Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

13 Ellul 5766 - September 6, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Kotel Tunnels—The Decision, the Riots, the Meaning, the Beauty and the Hidden Glory

by R. Collin

Part I

Eight years ago the Hasmonean tunnel was opened to serve as the exit door leading out of the Western Wall tunnels. The opening of the tunnel triggered a wave of widespread riots in the occupied territories. The opening, which began as a local ceremony, quickly sprung onto headlines worldwide. Despite the thorny events, the Hasmonean tunnel has remained open, and thousands visit the Western Wall tunnels every year. The sights revealed during the tour to the tunnels are an instructive and thrilling proof of what is no more, and what will one day be restored—besiyata deShmaya in the Geula that is to come, speedily.


Echoes of gunshots reverberated through the air. A platoon of IDF soldiers found itself besieged in the building, completely surrounded by a furious and inflamed mob. "Itbach el Yahud!" (Butcher the Jews) and similar cries of slaughter and vengeance on the Jews were heard from all sides. Thousands of Arabs, many with venomous expressions, carrying smoking rifles, waved Palestinian and Hamas flags.

Minute by minute, inflamed with murderous passions, they moved closer and closer to the building. Palestinian police in the area joined the mob at a certain stage, and launched a powerful and accurate fire from the roofs of the houses and from nearby streets at the besieged soldiers.

The consequences were severe. A few soldiers fell almost instantly. The rest, with their remaining strength, sent out the alert for reinforcements from the IDF unit in the area.

The reinforcements also met a heavy burst of gunfire when they arrived. Some of the vehicles were abandoned right away, while others turned back. An IDF helicopter which tried to reach the site was unable to land because of the bullets flying through the air. It was only hours later that the IDF forces, with a massive effort, managed to rescue the trapped soldiers.

When it was all over, the extent of the tragedy became clear: seven killed and eight wounded.

The savage attack occurred in the city of Shechem. The building that was surrounded was the grave of Yosef. The date was Thursday, the 13th of Tishrei, 5757 (1996), erev chag Succos, almost ten years ago.


The attack on Yosef's kever in Shechem was one in a series of episodes that occurred throughout the occupied territories. It appeared that a new intifadah had broken out, and the IDF forces in all sectors suffered serious losses.

The violent outbreaks in the territories were, claimed the Palestinians, a reaction to "the insolent Israeli provocation carried out with the encouragement and under the instructions of the Israeli Prime Minister."

That "insolent provocation" was the decision, together with its implementation, to break through an extra opening in the "Western Wall tunnels." Up till that time, this entrance, which is located at the end of the Hasmonean tunnel, had been closed to visitors.

Opening up the tunnel inflamed the territories, and the Palestinians raised a worldwide clamor. According to them, opening the tunnel was only a part of an overall Israeli plot to bring anarchy to the Arab world and, consequently, to the entire world.

Although the Arab claims were baseless and false, the fire that was kindled throughout the occupied territories had, as noted earlier, international ramifications. The top ranks of the Israeli decision makers, headed by then prime minister Binyomin Netanyahu, were given wide, but not necessarily sympathetic, coverage. Only after several days of fighting and tense incidents did the episode come to a close.

The Disputed Tunnel

"This is a testing time between us and the Arabs, who are attempting to achieve their ends by pressure. Arafat is responsible for the escalation in the territories. The Kotel tunnels are nothing but a pretext. Utilizing this kind of pressure will not work, and we are ready to plunge ahead in every area."

These words were said by Binyomin Netanyahu, who stood at the helm of the government during the outbreak of bloody attacks following the opening of the Hasmonean cave eight years ago. Netanyahu, who called for resistance and coolness, was speaking at a press conference during his first official visit to Paris as prime minister, which occurred at that time.

"There is no reason to stop the visit to France because of these developments," Netanyahu said, "and we have no intention of capitulating to the Palestinian riots. The Hasmonean tunnel will not be closed."

What is the Hasmonean tunnel? Why did its opening trigger off such a huge storm?

The Hasmonean tunnel is so named because the way it is structured relates back to the Hasmonean period. The tunnel (minharah) is actually a water channel.

According to the researcher Charles Warren, who explored Israel between 1867 and 1870, the source of the water canals was on the north side, from a spring outside of Yerushalayim.

The water channel is ten meters high, and it becomes progressively taller going from the south side to the north. The channel is carved in this shape so that it can reach the optimal level to convey the water.

The Hasmonean tunnel is located at the end of the Kotel tunnels. At the end of the Hasmonean tunnel there is a new tunnel, which was built by people working for the Ministry of Religions ten years ago. The entrance to the new tunnel faces the Moslem Quarter.

Opening up the tunnel to the public was like a match that kindled a barrel loaded with gunpowder. The Arabs claimed that the tunnel, which is about 90 meters long, was dug under the foundations of the El Aksa mosque. According to them, the tunnel which was unearthed undermined the foundations of the mosque. This is of course ridiculous since it is hundreds of meters away from El Aksa.

