Locals felt differently. The rumble of Warren’s explosives, next to the platform that supported the Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa Mosque, two of the world’s oldest Islamic shrines, unsettled residents of all faiths in the Holy City. Directly above the dig was the city’s courthouse.
Rumors swirled that the British officer was part of a Christian plot to destroy Islam’s third holiest site, which was also revered by Jews. Warren soothed Jewish anxieties by taking leading rabbis on an underground tour. They emerged enthusiastic after seeing remains from the era of Herod the Great, who began renovations of the Jewish temple complex shortly before the birth of Jesus. The city council, made up of Arab Christians and Muslims, sent their own delegation. They were horrified by what they found: In its tunneling, Warren’s team had replaced sturdy stone arches with rotting timber.
“There is danger of great injury occurring there to the places above, which neither the Almighty nor his Majesty the Sultan would sanction,” the team concluded in an 1868 letter to the Ottoman governor, Nazif Pasha. The men feared the Western Wall might collapse, and with it, some of Islam’s most sacred places of worship. “We recommend that your Excellency be pleased to take measures to prevent them from doing this.”
The governor, wary of offending either the British or leading Arab notables, waited until Warren was away on a surveying expedition before having the entrance sealed with heavy stones.
For precisely a century, this subterranean world lay in darkness, slowly filling with sewage from the densely populated neighborhood that lay above. Ottoman control of Jerusalem eventually yielded to the British, who withdrew in 1948. The subsequent war between the nascent Jewish state and its Arab neighbors left the Old City, an area of less than a square mile and surrounded by Ottoman walls, in Jordanian hands.
All the while, the passage remained sealed. In 1965, one American archaeologist noted, the “wall is still there, waiting to be removed by a yet greater diplomat than Charles Warren.”
But it would be rabbis rather than diplomats who removed the governor’s stones. In June 1967, Israeli forces seized the historic core of Jerusalem. Many religious Jews were furious when General Moshe Dayan agreed to leave the Noble Sanctuary in Muslim hands (though under the watchful eye of Israeli security). To defuse Jewish resentment, Israel’s religions minister approved a secret plan, known only to a few senior officials, in the summer of 1968: They would reopen and extend Warren’s tunnel.
The project was as technically ambitious as it was diplomatically fraught. The goal was to expose the entire length of the buried base of the Western Wall. This would provide a vast new prayer space for Jewish worship beyond the relatively small section of exposed Western Wall at the plaza, and thereby reduce pressure on the rabbis — and Israeli politicians — to expand Jewish access to the Temple Mount itself.
Longer than the Empire State Building is tall, most of the 2,000-year-old rampart lay hidden beneath some of Jerusalem’s oldest and most revered Islamic buildings, as well as the dwellings of Muslim residents. The result would be a massive underground Jewish prayer space safely removed from the volatile Temple Mount.
But in Jerusalem, a city that has been rebuilt atop its own ruins for 5,000 years, attempting to solve one problem can create an altogether new one.
Yehuda Getz, appointed to the new post of rabbi of the Western Wall, led the clandestine effort. Soon homeowners and shopkeepers above began to complain about cracks in their walls. In 1970, the Jordanian government claimed that the digging — now an open secret — had damaged an important medieval Islamic school.
The Israeli government shrugged off the complaints, claiming the problems were the result of work on a desperately needed new sewage system. Workers, meanwhile, continued to bore through thick foundations and past cisterns filled with reeking wastewater. So long as they didn’t penetrate beyond the wall, and therefore under the acropolis itself, Muslim opposition would remain muted.
The détente lasted until the summer of 1981. Just as Americans were flocking to see the newly released Raiders of the Lost Ark, Getz decided it was time to unblock a door the team had encountered, one that would lead them beneath the sacred platform itself. Like the fictitious Indiana Jones then appearing on American screens (the movie hadn’t yet arrived in Israel), Getz sought nothing less than the Ark of the Covenant, the gilded box that the Bible said contained the Ten Commandments, and which Getz believed lay directly under the 1300-year-old Dome of the Rock.
Before the rabbi could explore extensively, however, news of his dig leaked. An underground scuffle between Arab workers and Jewish yeshiva students nearly turned into a bloodbath, and the door was quickly sealed up again.
While the Israeli government dismissed the incident as the work of a rogue rabbi, the Jordanian foreign minister decried the act as “part of the Zionist effort to seize the holy sanctuary” that threatened “world peace and security.” If parts of the Noble Sanctuary were to collapse, he warned that it “would be nothing less than a cultural, political and spiritual genocide.”
