The massive doors of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre were bolted shut. Also locked were the entrances to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation. Last Friday, for the first time in recent history, many of the holy places of Christendom were closed throughout Israel and the occupied territories. Church leaders took the 24-hour action to protest the government-supported settlement of 150 Jewish fundamentalists in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem’s walled Old City. Even Israel’s friends and sympathizers abroad, including the normally supportive United States, joined the rising chorus of criticism. And prospects for restored amity between Washington and Jerusalem suffered a setback on Thursday when the moderate Israeli Labour Party leader, Shimon Peres, gave up trying to form a government, leaving the field to right-wing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Most analysts forecast that Shamir would form a hard-line coalition commanding a slender parliamentary majority within the 21-day legal limit. To organize such a coalition, he will likely have to adopt policies that are unacceptable to Washington, which provides Israel with $3.6 billion in aid annually. Shamir’s opposition to a U.S.-sponsored plan for peace talks with the Palestinians brought down Israel’s so-called “national unity” coalition government in March.
His insistence on creating new Jewish settle-
ments in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip led to renewed U.S. criticism last week, at a time when he was already under fire in Washington over the settlement of Jews in Jerusalem’s Christian quarter. A state department spokesman described the Jerusalem move as “an insensitive and provocative action,” and Israel’s financial sponsorship of it as “deeply disturbing.” The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Washington’s most powerful proIsrael support group, was even more critical. The committee expressed “outrage” at the Shamir caretaker govemment’s expenditure of $2.2 million in what it called
“a clandestine effort” to settle Jews in the Christian quarter. And although the Israeli Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the religious-nationalist settlers living in St. John’s Hospice must vacate it by May 1, the controversy was clearly far from over. Another Israeli court has yet to rule on the validity of the settlers’ purchase of the premises from an Armenian Christian, who leases the property from its owners, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. Pending that ruling, said the Supreme Court, 20 of the settlers were allowed to stay in the building.
As a result, church leaders took their action. Before the bolting of the door of Holy Sepulchre, where, according to early Christian doctrine Jesus Christ was buried and rose from the dead, the heads of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Coptic and Armenian churches joined in prayer. Later, the Roman Catholic patriarch, Archbishop Michel Asa’ad Sabbah, a Palestinian, said that the church leaders were concerned that the occupation of the hospice was “the thin end of the wedge” for a complete Jewish takeover of the Christian quarter. “After 10 years,” he asked, “will we find Christians around the Holy Sepulchre?”
The St. John’s Hospice affair has also caused deep divisions among Israeli Jews. The veteran mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Koliek, 79, said that it would take years for the damage caused by the incident to be repaired. Many American Jewish leaders clearly felt that the incident was particularly unfortunate at a time when Israel was seeking $480 million in loan guarantees from the United States to help house Soviet immigrants. Abraham Foxman, U.S. national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, called the settlement “provocative and insensitive.” And Robert Lifton, president of the American Jewish Congress, said that his organization was “appalled” by the Jerusalem government’s move, which he said “jeopardizes the historic exodus of Soviet Jews to Israel.”
Meanwhile, with the end of the Moslem fasting month of Ramadan last week, the intifadeh, or uprising, in the occupied territories flared up again. In the most violent day so far this year, Israeli troops on Thursday killed four Palestinians and wounded 150 others.
As the riots continued, Labour’s Peres, 66, who says that he favors trading territory for peace with the Palestinians, formally notified Israeli President Chaim Herzog that he had been unable to form a government. The following day, Herzog gave Shamir, 74, a mandate to try to create a new administration, and Likud leaders predicted confidently that he would accomplish that within days by joining forces with small parties even further to the right than he is. As the bargaining began, centrist and left-wing Israelis faced the prospect of the most extremist government in the 42-year history of the modem Jewish state—and the likelihood of increasingly strained relations with the United States.
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