Why are stones falling off the Western Wall?

Who does the stone belong to, Israel or the Islamic Waqf? And what does all this have to do with the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif?

On Monday, July 23, a stone dislodged from the Western Wall, in the area of Robinson’s Arch known as the “egalitarian section”. The event was followed by accusations and concerns about what caused the stone to dislodge, with some suspecting that it was caused by Israeli excavations and others blaming it on work conducted by the Islamic Waqf.

First of all, it is not rare that stones fall from ancient structures. It is certainly not the first time that stones have fallen off the Western Wall or other walls in the Old City. In the 1990s there were several incidents of stones dislodging from the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif’s eastern wall. In 2007 stones fell from the Old City walls near the New Gate. The entire wall underwent conservation work as a result, lasting until 2012.

The conservation works on the Old City walls are part of the ongoing maintenance and upkeep of ancient structures. The Israel Antiquities Authority undertakes conservation work at the Western Wall every year.

Under the agreements between Israel and Jordan, Jordan is responsible for the eastern and southern wall of the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif, including the preservation of the walls and fallen stones. It won’t be surprising if the Waqf or Jordan will claim that the stone falls under their responsibility thus leading to a diplomatic incident.

Among the Temple Mount loyalists, there were claims that the Islamic Waqf was responsible for the fallen stone, and that damage to the stones and cracks in them are due to the lack of proper maintenance of the Temple Mount. These bodies demand that Israel take responsibility for the preservation of all the walls of the complex. This would imply breaking the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif.

In the political, religious, and social reality of Jerusalem’s Old City, conservation works cannot protect all structures in jeopardy – not even the most important ones. However, the need to maintain the ancient structures is also influenced by changes on the ground. Tourist traffic, transportation to and from the Old City and ongoing development works in the area all affect the state of conservation of historic sites.

Israeli archaeological excavations are changing the surface area of the Old City not to mention the spaces beneath the surface.  Underneath the stone that fell last week, Israel is conducting archaeological excavations in the tunnels running alongside the western wall of the Temple Mount.

These underground excavations certainly don’t render these thousand-year-old walls and their foundations any more stable. On the other hand, there is no proof that the excavations are the cause of the dislodging stones.

The main conclusion from the stone incident is that as long as Israel, the Jordanians, the Palestinians and all the other stakeholders in the area conduct themselves separately in the Old City without coordinating between them or and unable to reach agreements concerning the protection and preservation of ancient and holy sites, we will keep on hearing about crumbling walls and other safety hazards.

The fact that everything is political in the Historic/Holy Basin, means that the solution to conservation and upkeep of antiquities is also political, requiring the recognition of the rights of all the major parties. It seems that the stones and those standing beneath them alike need Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians to talk to each other.