Hollow Sovereignties

Recent notes here and at Opinio Juris about humanitarian intervention, and yesterday’s chatter about the Bagosora conviction, dovetail nicely with a little something I’m reading, Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land: Israel’s Architectures of Occupation.

One of the most cynical dimensions of the Rwanda genocide was the character of internal Clinton administration debates over whether or not to intervene. Disingenuous post facto protestations of ignorance notwithstanding, enough was known at the time about the nature of the ongoing slaughter to inform a robust campaign of political bob and weave. Wrong-headed convictions about the inviolability of state sovereignty were part of the calculus; the only positive outcome of all that was the revised thinking on the issue enshrined in R2P (for whatever that’s been worth so far).

I came across a passage – actually, in a footnote of sorts – in Hollow Land that reminded me of the cynicism of those debates. It relates a vignette that’s somewhere between ludicrous and just plain sad; that has nothing at all to do with Rwanda but does involve Clinton; and that reinforces the notion that creative solutions can be found, to seemingly intractable problems, when there’s a positive will to get things done. The version I read is pages 54-55 of Hollow Land; the same vignette is available online in a Weizman paper here.  I wouldn’t normally do this, but it needs to be read; I’m copying the full passage from the paper, and pasting it below.

Whatever you might feel about Israeli politics, there are broader lessons that can be drawn from this; you decide what, if anything, they might be, how they apply to intervention, to sovereignty, to human rights, and to the Clinton administration.

The Vertical Schizophrenia of the Temple Mount

Subterranean Jerusalem is at least as complex as its terrain. Nowhere is this truer than of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The ascent of the present Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in 2000 and the bloodshed during the Intifadah that followed were not unique. The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has often been the focal point of the conflict.

The Haram al-Sharif compound is located over a filled-in, flattened-out summit on which the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located. The mount is supported by retaining walls, one of which is the Western Wall, whose southern edge is known as the Wailing Wall. The Western Wall is part of the outermost wall of what used to define the edge of the Second Temple compound.

Most archaeologists believe that the Wailing Wall was a retaining wall supporting the earth on which the Second Temple stood at roughly the same latitude as today’s mosques. But the Israeli delegation at Camp David negotiations argued that the Wailing Wall was built originally as a free-standing wall, behind which (and not over which) stood the Second Temple. What follows is that the remains of the Temple are to be found underneath the mosques and that was separated Jewish most holy site from the Muslim mosques is a vertical distance of a mere 10 meters. That vertical separation into the above and below was the source of the debate that followed.

Since East Jerusalem was occupied in 1967, the Muslim religious authority (the Wakf) has charged that Israel is trying to undermine the compound foundations in order to topple the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and to clear the way for the establishment of the Third Jewish Temple. Jewish groups contend that the Wakf’s extensive work in the subterranean chambers under the mosques is designed to rid the mountain of ancient Israelites’ remnants, and that the large-scale earth works conducted in the process destabilise the mountain and have generated cracks in the retaining wall of the mount.

On 24 September 1996, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wanting to demonstrate his control of all layers of the city, ordered the opening of a subterranean archaeological tunnel running along the foundation of the Western Wall, alongside the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound. The opening of the ‘Western Wall Tunnel’ was wrongly perceived as an attempt at subterranean sabotage. But Palestinian… sentiments were fuelled by memories of a similar event that in December 1991 saw another excavated tunnel under the Harram collapsing and opening a big hole in the floor of the Mosque of Atman ben-Afan.

Israel’s chief negotiator at Camp David, Gilead Sher told how, during the failed summit on 17 July 2000 in the presence of the whole Israeli delegation, Barak declared:

“We shall stand united in front of the whole world, if it becomes apparent that an agreement wasn’t reached over the issue of our sovereignty over the First and Second Temples. It is the Archemedic point of our universe, the anchor of the Zionist effort… we are at the moment of truth.”

The two delegations laid claim to the same plot of land. Neither side was willing to give it up. In attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable, intense spatial contortions were drawn on variously scaled plans and sections of the compound.

The most original bridging proposal at Camp David came from former US president Bill Clinton. After the inevitable crisis, Clinton dictated his proposal to the negotiating parties. It was a daring and radical manifestation of the region’s vertical schizophrenia, according to which the border between Arab East and Jewish West Jerusalem would, at the most contested point on earth, flip from the horizontal to the vertical – giving the Palestinians sovereignty on top of the Mount while maintaining Israeli sovereignty below the surface, over the Wailing Wall and the airspace above it. The horizontal border would have passed underneath the paving of the Haram al-Sharif, so that a few centimetres under the worshippers in the Mosque of al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, the Israeli underground would be dug up for remnants of the ancient Temple, believed to be “in the depth of the mount”.

In order to allow free access to the Muslim compound, now isolated in a three-dimensional sovereign wrap by Israel, Barak, embracing the proposal, suggested “a bridge or a tunnel, through which whoever wants to pray in al-Aqsa could access the compound”.

But the Palestinians, long suspicious of Israel’s presence under their mosques, have flatly rejected the plan. They claimed (partly bemused) that “Haram al-Sharif … must be handed over to the Palestinians – over, under, and to the sides, geographically and topographically.”

Regarding the truth about the remnants of the Temple in the depth of the mount there are few and varied scholarly studies and opinions. But, Charles Warren, a captain in the Royal Engineers that was in 1876 one of the first archaeologists to excavate the tunnels and subterranean chambers under the Haram/ Temple Mount, recorded no conclusive ruins of the Temple, but a substance of completely different nature:

“The passage is four feet wide, with smooth sides, and the sewage was from five to six feet deep, so that if
we had fallen in there was no chance of our escaping with our lives. I, however, determined to trace out this passage, and for this purpose got a few old planks and made a perilous voyage on the sewage to a distance of 12 feet… The sewage was not water, and not mud; it was just in such a state that a door would not float, but yet if left for a minute or two would not sink very deep…”

If that Indiana Jones-type description was correct, what Clinton and the negotiating teams hadn’t realised was that the Temple Mount sat atop a network of ancient ducts and cisterns filled with generations of Jerusalem’s sewage.

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