple was roundish, conforming to the shape of the original hill.
This temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Returnees from Babylonian exile half a century later built a new temple - the original Second Temple - maintaining the roundish shape.
King Herod in the first century BCE rebuilt the Temple and doubled the size of the Mount, now near-rectangular.
According to Bahat, it has become apparent from the tunnel excavation that there was still another Temple Mount built, in squarish shape, by the Hasmoneans a century before Herod.
Despite Moslem displeasure at the tunnel's existence, it aroused little public protest in the Arab sector until now since it was out of sight. Several years ago, the tunnel was opened to visitors entering from the Western Wall plaza. The authorities sought ways of opening an exit at the northern end of the narrow tunnel so visitors do not have to double back some 380 meters to the entrance way.
The Sisters of Zion, whose convent on the Via Dolorosa lies near the tunnel's northern end, were approached, but declined to become involved in a politically sensitive issue.
The Arab owner of a souvenir shop on the Via Dolorosa agreed to the opening of a tunnel exit on his property, according to Israeli sources, but backed down for fear of Arab retaliation.
Preparations were then made to exit onto a public space on the street itself, but Likud prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was persuaded that it was not worth stirring up a hornet's nest for.
Finally, a staircase was built up from the tunnel to a point alongside the Omariya School on the Via Dolorosa, where only a nondescript stone wall separated it from the street.
Last week, with Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert wielding one of the sledge hammers, the wall was pierced and a doorway fitted into the opening.
Ben-Dov says the mistake in opening the exit was not merely in the timing but in the essence since, in the political circumstances, it was clearly unacceptable to the Arabs to have the tunnel disgorge its visitors, many of them Israeli, into the heart of the Moslem Quarter.
"The Wakf was right in asking back then that I stop my dig under Al-Aksa, and the government was right in supporting them," said Ben-Dov this week. "I think that opening the tunnel exit was very unwise."
For many long years, the work Israel carried out in the Western Wall Tunnel and the Hasmonean Tunnel was one of the openest secrets in the world; almost every foreign visitor from the rank of ambassador and up was taken to the spot.
Some of those visitors would certainly be blushing today with shame, if the Foreign Ministry personnel were to reveal some of the words of praise and esteem showered by those very people -- including not a few Arabs -- and even the heads of the Waqf [the Islamic religious authority] and the Supreme Moslem Council, concerning the thousands of finds and archaeological artifacts which Israel has retrieved from the depths of the earth.
However, the Waqf and the Islamic religious establishment will always oppose archaeological excavations in the area, for much deeper reasons than the allegation about upsetting the foundations of the mosques as a result of the digging. The protests about changing the Moslem character of Jerusalem are derived from the basic concepts of Islam regarding the State of Israel.
The late Orientalist David Farhi, with whom Moshe Dayan concurred in laying down the arrangements prevailing till now on the Temple Mount, once said that, for generations, the Jews were tolerated in the Moslem world only as an enslaved people without the rights of a political status.
And the Orientalist Professor Moshe Sharon determined that in the eyes of Islam the establishment of Israel had violated all the rules concerning
Islamic territory, Islamic holy sites, and the juridical status of the Jews, according to Islam. Israel was established on territory belonging to the "Dar al-Islam" in which there are Islamic holy sites. The Jews are not subordinate as it was decreed they should be and, gravest of all, they rule over Moslems. They are the sovereign in Jerusalem.
These elements have been incorporated in hundreds of sermons which religious clerics have delivered on the Temple Mount for the past 30 years, and in dozens of "fatwas" [religious rulings] published by Islamic clerics since the establishment of Israel, and more so since Jerusalem was reunified.
This religious outlook was reinforced by the close combination between religion and state prevailing in Islam, too; the saying "religion and the state are twins", attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, was given fuller expression in Jerusalem after 1967 over the issue of the Temple Mount.
Arab statesmen and Islamic religious leaders have turned the religion into an instrument to meddle in politics, and politics into an implement to meddle in religion.
