On September 24th, 1996, a significant event unfolded in the heart of Jerusalem, marking a moment that would resonate through history. This day saw the opening of a northern exit from the Western Wall Tunnel to the Via Dolorosa, a move that led to three days of intense Palestinian riots and, in many ways, encapsulated the complex dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The origins of this pivotal event can be traced back to the aftermath of the June 1967 war, when Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem. The Western Wall Tunnel excavation project emerged as a result of this historic event. This tunnel serves as an extension of the Western Wall's plaza, nestled beneath the bustling Muslim Quarter. While the exposed section of the plaza stretches along 200 feet of the wall's length, the buried portion extends an impressive 1,400 feet northward. The excavation of this tunnel unearthed significant artifacts that shed light on the construction and historical significance of the Temple Mount.
Prior to 1996, tourists visiting the Western Wall Tunnel entered and exited from the plaza, navigating a U-turn when they reached the Struthion Pool. However, a pivotal decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu altered this arrangement. He authorized a plan, previously rejected, to create a northern exit beneath a school. This decision aimed to facilitate tourism but also underscored Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. This expression of sovereignty ignited anger among Palestinians, who perceived the construction as a threat to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which stands atop the revered Temple Mount, on which the Solomon's Temple and the Second Temple once stood.
The day the northern exit opened, tensions reached a boiling point. Palestinian youths on the Temple Mount began pelting rocks and bottles onto the Western Wall plaza, forcing the evacuation of Jewish worshippers while detaining protesters. The violence rapidly escalated and spread, encompassing clashes between the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian Authority's security forces. Within a harrowing three days, the toll was heavy, with 25 Israeli soldiers and 100 Palestinians losing their lives in cities such as Ramallah, Nablus, and Gaza.
Decades later, the repercussions of this event continue to reverberate. Palestinian leaders persistently employ the Israeli prayer at the Western Wall as a means of incitement, utilizing the Arabic term "Al-Burak." The Palestinian Authority adamantly asserts sovereignty over this Jewish holy site while denying any Jewish connection to both the wall and the Temple Mount above it. In a recent speech in February, PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas perpetuated this divisive rhetoric, saying, "The Al-Burak Wall is part of the Al-Aqsa, a true Islamic endowment, and this right of ours was established by the great Quran."