"Tense calm" in East Jerusalem + West Bank

Where to begin?

Israel’s YNet news website is reporting today that Israel’s State President Shimon Peres “is unpleased by the government’s decision to renovate a selected list of heritage sites – which includes the Cave of the Patriarchs [which is also, for Palestinians and Muslims worldwide, the Ibrahimi or Abraham Mosque in Hebron] and Rachel’s Tomb [which is also, for Palestinians, the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque in Bethlehem] – and is concerned by the move’s possible implications, Ynet has learned. The decision should not have been taken in the manner it was taken, but rather, in phases, Peres reportedly said in closed-door sessions over the weekend. ‘It was [or, should have been] possible to decide to focus on 10 sites at this time, and take more decisions later’, Peres was quoted as saying. Following several days of local riots, the president expressed his concern about the violence that may follow in Palestinian areas, while also referring to Israel’s responsibility on this front. ‘It depends on us too’, he noted. ‘We must conduct ourselves cautiously and with restraint’ … Peres added privately [however] that he intends to continue his support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as long as the latter works to renew negotiations with the Palestinians”.

Just for background, YNet added in its report, it was just last Sunday that “the cabinet approved a wide-scale plan to preserve and renovate ‘heritage sites’ at a cost of NIS 400 million (about $106 million dollars). At the last moment, after being pressured by right-wing elements and ministers, Netanyahu decided to add to the plan two sites located in the West Bank. After Hamas called for a third intifada and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned of a ‘religious war’, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad attended the Friday prayer in Hebron, called on his people to continue their struggle, but stressed that the Palestinians would not let the Israeli decision drag them to a state of violence. Netanyahu himself has tried to ease the tensions with the Palestinians several times, saying it was all a misunderstanding. ‘We have no intention of changing the status quo regarding Jewish or Muslim praying. We want to maintain the current prayer arrangements. The renovations were carried out in coordination with the Waqf. These are necessary repairs’, the prime minister said”. This YNet article can be read in full here .

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that Netanyahu had made his second or third statement in three days, trying to “defuse” the situation — however, he failed (as Israeli politicians generally do fail) to speak directly or to reach out to make any empathetic acknowledgement of Palestinian concerns: “In an interview to Israeli TV, Benjamin Netanyahu called the affair a ‘misunderstanding’, saying there was no intention to infringe on Muslim freedom of worship. He said the intent was to protect and maintain the sites. ‘This is not a political decision. It doesn’t change anything in that sense. It is concerned with preserving heritage’, Netanyahu said. This AP report is posted here.

A Haaretz editorial published today said that a widely-lambasted new campaign by Israel’s Information and Diaspora Ministry to improve the country’s image is “more than ridiculous, the campaign is disconcerting. ‘Explaining Israel’ [the name of this public relations campaign] reveals the worldview of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government: limitless self-righteousness, eternal hostility toward the Arab and Muslim worlds, a view of Palestinians as invaders and inciters, and commitment to developing the West Bank settlements. This PR drive must not be viewed just as a gimmick, or an attempt to justify the unnecessary existence of the Information Ministry. Instead, it represents how the government wants its citizens to understand their country and represent it to the world. The campaign’s Web site waxes lyrical over the beauty of Judea and Samaria and the grand achievements of the settlement endeavor, even directing visitors to the links of West Bank regional councils. The ministry warns against the evacuation of settlements and withdrawal from elevated areas, which, it says, would turn Israel into a firing range for rockets and render it vulnerable to invasion. Palestinian communities are not part of its landscape – the Palestinian Authority is portrayed as an incitement factory bent on destroying Israel, one that falsifies demographic figures and is headed by a Holocaust denier. Still, the ministry recommends that Israelis ‘say with conviction that Israel will never lose hope for peace’. It is difficult to square these messages with Netanyahu’s frequent calls for ‘two states for two peoples’ and a return to peace talks. Does the prime minister really want to talk to [people he says ares] inciters and Holocaust deniers? What would they talk about – about withdrawal, which the government believes would endanger Israel?” This Haaretz editorial is published here.