The riots which erupted in the occupied territories had a strong nationalistic flavor. The demonstrators called for "war on Jerusalem." The Palestinians, who always triumph in the propaganda campaign, did better at explaining to the world the "magnitude of the Israeli crime."

In the press all over the world the picture was painted as if Israel, in a premeditated action, had dug a tunnel under the mosques in order to undermine their foundations.

Arab leaders right away backed the claims of the Palestinians. King Hussein of Jordan said at a press conference that he, "condemns the steps taken by Israel beside the El Aksa mosque. Jordan was surprised at these steps (the opening of the tunnel) which abuse the rights of all Arabs and Moslems."

King Hussein even called for the convening of "an international commission that would examine the ramifications of these steps on the locations and sites of Jerusalem."

Numerous Arab states joined in, in one form or another, to the Arab Jihad. America severely criticized the state of Israel for "its decision to open the Hasmonean tunnel," and called on the state "to act quickly to restore order in the territories." The European countries' condemnation of Israel was even stronger.

The Palestinian claims, which had no basis in reality, were utilized as an effective tool to knock down the state of Israel. Netanyahu and his government withstood the first significant test that they had since their inauguration.

The Opening of the Tunnel—The Decision

"The Palestinian claim that the Hasmonean tunnel undermined the foundations of the El Aksa mosque is a lie, entirely unfounded in reality," said Ehud Olmert, who was mayor of Jerusalem at the time of the tunnel crisis, and was a partner to the decision to open the tunnel.

"The tunnel is not even in the area of the Mosque. It is located at the other end. If, as the Palestinians say, the tunnel did damage the mosques, one would have expected them to run to the El Aksa mosque to defend it. But the Palestinians rioted at the grave of Yosef, in Shechem. In Gaza. And in Ramallah. In all the territories. Not one of the violent actions occurred in Jerusalem!"

Indeed, during those stormy days, the tunnel tours continued almost undisturbed. On the Friday and Shabbos following the opening of the tunnels, the site was closed to visitors. The rumors that circulated about closing the site proved to be wrong. The Jerusalem municipality made it clear that the site was closed on these days because of the sanctity of the Sabbath. On Sunday, the site was once again open.

When was the decision made to open the tunnels?

Professor Ron Bahat, the archaeologist responsible for the excavations of the Kotel tunnels says that the principal decision about the opening of the tunnel (the `water channel,' he corrects himself . . . ) had been brewing for a long time.

According to him, Rabin had even wanted to open the tunnel when he was prime minister two years earlier, but was held back from doing so by the advice of his security advisers.

"The practical decision was reached four days before the opening, on motzei Yom Kippur ten years ago," said Olmert. "Those who participated in the decision were the prime minister (Netanyahu), the Minister of Defense, the Foreign Minister, the Ministers of Education, Tourism, and Internal Defense, the Interior Minister and, in addition, the mayor of Jerusalem and the head of the Security Services (Shin Bet)."

"In essence, the decision to open the tunnel was Netanyahu's. There were no dissenters on the team. The widespread opinion was that it was necessary to open the tunnels even though the Arabs would not like it. This was in accordance with the government's principle not to allow the Arabs to dictate its operations."

As for the timing, Olmert was certain that it made not the slightest difference.

"According to the head of the Security Services, the timing is barely relevant. That means that any time, and not in particular on motzei Yom Kippur, we can expect every possible reaction. It is not that the timing dictated what the reaction would be.

"I assume that if the date of the opening was Thursday evening, for example, in the month of Ramadan, when the following day 250 thousand worshipers would be arriving at the mosques, that would be poor timing. It would be setting it up for rioters. But in effect the actual date of the opening was not, in my opinion, significant from a security perspective. In the last stage of the discussions which took place close to the actual opening, the assessment was that an Arab reaction was a given. An extreme reaction, such as would indicate that the tunnel should not be opened, was not expected."

Army Leaders' Claim

The Palestinian reaction, as described above, was obviously completely different from the pre-assessments of the situation. The fire kindled in the territories, among other things, gave rise to the argument, heard over and over again in the media, that there was insufficient consultation with the army leaders.

According to the media, including reports which leaked out from the army, there was a disconnect between the decision of the political echelons and the army forces in the area. The political echelons, as stated, decided on the opening of the tunnel without sufficient consultation with the military and defense factors.

"They were not attentive to the factors in the area," an anonymous officer put it at the time.

"The army leaders themselves did not participate in the consultation," said Olmert. "They rather consulted with the Minister of Defense and the leader of the security services.

"Let's say that, in any event, there is a measure of truth in this argument and that we did not sufficiently prepare the army prior to the opening of the tunnel. If the opening of the tunnel would have caused an immediate reaction on the part of the Arabs the army could have said that since they had no idea that we were about to open the tunnel, they were not in the area to prepare for the violence that ensued. They are therefore not responsible.