That is more or less what is also happening now, before our very eyes. Since the events of 1929 [the widespread Arab rioting], the mosques on the Temple Mount ceased to serve as a place of worship and a purely religious symbol, and became one of the main national symbols of the struggle against Zionism.
Behind the scenes, it may perhaps be possible to reach understandings with the Waqf, but it is difficult to do this when the issue is the Temple Mount. In 1988, Israel tried for the first time to open an exit from the Hasmonean Tunnel on to Oneima Street, adjacent to the Temple Mount. What occurred then in the city and in the West Bank greatly resembles what has happened now, even though Waqf officials were invited to visit the tunnels before the opening was cut, toured them, and even examined the maps of the Israeli engineers. The attempt to coordinate the opening operation with Waqf officials failed this time, too, even though the Waqf had been offered the compensation of permission to open an additional gate to Solomon's Stables and the possibility of holding religious services in them.
The Waqf will always raise difficulties over excavations in the area of the Temple Mount; if the question depended on it, the Southern Wall and the Western Wall along its entire length would never have been uncovered-- and the Moslem heritage of Jerusalem, disclosed in these digs, would still be buried in the depths of the earth.
The allegations about upsetting the foundations of the mosques are utter nonsense: the Hasmonean aqueduct was hewn out of the rock thousands of years ago, and only now has been re-exposed. The work of removing sewage water and mud from this tunnel could not upset the foundation of anything, especially as the route of the tunnel does not pass under the Temple Mount perimeter, but west of it.
In contrast to similar events in the Temple Mount vicinity in the past, the wave of rioting this time was organized by the people of the Palestinian Authority. A senior police officer said this week "it was easier to do business with Jordan in the Temple Mount zone."
On Tuesday, Yassir Arafat declared in Gaza: "Our blood is cheap in the face of the issue for which we are gathered here." On Palestinian Radio, a listener said the time had come "to slaughter all the Jews [and] to appoint a Caliph for Palestine." This went on without anyone participating in the program -- Waqf leaders and members of the Palestinian Legislative Council from the Jerusalem electoral district --protesting.
'Yediot Ahronot' - independent (250,000)
'Ma'ariv' - independent (160,000)
'Ha'aretz' - independent (65,000)
'Hatzofeh' - NRP (NA)
Hatzofeh comments on the controversy over the opening of the exit to the Hasmonean tunnel in the Old City of Jerusalem, and says that the opening "has been welcomed by all residents of the State of Israel." The editors believe that "the outgoing left-wing government capitulated to external pressures and refrained from opening the gate, something which aroused great astonishment and even caused great anger among the country's Jewish residents," and "regret that nationalist Palestinian elements exploited the opportunity to attack worshipers at the Western Wall, the remnant of the Temple, raining rocks upon them in protest." The paper reminds its readers that "a new tunnel was not excavated, but a tunnel which had been blocked for many years was opened," and calls on the world "to accept the fact that not only is the Western Wall in our hands, but what lies under it is also under full Israeli sovereignty." The editors call on the Israeli public "not to panic over threats arriving from extremist Islamic circles," and urge the latter "to understand that greater Jerusalem constitutes an inseparable part of the State of Israel, which alone is authorized to determine which tunnels and gates will be opened for Jews and tourists."
By Nadav Shragai
The firemen manning the two fire trucks dispatched to the Western Wall on July 28, 1981 were still wondering what they were supposed to do there when they were suddenly told to return to the station. Yehuda Meir Getz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, had ordered the fire trucks and was also the one that hastily canceled the order after he discovered that all the firemen on the way to the Western Wall were Arabs. He feared that his plans - to dig under the foundations of the Dome of the Rock in order to find the site of the Holy of Holies, and the place where the Temple artifacts had been concealed - would be discovered too soon.
The firemen had been assigned a secondary role in the project: to pump out hundreds of cubic meters of muddy water from the huge tunnel, chiseled eastward. Getz, along with workers from the Religious Affairs Ministry, had cleared the opening secretly during work aimed at uncovering the full length of the Western Wall.