Along similar lines, Jerusalem-based writer Gershom Gorenberg wrote, as part of a book review published in the latest issue of “The American Prospect“, that “You might expect Netanyahu to be careful about playing with holy fire. In September 1996, early in his previous term as prime minister, he approved opening a tunnel alongside the Temple Mount, otherwise known [i.e., to Palestinians and the Muslim world] as Haram al-Sharif. That set off a week-long mini war between Israel and Palestinians. How could he so easily give in to pressure and repeat the mistake of asserting ownership of contested holy places? While we’re at it, how does a country declare that a place outside its borders is a national heritage site? I could give quick responses based on Netanyahu’s famously flawed personality. But deeper answers to these questions — and quite a few other Middle Eastern puzzles — can be found in Israeli political sociologist Lev Luis Grinberg’s remarkably insightful recent book, Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine. The starting point of Grinberg’s analysis is that Israel doesn’t have borders, or perhaps has too many of them: ‘If we would ask Israelis … where the state of Israel is — where its borders are — we would never receive a simple answer. … There is no consensus among Jewish citizens of the state where its borders are, where they should be, or even what the legitimate procedure is to decide on them’. Internationally, of course, Israel’s border is commonly regarded as the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary. For internal Israeli legal purposes, the Green Line is generally where the state ends and occupied territory begins; it defines ‘the area … ruled by democratic law and elective government’, as Grinberg notes. But the Green Line doesn’t appear on Israeli maps. And for purposes of military and economic control, the state includes the West Bank with its Palestinian population. (Gaza’s status, at the moment, is even fuzzier.) Moreover, in the imagination of most Israeli Jews, it seems, the line between those who belong to the nation and those who don’t is ethnic: Jews are in. Palestinians are out, even if they live in Israel and vote. If you find this all confusing, then you understand perfectly. The reality is a mess … With violence low at the moment, most Israelis can imagine that Israeli security measures alone ended the intifada and that the current quiet can last indefinitely. This is an illusion, and a dangerous one: It ignores the Palestinian Authority’s role in restoring order in the West Bank. It also ignores the frustration with blocked diplomacy that is again rising among Palestinians — and international impatience with the Netanyahu government’s foot-dragging. Imagination shapes behavior. Believing the illusion that things can go on as they are, Israelis have largely abandoned debate of alternatives. The space for politics remains closed. So with no discussion, responding to a moment’s pressure, ignoring the dangers, Netanyahu can include two West Bank holy places in a list of Israeli heritage sites. Netanyahu wouldn’t think to consult Palestinians’ representative leadership first. He sees them as outside the borders of his politics … In physical terms, Netanyahu’s imagined Israel is the whole land. In political terms, it includes only Jews. It takes no effort to convince him to include tombs in Hebron and Bethlehem in a map of Israeli heritage sites. But a plea by Israeli critics to include non-Jewish sites within the Green Line will sound to him like static on a bad cell-phone connection — noise without meaning”. This Gershom Gorenberg article in The American Prospect can be read in full here.

Meanwhile, this “tense calm” is not showing signs of expanding. As Haaretz reported Saturday, “Scores of Jordanian politicians and trade union members staged a sit-in at the Trade Unions Complex in Amman on Saturday to denounce Israel’s addition of two West Bank holy sites to a list of Jewish heritage centers. The participants, including Muslim Brotherhood figures and leading trade unionists, chanted slogans and raised placards calling for concrete action against Israel, the declaration of jihad (holy war) and the rupture of ties with the Jewish state by all Muslim countries”. This Haaretz article can be read in full here.

UPDATE: Jordan’s King Abdallah the second weighed in on this crisis on Sunday evening, and according to a report on the Jerusalem Post website (probably picked up from Palestinian Televisions nightly news broadcast), he was quoted as condemning “Israel’s ‘provocative measures in Jerusalem’ … after a day in which security forces stormed the Temple Mount [Haram ash-Sharif] to quell Arab rioting. Abdullah made the remark after meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman. Abdullah called on the international community to take immediate steps to protect Jerusalem’s holy sites”. This JPost report is posted here.

