The discovery of a rare aerial photo of Jerusalem in the 1930s, taken by a Zeppelin, has provided the long-sought-after proof that when Israel occupied the Old City in 1967 it secretly destroyed an important mosque that dated from the time of Saladin close to the al-Aqsa Mosque.
The destruction of the Sheikh Eid Mosque-in an area widely considered to be the most sensitive site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-revives questions about Israel's continuing abuse of Islamic holy places under its control.
The issue has been in the spotlight recently because of a growing number of arson and vandalism attacks by Jewish extremists on mosques in Jerusalem and the West Bank, in what are termed "price-tag" attacks designed to dissuade the Israeli government from honoring its agreements with the Palestinians and abiding by international law.
Following the torching by Jewish settlers of a mosque near Ramallah in June, Dan Halutz, a former military chief of staff, admitted there was no political will to find the culprits. "If we wanted, we could catch them, and when we want to, we will," he told Army Radio.
The question of whether Jerusalem's Sheikh Eid Mosque had survived up until modern times had been the subject of heated debates between Palestinian and Israeli scholars.
The discovery of its location is not only of historic and academic interest. Earlier this year, before the aerial photo was unearthed, development by Israel of a visitor center at the spot where the mosque once stood led to the destruction of what was leftof the building below ground, archaeologists now admit.
Israel's Antiquities Authority, its chief archaeological institution, dug up the mosque's remaining foundations and disinterred a human skeleton, believed to be Sheikh Eid himself.
The site of the mosque is next to the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), a raised compound of Islamic holy places that includes the al-Aqsa Mosque and is flanked on one side by the Western Wall, a major Jewish prayer site.
Control over the Haram al-Sharif is contested by Israel, which maintains that the mosques are built over two Jewish temples destroyed long ago (see August 2011 Washington Report, p. 16). There is growing pressure from Jewish religious groups to be allowed to pray on the Haram al-Sharif, and some extremists have threatened to blow up the mosques so that they can build a third temple.
A provocative visit in 2000 to the site by Ariel Sharon, then leader of Israel's opposition and candidate for prime minister, backed by more than 1,000 police, triggered the second intifada.
The excavations for the construction of a large visitor center are part of a series of changes by Israel to the area near the Western Wall that has been fueling tensions with Palestinians. The alterations violate international law because Jerusalem's Old City is occupied territory.
Benjamin Kedar, vice-president of Israel's National Academy of Sciences, who discovered the old photo after searching archives in Germany, called the treatment of Sheikh Eid Mosque "an archaeological crime." Other dissident Israeli archaeologists also have spoken out.
The mosque, which originally served as an Islamic school, built by Malik al-Afdal, one of Saladin's sons, is said to have been one of only three such buildings remaining in Jerusalem from that period.
Its provenance and location are described in a 15th century document. After the burial of its most famous preacher, Sheikh Eid, two centuries later, it became a major pilgrimage site for Muslims.
The mosque, it now emerges, was destroyed during the wholesale levelling of the Mughrabi quarter of the Old City-a war crime that has been largely overlooked by historians-in the immediate wake of Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967.
Under cover of dark, Israel sent in bulldozers to clear the area, forcing nearly 1,000 Palestinian residents out so that a wide prayer plaza could be created in front of the Western Wall. …