Rabbi Getz managed to keep the secret for only a few weeks. A violent confrontation broke out in the tunnel, which according to the Western Wall rabbi's calculations, led to Ein Itam: the spring through which impure priests went to immerse themselves on their way from Beit Hamoked on the Temple Mount outside the walls. The Muslims discovered the breach and dozens of them slid down through openings in the Temple Mount area to the tunnel located near the Western Wall plaza. Getz and the yeshiva students who were alerted to the site rushed to block the way of members of the Waqf (Muslim trust) with their bodies. At the end of a turbulent day, with the Temple Mount at the epicenter of international attention, then prime minister Menachem Begin, minister of police Yosef Burg and police commissioner Shlomo Ivstan ordered that the opening that had been made in the wall on the eastern side be resealed.
That was the only time since 1967 that governmental officials had tried to tunnel eastward underneath the Temple Mount. At the time, it was officially announced that the huge tunnel under the structure of the Dome of the Rock had been discovered by chance during preparation of a niche for a holy ark at the Western Wall. Only years later did two members of the committee appointed by the government to investigate the affair disclose that the story about the niche for a holy ark was merely a cover-up for the real story.
Archaeologist Meir Ben Dov and the coordinator of the ministerial committee for Jerusalem affairs, Ephraim Shilo, discovered that the tunnel had been opened deliberately, but in order to prevent public relations damage to the state, this essential finding was left out of the final conclusions of the report they authored. Years later, Rabbi Getz explained that he had been motivated by an intense desire to find the lost Temple artifacts, first and foremost the Ark of the Covenant.
Warning from the Rebbe
A new book about Rabbi Getz makes new revelations about the affair. The author, Hila Volberstein, reveals that he was not alone in his plan to tunnel from the Western Wall eastward under the Temple Mount. He had a partner - Rafi Eitan, advisor on terrorism and security to three prime ministers (Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres), who later gained fame as the man who recruited and handled Jonathan Pollard.
The book about Getz, who was involved extensively in Kabbalah and for whom the Western Wall tunnels were a second home, is being published almost eight years after his death. In the volume, which was commissioned by the family, Getz is described as he was: an enterprising man of many talents, a philanthropist (who gave charity in secret), a man with a spiritual approach to life, an army officer and a mystic both in action and dress - with a black robe and white headdress, a prayer book and Bible in his pocket and pistol on his hip. He was among the first to settle in the renewed Jewish Quarter after the Six-Day War. Of his 11 children, most live in Judea and Samaria. One son, Yair, was killed in Samaria in the mid-1980s when the car he was driving was hit by a truck driven by an Arab. Getz was convinced that he had been murdered for nationalistic reasons. Another son, Avner, was killed in the battle for the Old City in the Six-Day War.
Volberstein reveals extensive excerpts from Getz's diaries, just a small proportion of which had been made public before. She presents numerous testimonies, such as that of Naftali Kidron, formerly an engineer in the Religious Affairs Ministry, according to which the source of the rabbi's almost total devotion to the project to uncover the Western Wall was his intense desire to find the Temple artifacts.
Getz, who served for many years as rabbi of the Western Wall on behalf of the Religious Affairs Ministry, clung ardently to his plans to find the Temple artifacts, refusing to relinquish his program even after the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, advised him to stop. The Lubavitcher Rebbe warned Getz that anyone who found the Temple artifacts was placing his life in danger, although he did make it clear that finding the artifacts used in the Temple would bring Jewish redemption closer. Rabbi Getz, writes Volberstein, "decided to be the atonement for the Jewish people, to search for the Temple artifacts and to do whatever he could to speed up the redemption. However, he was waiting for the right moment to open the tunnels in the easterly direction."