And, as the AP reported earlier, “The Organization of Islamic Conference, representing 57 predominantly Muslim states, strongly condemned the Israeli government’s decision, calling it illegal and an attempt ‘to trigger religious confrontation’.  In a statement issued after a meeting of its ambassadors at UN headquarters in New York, the OIC urged the UN Security Council to take immediate steps ‘to compel the Israeli government to revoke this illegitimate action’.  It called on the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers — the UN, the U.S., the European Union and Russia — ‘to stand up to this blatant act of aggression which represents a serious provocation to Muslims … and has the serious potential to incite yet another cycle of violence to further destabilize the fragile situation in the occupied Palestinian territories’.”  The U.S. State Department has also criticized the move more than once in the past week. The AP report said that “State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday the decision was ‘provocative’ and unhelpful to the goal of restarting peace talks”.  The AP report is posted here.

The repetition of the peace talks mantra is mesmerizing, but wearing a bit thin. It has been more than a year since Palestinian leadership broke off the inconclusive Annapolis process, in the early days of the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009).

On a third day of heavy rains, Israeli police entered (or “stormed”, as the Israeli press said) the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif compound at least twice on Sunday (though they did not enter Al-Aqsa Mosque itself). Clashes then spread to other areas in East Jerusalem, then died down for the moment. Some 16 Palestinians and 4 Israeli police personnel were injured by nightfall, and 7 Palestinians were reportedly detained.

The Jerusalem Post earlier reported that “police banned men under the age of 50 from the site on Sunday. Meanwhile in the West Bank, the IDF was on high alert on Sunday out of fear that settlers, celebrating Purim, would clash with Palestinians. On Saturday, the IDF clamped a closure on the territories for the duration of Purim which will end Monday night in Jerusalem. Additional forces will be deployed in defined ‘hot spots’ to prevent friction between Palestinians and settlers. While Hebron was quiet over the weekend, defense officials said there were fears that violence would escalate in the city as well as other parts of the West Bank, particularly in northern Samaria, on Purim day”.  This JPost report is published here.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad went to the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron to perform his Friday prayers.
Now, Ma’an News Agency reported that “The Fayyad government is due to hold its weekly cabinet meeting in an office the West Bank city of Hebron on Monday, in protest against Israel’s decision to include the Ibrahimi Mosque on a list of Israeli heritage sites. Hebron Governor Hussein Al-Araj said the move from Ramallah to Hebron was a signal Palestinian Authority rejected the Israeli cabinet’s decision, highlighting that Israel lacks the sovereignty needed to change Palestinian landmarks on land occupied by Israel in 1967. ‘[This] is a violation to the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the Hebron Agreement signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority’, he said”.  This Ma’an report is published here.

Palestinian fury continues over Israeli decision on holy sites

Unrest continued for a third day in Hebron over the Israeli government decision to declare the important Ibrahimi (Abraham) mosque an Israeli heritage site, as schoolgirls in headscarves and green and white striped dresses over their jeans confronted Israeli troops who shot tear gas at them, while the situation was discussed at an Arab League meeting in Cairo today.

Yesterday (Tuesday), YNet reported that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in Belgium that “the Israeli decision to add the two sites, located in Hebron and Bethlehem, to the list of national heritage sites was ‘a serious provocation which may lead to a religious war’ “, while “The Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, presented an even firmer stand. He called on the Palestinians to launch a new intifada in protest of the decision to add the two places to the heritage sites list. ‘This requires the release of all Palestinians prisoners in the PA’s jails, halting the negotiations and achieving a Palestinian reconciliation agreement’, he said”. This report is published here.

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu repeated a statement first made by a member of his office yesterday. YNet reported today that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday reiterated Israel’s commitment to the freedom of ritual of members of all religions in all holy sites. According to a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu said that ‘this policy is implemented in the Cave of the Patriarchs as well, where the State is working constantly to guarantee appropriate prayer conditions for Jews and Muslims’. According to Netanyahu, ‘Proof can be found in the renovation work being completed these days in the entrance plaza and on the path leading to the Muslims’ prayer hall on the site’. The prime minister stressed that ‘any other claim is an artificial attempt to distort reality and evoke a dispute’.” This can be read in full here.

