Nearly 10 months after Palestinians waged a bloody campaign against Israel for opening the Hasmonean exit to Jerusalem’s Western Wall tunnel, the site has become one of the country’s hottest tourist attractions for Jews, Christians and, yes, Arabs. Visitors can’t help but notice the obvious:
“People are seeing for themselves that the Palestinian claim (that the Hasmonean tunnel goes beneath the Temple Mount, home to Muslim and Jewish holy sites) does not hold water anymore,” said Arik Bar Chen, head of Israel’s foreign press department who occasionally takes diplomats and journalists on tours of the tunnel. “Nobody’s claiming anymore that it goes under the Temple Mount.”
Still, many in the Palestinian establishment refuse to acknowledge this publicly, including the Islamic Wakf in eastern Jerusalem, which warned Israel that the opening would spur violence. “The tunnel was built on the blood of Arabs and Muslims and our rights,” Wakf director Adnan Husseini told the Middle East News Service on July 11. “The file (on this issue) is still open.”
Several Israeli guards currently man the Hasmonean exit on the Via Dolorosa, but mainly for show. The tunnel today is mobbed only by tourists. There has been no violence here since last September, when the opening sparked riots that killed 15 Israelis and 70 Palestinians in the most heated battles since the Intifada.
“The Palestinians were picking at straws at the time, searching for any cause to get the people behind the flag,” said Bar Chen.
Based on misinformation regarding the tunnel’s proximity to the Temple Mount – spread by the Palestinian Authority and fanned by erroneous news media reporting – the tunnel opening became the last straw at a time of growing frustration amongst Palestinians towards the stalled peace process. What started with Arab youths hurling stones off the Temple Mount at Jews praying at the Western Wall turned to bloodshed as PA police opened fire on Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“Fifteen (Israeli) boys died, and for what?” asked Fegi Kahane, who has led tours through the Western Wall tunnels since the mid-1980s. “Fabrications and terrible lies.” After the 1967 Six Day War, Israel began work on the tunnel to expose the western retaining wall to the Second Temple. Only about 20 percent of the Western Wall, 67 meters, is visible from the Western Wall Plaza. A single tunnel entrance was opened beside the plaza in 1985.
In 1988, the government opened an exit through the Hasmonean tunnel in the Muslim Quarter that was closed one hour later due to Arab rioting. With the new exit, visitors no longer have to double back to the plaza after reaching the end.
“Three to four times as many tourists use the tunnel today,” said Arye Banner, an official with the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, responsible for the tourist sites in the Old City. He has taken scores of foreign diplomats through the tunnel since September.
Ironically, in February 1996, Sheikh Abdel Azzim Salhab, head of the Islamic Wakf, warned that: “The opening of such a tunnel will lead to confrontations and disturbances which will severely hurt the city’s economy….”
Now, waiting up to four months to get a ticket, more than 1,000 people view the tunnel each day, paying about $13 for a guided tour. Demand is so high that the tunnel is often kept open until midnight, with groups of 30 shuttled along the route every 20 minutes. While the majority are Jewish, Banner says that Palestinians and visitors from Arab countries come every day.
“The new exit has been good for everyone – good for us, good for visitors who want to touch history and good for (Palestinians) who work and live there,” added Banner.
Jerry Dheodorie, an agent with Lawrence Tours in eastern Jerusalem who books tunnel tours for primarily Arabs, says the situation is less than cordial. A group of his Arab friends, who bought tickets, were recently turned away for refusing to wear kippas, he claimed. “I doubt that they require non-Arabs to wear kippas,” he said.
Banner denies that anyone has been refused entry. “We ask everyone to out on a kippah, but no one will tell them to leave if they don’t wear one,” he said.
Local Arab merchants vigorously deny that they have benefited from the increased traffic, claiming that guides swiftly usher tourists back to the Jewish Quarter.
Old City resident Barnea Selavan, who led the first tour through the exit last September, is an exception. Running tours every Friday, he directs his groups to a nearby refreshment-souvenir store called “Step Back in Time 2000 Years,” run by an Arab friend named Mike.
Mike complains that they buy nothing but Cokes. The dozen or so adjacent shopkeepers, who striked for two weeks in September to protest the tunnel opening, claim they too have suffered since September.
“No tourists exit the tunnel except the Jews, and they don’t buy from Arabs,” said the owner of the Via Dolorosa Souvenir Shop, who sells crosses, kippas and turbins.
According to Selavan, while tension over the tunnel has eased, rage is rising in the Old City amongst Arab residents. In recent weeks, he said, Arabs have been intentionally “bumping into Jews” and “casing” the Western Wall Plaza as if they are preparing for violence.
Another Arab merchant near the new exit, fuming over the tunnel opening and the Israeli actions, warns: “There is a big war gonna happen and I pray for a big war. That’s the only way to banish them.”
Now the peace process is stalled again. With the tunnel controversy apparently cleared, Palestinians are focusing their attention on other flash points – Har Homa and Hebron.