One of the most fascinating testimonies in the book is that of Eitan. "As the excavation of the tunnels progressed," says Eitan, "I met with Rabbi Getz almost daily. Together with him, I studied the structure of the Holy Temple and its dimensions. We drew conclusions as to the location of the Holy Temple and the Holy of Holies. When we arrived at the spot that according to our studies was supposed to be the gate through which the priests set out in order to immerse themselves, we assumed that if we made an opening in the wall to the east, we could move forward and eventually reach the Holy of Holies. But we waited for the right time to make the opening. We told no one about it because we preferred to keep the secret to ourselves, so that if - heaven forbid - it were discovered, the responsibility would not fall on the government or its leaders. That is why Begin, who knew about the excavations along the Western Wall, did not know about our plans to make the opening to the east."
Eitan reveals that the opening was planned at first for the floor under the level where the excavation to uncover the Western Wall was being carried out at the time, "and in this way, it was not supposed to be discovered at all. We planned to go in, see the tunnels and move ahead in the direction in which we estimated that the foundations of the Holy of Holies would be found. We were of the view that without heavy tools, using a delicate chisel, we could chip away at the soft limestone walls. We thought that in that way, we could advance quietly and secretly to discover the hiding place where the priests had concealed the Temple artifacts and arrive at the spot just under the Holy of Holies, the place where the Ark of the Covenant was hidden."
Eitan was not the only one privy to Getz's secret. A number of Religious Affairs Ministry officials and students of the rabbi were also aware of his plan. He consulted with Avraham Hanan, described in the book as a man "with supernatural powers" of insight. Many years ago, before the archaeologists had drawn their maps, Hanan marked on a map the route of a tunnel from the direction of the southern wall area, northwest to Solomon's Stables inside the Temple Mount. The excavators indeed discovered a tunnel along the route that Hanan had marked, but refrained from entering the Temple Mount. When Getz began to serve as rabbi of the Western Wall and the project reached a more advanced stage, Hanan designated the spot where in his view the Temple artifacts were buried. Getz was convinced that the Ark of the Covenant was buried in the same spot.
Catalyst for the Messiah
The Ark of the Covenant, which has not been seen since the destruction of the First Temple, was perhaps the most important of artifacts in the Temple, defined as the principal seat of the divine spirit. Some believe that it is still hidden in the tunnels excavated by King Solomon under the Holy of Holies. The tractate Shekalim of the Mishna states: "There once was a priest (in the time of the Second Temple) who while working in the Temple noticed that the part of the floor was different from other parts (and realized that at that spot there must be an entrance to a subterranean passage). He told another priest, but barely had he finished speaking before his soul expired, and it was clearly known that that was where the Ark was hidden."
Jewish sources say that the Ark will be discovered a short time before the coming of the Messiah. Nachmanides wrote that the Ark would be discovered "during the construction of the Temple or in future wars before the coming of the Messiah king." Rabbi Getz also believed that finding the Ark and/or Temple artifacts would serve as a catalyst for the coming of the Messiah. At first, he sought only to find the place at which the altar had stood, thousands of years ago.
The rabbi had two signs for the location of the site of the altar. The first was that the altar had been placed on level ground. However, the Temple Mount is made up of numerous tunnels, one atop another. If level ground, different from the rest of the surrounding ground, could be found, it would serve as proof of the site of the altar. The second sign was that under the place of the altar, where the sacrifices were brought in the time of the Temple, the floor was made of a mixture of zinc and plaster.
"If even a speck of zinc is found," stated the rabbi, "we will know where the altar stood and that will advance us considerably."
In July of 1981, that small niche for a Holy Ark was carved into the wall in the extension of the Western Wall, opposite the spot where Rabbi Getz believed the Holy of Holies was located. Immediately after the excavations began, an opening was created and the huge eastward tunnel carved into the rock under the Temple Mount was discovered. Its dimensions were impressive - 28 meters long and six meters wide. The floor of the tunnel was covered with a great deal of water and mud. "I immediately approached the place and I was seized by an enormous excitement. For a long time I sat, unable to move, with burning tears pouring down my cheeks. I finally gathered up strength and entered. I sat on the steps and said Tikkun Hatzot [midnight prayers] as is our custom."