Israel’s State President Shimon Peres met UN envoy to the Middle East Robert Serry on Wednesday. and said that “Israel plans to invest significant amounts in infrastructure that will increase the accessibility of holy sites to all worshipers. By doing so it aims to honor and allow freedom of worship to all, irrespective of their faith, and protect the holy sites. There is no violation of Muslim or Christian religious rights in any holy place.” According to a statement issued by his office, Peres “requested that this clear message be delivered to the U.N. Secretary-General so as to stop those parties which wish to incite unnecessary conflict”, and UN Special Coordinator Serry “thanked the President for clarifying the issue”, while adding that “following a series of meetings with leaders of the Palestinian Authority he believes the most serious obstacle to peace remains the lack of trust between both sides — that neither side believes the other will remain flexible and make significant advances in negotiations. Nevertheless, he also stated that with the proper steps there exists an opportunity to resume proximity talks.

The Jerusalem Post reported after the Peres-Serry meeting that “Peres stressed that Israel wasn’t interested in ‘monopolizing’ the sites and that it did not need ‘artificial conflicts’ sparked by a ‘misunderstanding’. He said that Israel respects ‘every holy place’, emphasizing that while it wanted to educate Jews that the sites are holy to them, this certainly did not mean they would be off limits to Muslims. ‘We are going to tell our children that it is a holy place for the Jewish people’, he said. ‘It doesn’t mean Muslims can’t pray there’.” This article is posted here.

In actual fact, Muslim worshippers have been excluded from the Ibrahimi mosque during the last two years on important Muslim holidays when they coincided with important Jewish holidays. The Muslims prayed in the streets in front of armed Israeli armed soldiers.

The Ibrahimi Mosque in the occupied city of Hebron is the fourth holiest site to Muslims [after (1) the Kaaba in Mecca, (2) Medina, and (3) al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock Mosques in the Old City of East Jerusalem! It is so important that the Jordanian government tried to negotiated a share in controlling the Ibrahimi mosque in its 1994 peace treaty with Israel — but Israel refused.

The Tomb(s) of the Patriarchs, located within the Ibrahimi Mosque, may be the second holiest site for the Jewish people. The most important site is what Jews call the Temple Mount (while Muslims call it the Haram Ash-Sharif, where Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock are located) in the Old City of East Jerusalem where the Second and possibly also the First Jewish Temples were located. The Western (“Wailing”) Wall is believed to have been the retaining wall outside the Temple area.

In a press conference at the Mishkenot Shaananim center in West Jerusalem on Wednesday afternoon, Major-General (Res.) Giora Eiland, Israel’s former National Security Adviser and now an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said he thought that Netanyahu’s statements were “not that important … symbolic … but at the end of the day not too smart”. He noted that Rachel’s tomb, in Bethlahem, was “on the Israeli side of the Clinton maps”, meaning that it was considered an area that would be assigned to the State of Israel in a final peace settlement [which must be why it is now surrounded by The Wall in its 8-meter-high concrete block manifestation, and accessible only to Israelis who enter in guarded and escorted buses which pass through a huge gliding metal gate that opens for their arrival]. But, Eiland noted, “I cannot say the same about the Hebron mosque” …

What has Netanyahu done?

Palestinians are furious at an Israeli government decision to classify the very important Ibrahimi (Abraham) Mosque in Hebron (as well as Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem) as Israeli heritage sites.

It was not a decision to annex these two sites to Israel. It was a decision to allocate money to upgrade and rehabilitate the sites. But, in the current context, the decision has been understood as yet another move by the government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to restrict, if not exclude, Palestinian and Muslim claims + interests.

It is being received and perceived as an act of incitement.

There has been a firestorm of reaction. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is busy in Paris, and hasn’t said anything himself. But a representative of Abbas denounced the move on Palestinian television tonight, and argued that this puts into further question any idea about a resumption of negotiations. The Palestinian Authority Minister of Awqaf (Muslim trusts), Mahmoud Habbash, in Cairo for a meeting, denounced the move as “crazy” and “war-like”.

Both sites are revered by both religions. But sites contain graves of ancestors revered by both religions. For Muslims, both sites are also mosques. And both sites are in the occupied West Bank.

Continue reading What has Netanyahu done?