A 36-year-old Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Rodham paid their first visit to Jerusalem on a church tour a few months later, when the city was still on edge. “It was the beginning of an obsession to see all the children of Abraham reconciled on the holy ground in which our three faiths came to life,” the ex-governor of Arkansas wrote. “That trip left a lasting mark on me.” In its aftermath, Clinton decided to run for governor again and succeeded in regaining the office, before ultimately heading to the White House.
The Western Wall Tunnel, meanwhile, had quietly emerged as a latent source of contention between Jewish and Muslim people, as potentially explosive as the kegs of gunpowder used a century before by Warren.
It was only after more than two decades of digging, in 1990, that the 1,000-foot-long passage along the buried wall was opened, partially, to pilgrims and tourists. Accessible though it may have been, it wasn’t exactly convenient. At the end of a 15-minute trudge along a narrow space strung with bare bulbs, visitors were made to double back to where they began, at the Western Wall Plaza.
“There were nonstop collisions,” recalled Dan Bahat, the archaeologist and a self-proclaimed “radical secularist” who had been tasked by the Israeli government with bringing some semblance of science to what had long been primarily a religious endeavor. Bahat had a northern exit prepared to allow visitors a one-way journey ending at the tunnel’s far end in the Via Dolorosa. But he left a few judicious inches of rock between the tunnel’s terminus and the street. The decision to open the portal would have to lie with Israeli politicians, since the move was sure to spark outrage among Muslims.
The thin rock barrier remained for several more years. A succession of Israeli prime ministers refused repeated requests by the Ministry of Religious Affairs to create an exit that would benefit visitors but risked sparking unrest. That reluctance only deepened after Jan. 20, 1993, when Israelis and Palestinians held their first secret talks in Oslo aimed at resolving their decades-long territorial conflict. That was also the day that Clinton was inaugurated as president in Washington.
Three years later, everything changed. A brash, 46-year-old conservative politician campaigned to halt the peace process and to ensure that all of Jerusalem remained under Israeli control. This approach gained Netanyahu his first term as prime minister starting in June 1996. Three months later, at the urging of Mayor Olmert, a fellow Likud Party member, Netanyahu gave Western Wall Tunnel managers approval to finish the exit.
Israeli intelligence officials were alarmed. Friday sermons and Palestinian Authority rumblings suggested this move would elicit violence. “I was against the opening,” said Hasson, the Jerusalem security chief. He begged officials in the prime minister’s office to wait. “Just give me three months,” he recalled saying, “and I will find a way to open it peacefully.” His plea was refused.
One week after Netanyahu gave the green light, just hours after the end of Yom Kippur, Bahat and his workers completed the project that had begun 28 years before. They cut through the last few inches of rock to open the northern exit.
Protests and then riots broke out within hours. Arafat, who had from the first insisted the Israeli decision was endangering the Haram al-Sharif’s sanctity, called the move “a big crime against our religion and our holy places” and demanded that the United Nations Security Council intervene. Arab leaders around the world denounced the opening as a threat to Islam. Demonstrators took to the streets across the Arab world. “The violence seemed to have a life of its own,” recalled American diplomat Dennis Ross. Netanyahu came under intense criticism but staunchly defended his action as a simple courtesy to tourists.
By the end of the week, the Israeli prime minister was accusing Palestinians of giving in to religious fanaticism, while he simultaneously praised the tunnel as “the bedrock of our existence.” Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority’s leader in Jerusalem, Faisal al-Husseini, was injured when he joined protesters attempting to reach the heavily guarded exit. “I told them this tunnel would lead to this,” he said to a New York Times reporter from his hospital bed.
“Can we get Netanyahu to close the tunnel?” asked Clinton, according to Ross’s account. “Probably not,” the diplomat responded.
Netanyahu rebuffed the American president’s calls for calm and requests to at least temporarily close the tunnel exit. “I do not regret that we opened the Western Wall Tunnel, which has no effect on the Temple Mount, and expresses our sovereignty over Jerusalem,” the defiant Israeli leader said. In retaliation, Clinton ordered the United States to abstain rather than veto a United Nations Security Council vote that obliquely criticized Israel for igniting the conflict.
Four days of violence left 74 Palestinians and 16 Israeli soldiers dead, and more than 1,000 Palestinians and 58 Israelis wounded. The crisis was enough to prod Netanyahu and Arafat to take part in an emergency meeting at the White House with the president and Jordan’s King Hussein. In the short term, the talks produced an Israeli-Palestinian pact for the holy city of Hebron that optimists hoped would serve as a template for a Jerusalem agreement. But the fury stirred on both sides by the bloodshed made a final deal elusive as Clinton’s final term ticked away.
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