"However, from the time of the publicized opening of the tunnel until the outbreak of the first riots, at least 36 hours passed. Thirty-six hours definitely seems to me to be a reasonable amount of time for the army to mobilize its resources. How did it happen that in the 36 hours that they had the army did not prepare to defend itself in case of riots, is a question the army has to answer.

"I do not know whether or not the Minister of Defense instructed the army to prepare itself, but in practice there was not sufficient deployment. I am sure that if they had placed tanks in all kinds of places in the territories, with cannons in readiness and battle units, we would have gone through the events very differently."

Olmert further added, that those thirty-six calm hours following the opening of the tunnel are further proof that the Palestinians really did not think that the Hasmonean tunnel had damaged the El Aksa mosque. If it had really been harmed, the reaction would have been immediate.

The Tunnel Remained Open

The brunt of the storm, as stated, was in the territories: in Judea, Shomron and the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Netanyahu, despite his preceding announcements, was forced to cut short his visit to Europe and return to Israel. In a special press conference convened upon his return, Netanyahu stated that Arafat was responsible for the riots that had broken out.

"It cannot be that every time there are frustrations or breakthroughs in the political process, we find ourselves faced with weapons which the Israeli government themselves handed over to the Palestinian police. The opening of the tunnel was only a Palestinian pretext, which Arafat exploited for his political aims. I cannot allow violence to beget political gains," said Netanyahu.

At the press conference, which was attended by head of the Security Services Ami Ayalon, among others, Ayalon said, "I was a complete a partner in the decision to open the tunnel in the Old City."

He added that Arafat set the fire going with a full awareness of the dangers. "That was a political decision (on the part of Arafat)," Ayalon emphasized, "and there were moments of loss of control."

"Today it is crystal clear," said Olmert, "that the riots following the extra opening to the Kotel tunnel were not spontaneous, but preplanned. It was a dastardly attempt by Arafat to stir up unrest in the territories so as to force political moves on the government of Netanyahu, who was then fairly new to his role as prime minister. The riots broke out about 36 hours after the opening of the tunnel, which makes it obvious that it was not a reaction on the part of the Jerusalem street (the Arab one), which was quite indifferent to the whole affair."

After a few days, the riots gradually died down. At the time rumors persisted about an ultimatum that Netanyahu had given the Palestinian authorities. If quiet did not prevail in the territories, the army would be forced to conquer sectors of the autonomy all over again.

The death toll was painful: sixteen soldiers, among them the second in command of the Gaza division, were murdered, and dozens more wounded, some critically and severely. The state of Israel was hit by one of its most serious crises in the international arena. World public opinion was extremely hostile, and Israel was blamed for provocations against the Palestinians.

According to Olmert, "Nothing justifies such a heavy price in human lives who were slaughtered in the riots. However, this argument can always be utilized every time that Arafat lets loose his passion for murder and terror, which directs all his moves. Giving in to this kind of pressure, like that connected with the opening of the tunnel, is exactly the goal of terror — and the state of Israel cannot allow it."

Following these harsh episodes, an Israeli-Palestinian summit was convened in the White House under the mediation of President Clinton.

Prime Minister Netanyahu declared to the press in the White House, in the presence of Arafat, that the Hasmonean tunnel would remain open. He even refused to discuss the establishment of an international committee of experts who would examine the situation generated by the opening of the tunnel.

Hundreds of Thousands of Visitors a Year

The opening of the Hasmonean tunnel transformed the Kotel tunnels into a thriving tourist site. Prior to this, the entrance to the tunnels was the sole doorway, and it had to serve as both the entrance and the exit from the tunnel.

Therefore, each time that a group came in for a tour, no other group could be brought in. Only after the group that was inside had left, could a new tour group enter. Each tour took more than an hour, so that only a total of 300 visitors could be brought in per day.

Today, following the opening of the Hasmonean tunnel at the end of which there is an exit to the Moslem Quarter, thousands of visitors arrive each day.

"Just to give you a sense," said Olmert, "the number of visitors to the tunnel annually since the entrance was opened, runs in the hundreds of thousands, compared to the three thousand visitors who came in the year preceding the opening."

Indeed, the Kotel tunnels constitute one of the most attractive tourist sites in Yerushalayim and elsewhere. Crowds of visitors throng daily to the gates of the tunnels, which are located on the left side of the Western Wall plaza. The reason for this tremendous convergence is hidden, as will be seen, in the depths of the tunnels themselves. The tour is an emotional and intense experience.

It is preferable to book the tour ahead of time. Due to the immense quantity of visitors, especially on the chagim, it is very difficult to visit the tunnels without a prior arrangement. The tour, which lasts about an hour, includes a spectacular light and sound presentation and groups are accompanied by a guide.

From the exit door of the tunnels in the Moslem Quarter at the conclusion of the tour, until the arrival back in the Western Wall plaza, the groups are surrounded by security guards.

The site is well guarded, and it is maintained by sophisticated electrical and ventilation equipment. The Authority for the Holy Places is in charge of maintaining the site

End of Part I


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