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Arab Israel Conflict
Jerusalem is no place to play with fire
From the Financial Times of Sun, 23 Nov 2014 10:05:03 GMT
A masked Palestinian youth throws a rock during clashes with Israeli security forces in east Jerusalem on October 30, 2014. Clashes raged in east Jerusalem after police shot dead a Palestinian accused of trying to kill a Jewish hardliner, prompting officials to close the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound. AFP PHOTO/ AHMAD GHARABLIAHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images©AFP

Jerusalem, sacred to the three monotheistic Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, has been a tinderbox for more than two millennia. The increasingly bitter confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians in the city now risks turning their seven decades-long conflict over how, or whether, to share the Holy Land into a religious war.

This week’s visceral attack by two Palestinians on a synagogue, a soft target in the Jewish west of the city, left four rabbis and a policemen dead, shocking Israelis and the world. Yet it forms part of a dangerous pattern in which religion is starting to overshadow what should in theory still be a soluble dispute about land.

The week before, Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank torched a mosque near Ramallah. Since the summer, and tit-for-tat kidnappings that opened the way to a prolonged and bloody Gaza war, the stakes have been raised in Jerusalem.

There has been a spate of attacks by Palestinians using cars to run people down, and an assassination attempt on a leading Israeli activist agitating for Jewish prayer rights inside the Haram al-Sharif. This is the Noble Sanctuary, known to Jews as Temple Mount, which contains the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the site from where, in Muslim tradition, the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.

This is the combustible core of the tinderbox, but there are others. In Hebron, where a small Jewish settlement is implanted in the heart of a Palestinian city, a settler in 1994 murdered 29 Muslims at prayer in the Ibrahimi mosque, known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs. But Jerusalem, above all, is no place to play with fire.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister who governs in alliance with the religious and irredentist right, says there will be no change to the status quo in Jerusalem’s holy places, where Jewish prayer is restricted to the so-called Wailing Wall just below the sanctuary. Yet his allies have staged heavily policed walkabouts inside the Haram al-Sharif – replicating the Ariel Sharon provocation in 2000 that set off the second intifada.

The Netanyahu government has also accelerated Jewish settlement in and around occupied Arab East Jerusalem – in defiance of international law – and is abetting the far right’s creeping colonisation of Arab quarters of the holy city. In recent weeks there has been an influx of Jewish settlers under armed guard into Silwan, an Arab neighbourhood just below al-Aqsa.

Palestinians say they are responding to what they see as the slow strangulation of Arab Jerusalem, a deliberate policy to implant a Jewish majority in the east of the city, and cut it off from its West Bank heartland – thereby checkmating a future Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The settlement policies of Mr Netanyahu and his predecessors, giving Israel control of more than half the occupied territories, may already have placed a Palestinian state beyond reach. Some hardliners in his cabinet are calling for formal annexation of big chunks of the West Bank.

It does not seem to matter what the Palestinians do. Their president, Mahmoud Abbas, was willing to give up nearly all of East Jerusalem, documents leaked in 2011 showed, but was still spurned by the previous, allegedly moderate Israeli government.

While presiding over Israeli foreclosure on a Palestinian state, Mr Netanyahu may also be igniting religious war – a gift to Hamas, Mr Abbas’s Islamist rivals with pan-Islamic links, who have long argued that is what this conflict is.

Unless Israel changes course, it will end up permanently subjugating the Palestinians – who will come to outnumber Jews between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea – and come to be seen as an apartheid state. Former prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, have warned of this. It is in everybody’s interest for Mr Netanyahu to change course. The Middle East is in no need of more religious extremism.

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