The first people brought in on the secret were the then director-general of the Religious Affairs Ministry, Gedalia Schreiber, and the two chief rabbis, Shlomo Goren and Ovadia Yosef. Goren was excited by the discovery as was Getz. He viewed the huge tunnels as a primary means to locate the precise location of the Holy of Holies, the area of the Holy Temple to which all but the High Priest on the Day of Atonement were forbidden entry, on pain of death.
Agreement on the matter would decide once and for all in the dispute among the rabbinical authorities concerning this major issue. It would also make it possible to define for the general public the boundaries of the area where one could be permitted to enter the Temple Mount, thus abolishing the sweeping prohibition imposed by most authorities on halakha (Jewish religious law) on Jews entering any part of the Temple Mount. Relaxing the prohibition might create yet another and perhaps even more complex problem in the relations between religion and state: All Israeli governments have prohibited Jews from praying on the Temple Mount (as opposed to visiting it). Relaxing the halakhic prohibition on entry to the Temple Mount would considerably widen the circle of those seeking to pray there.
The floor of the tunnel was covered with mud and water, which were removed by hand. The circle of those privy to the secret grew. Among them was Israel Radio reporter Moti Eden who, says Volberstein, participated in the work of uncovering the tunnel. "At night, after my work at the radio station, I came to the tunnel and using hoes and wheelbarrows, helped with the difficult work of cleaning out the tunnel," recalls Eden, today Channel One's reporter in the north.
Seven weeks after the discovery of the tunnel, news about it was broadcast on Israel Radio. Reporters from all over the world streamed to the site. In late August, on a Friday night, Arabs brought water hoses and very powerful lighting into the tunnel through one of the openings in the floor of the Temple Mount. Getz, who feared the entry of Arabs into the tunnel and the Western Wall plaza, ordered the opening that had been made be boarded up. But just a few hours later, Muslims reentered the tunnel.
Getz was immediately alerted to come to the site from his home in the Jewish Quarter. His wife called students from the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva to come and ran after him. Seeing her husband standing almost all alone facing a group of Arabs holding tools, sticks and hoes, she ran back to the plaza where the worshipers were praying and cried, "Hurry! The rabbi is in mortal danger!"
The story ends with the political echelons ordering the opening to the tunnel sealed with reinforced concrete. Rabbi Getz wrote in his diary: "I will now retire from the project with a bitter taste in my mouth. I have never felt the humiliation of Judaism that I felt today in our own sovereign country. I pray that this is the end of the exile ... The media is going wild and self-hatred is rife. However, I must refrain from revealing secrets even to this diary and therefore I will not react or respond to those that condemn us."
On the evening of September 3, 1981, Getz added in his diary, "I felt during the Tikkun Hatzot prayers closer to the prayers of my forefathers when they saw the flames arising from the house of our Lord at the time of its destruction with their own eyes. The sound of the blows, of the Arabs inside the tunnel. Their every shout pierces my wounded heart. With all intensity, the cry left my mouth, `Gentiles have entered your sanctuary, defiled your Holy Temple, but I must remain strong and must not break down, for I must continue even if I am all alone.'"
In September 1995, three days after completing the construction of the Beit El yeshiva for the study of kabbala, Rabbi Getz passed away. In the Western Wall tunnels, there remains to this day the synagogue that he built, just opposite the spot where the Holy of Holies is assumed to be. Torah classes and prayers are still held there.
Getz was a personal friend of numerous public figures, among them Brigadier General (res.) Yossi Ben Hanan and Ma'aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel. He was careful not to go up on the Temple Mount, but his formal title, "rabbi of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount," testified to his heart's burning quest. (Haaretz.com Sunday, May 18, 2003 Iyyar 16, 5763)
Lambert Dolphin's Library
The Temple Mount Web Site
October 1, 1996. May 17, 2003.