Dispute disrupts reopening of revered Jerusalem archaeological site

A group of ultra-Orthodox Jews pressed to pay for entrance despite not following the official procedures required to visit the site. (File/AFP)
Updated 27 June 2019

Dispute disrupts reopening of revered Jerusalem archaeological site

  • The site was closed since 2010
  • Visitors were required to pre-register online

JERUSALEM: France reopened a revered but long-closed archaeological site in the heart of Jerusalem on Thursday, but a dispute over access immediately disrupted its reopening.
France, the owner of the site known as the Tomb of the Kings, reopened it to visits after having kept it closed since 2010.
But concerns that it would become more of a site of religious pilgrimage than an archaeological one immediately reemerged.
Around 15 people who had pre-registered online as required were allowed to visit, but a group of more than a dozen ultra-Orthodox Jews who consider the site holy pressed to enter and pray there despite not having followed procedures.
They were prevented from entering since French officials had limited visits to 15 people at once during set times due to the sensitivity of the site.
Ultra-Orthodox denied access pressed toward the gate when it was opened to try to enter.
The first group of visitors was initially blocked inside and eventually exited through a second gate, accompanied by police.
The incident highlighted concerns over the site and may bring into question whether it will remain open to the public.
France’s Jerusalem consulate had said in advance that the reopening would take place under pre-arranged rules.
The 2,000-year-old archaeological gem had been closed since 2010 due to renovations costing around a $1.1 million.
It is a remarkable example of a Roman-era tomb, considered among the largest in the region.
Its unique status, Jewish veneration of the burial site and its location in the disputed city added to complications in reopening it.
Archaeological sites in east Jerusalem, where the tomb is located, are often freighted with religious significance and questions linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel occupied mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.
It sees the entire city as its capital, while the Palestinians view the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.
There has been a challenge at Israel’s rabbinical court — which rules on matters related to Jewish law and holy sites — over access to the tomb and France’s ownership.
Before reopening the site, France sought guarantees from Israel it would not face legal challenges as well as commitments on how visits would be managed.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews describe the tomb as a holy burial site of ancient ancestors.


US contractor told Lebanese port official of chemicals risk

Updated 27 min 34 sec ago

US contractor told Lebanese port official of chemicals risk

WASHINGTON: About four years before the Beirut port explosion that killed dozens of people and injured thousands, a US government contractor expressed concern to a Lebanese port official about unsafe storage there of the volatile chemicals that fueled last week’s devastating blast, American officials said Tuesday.
There is no indication the contractor communicated his concerns to anyone in the US government.
His assessment was noted briefly in a four-page State Department cable first reported by The New York Times.
The cable, labeled sensitive but unclassified, dealt largely with the Lebanese responses to the blast and the origins and disposition of the ammonium nitrate, which ignited to create an enormous explosion. But it also noted that after the Aug. 4 explosion, a person who had advised the Lebanese navy under a US Army contract from 2013 to 2016 told the State Department that he had “conducted a port facility inspection on security measures during which he reported to port officials on the unsafe storage of ammonium nitrate.”
Concerns about the ammonium nitrate were known within the Lebanese government before the deadly blast, officials said.
The contractor, who was not identified by name and is now a State Department employee based in Ukraine, was in Lebanon to provide instruction to members of the Lebanese navy. While there, he made a brief, impromptu inspection of physical security at the facility in 2015 or 2016 at the request of a port official, US officials said. The contractor was not identified.
The contractor, who has a background in port and maritime security, noted weaknesses in security camera coverage and other aspects of port management but was not assessing safety issues, according to the US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of a planned public statement.
While inside the warehouse where ammonium nitrate was stored, the contractor saw problems such as poor ventilation and inadequate physical security, which he noted to the port official accompanying him, the officials said. It is unclear whether the port official reported this concern to his superiors.
The thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored in the warehouse for more than six years, apparently with the knowledge of top political and security officials. The catastrophic explosion one week ago Tuesday killed at least 171 peoples and plunged Lebanon into a deeper political crisis.
The contractor was working for the US Army’s Security Assistance Training Management Organization, headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He provided instruction to members of the Lebanese armed forces in naval vessel traffic systems and small boat operations. His class was visiting the Beirut port as part of that instruction program when the port official asked him for the inspection, which US officials said lasted about 45 minutes.
The United States has a close security relationship with Lebanon. According to the State Department, the US government has provided Lebanon with more than $1.7 billion in security assistance since 2006. The assistance is designed to support the Lebanese armed forces’ ability to secure the country’s borders, counter internal threats, and defend national territory.
Last September a US Navy ship, the guided-missile destroyer USS Ramage, visited Beirut. It was the first time in 36 years an American warship had made a port visit there, according to the US military at the time.