World

Death in an ancient land

Peter Hirschberg October 16 2000
World

Death in an ancient land

Peter Hirschberg October 16 2000

Death in an ancient land

World

Israelis and Palestinians battle on the streets

By Peter Hirschberg in Jerusalem

Hanna Siniora first began meeting Israelis at a time when such encounters were considered treasonous. That was just after the 1967 War in which Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip and their hundreds of thousands of Palestinian inhabitants. Today, Siniora publishes The Jerusalem Times, an English-language Palestinian weekly, Sitting behind a desk last week in his East Jerusalem office, Siniora sounded

sad. For more than a week, the only dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians had been waged with guns. The peace process seemed near collapse as the toll mounted—nearly 80 people killed and almost 2,000 wounded. With three Israeli soldiers taken captive by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and a Jewish holy site, Josephs Tomb, trashed by Pales-

tinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak called on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to halt the violence or face a full military response. “We may be witnessing the beginning of the Palestinian war of independence,” said Siniora. “A state might now be achieved through struggle, not negotiation.”

The violence erupted on Sept. 29, following a visit by Ariel Sharon, the hardline leader of Israel’s right-wing Likud party, to the Temple Mount, a Jerusalem shrine holy to both Jews and Muslims. Palestinians objected to what they saw as an attempt to underscore Israel’s control of the area. And the fighting escalated, with Israeli helicopters firing missiles at Palestinian positions. Palestinian security forces armed with assault rifles fought back, killing two Israeli soldiers. Many of Israel’s one million Arab citizens also poured into the streets to lob rocks and torch banks— symbols, in their eyes, of the Jewish state. “The state is my enemy,” said Aamir Makhoul, an Arab resident of Haifa. “A whole generation of Arabs will also now grow up feeling this way.” Even U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s attempts to mediate a settlement between Barak and Arafat in Paris on Oct. 4 made little headway. The two Mideast leaders did order their field commanders to pull back their troops, but the fighting continued. Further meetings were scheduled for Cairo with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. But Barak clearly blamed

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Arafat for the impasse. “There is a need,” said Barak in Paris, “for a clearcut order from Chairman Arafat to stop shooting and everything will calm down immediately.”

During his foray to the Temple Mount, Sharon was protected by more than 1,000 policemen. For Jews, the hilltop compound is their holiest site— where the first and second Jewish temples stood in biblical times. Muslims call it Al-Haram al-Sharif. It is their third holiest site, containing the AlAqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and is the spot, according to Islam, from which Mohammed ascended to heaven.

Sharon’s excursion could not have come at a more sensitive time: IsraeliPalestinian peace talks have been deadlocked since the failed U.S.-sponsored Camp David summit in July. At issue is sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Barak has reportedly been ready to con-

sider placing control of the site in the hands of the UN Security Council. But Arafat insists that Muslims must control the shrine.

The Palestinians blamed Sharon, and Barak’s failure to block his visit, for the outbreak of hostilities. But Israeli leaders deflected the blame onto Arafat, saying he cynically exploited Sharon’s visit to ignite violence in an effort to wring further concessions from Barak. Ever since Camp David, Barak has held the diplomatic high ground. The Palestinians, as

a consequence, were forced to defer their planned Sept. 13 declaration of statehood after Arafat failed to drum up support from world leaders. Now, the pictures of Palestinians confronting the might of the Israeli military—especially TV footage of a young Palestinian boy dying in a hail of bullets as his father desperately tries to shield him—have helped Arafat win world sympathy.

It is not only the violence that threatens the peace process. President Bill Clinton, a vigorous sponsor of Mideast peace, will soon be out of office. And with his ruling coalition shattered over his trip to Camp David, Barak faces political oblivion if he is unable to cobble together a deal with the Palestinians. Back in East Jerusalem, Siniora is still searching for some hope. “I still believe we are fated to live together,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “The question is, how much of each other’s blood are we going to spill until we realize that?” EH!