“Jews usually use God language to claim the Land. If your God promised you this land, he did not notify us!”
– So said a Palestinian reader in ynetnews.com. –
Exquisite: the Old City walls from Jaffa Gate, showing the Citadel and David’s Tower (left) and the Church of the Dormition with its bell tower, which stand outside the Zion Gate. Photo: Stuart Littlewood
At the centre of this religious and territorial conflict stands Jerusalem, an exquisite city of great antiquity.It has survived two dozen wars and is the focal point for the two peoples – Palestinians and Israelis – and the three religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Its many holy places are a magnet to the faithful of all denominations, which is why Jerusalem was declared an international city by the UN. But countless Christian and Muslim Palestinians – even those living just outside – have been unable to visit their Holy City for many years.
Zionists claim Jerusalem is theirs by right. Actually, it was already 2000 years old and an established, fortified city when King David captured it. It dates back 5000 years and the name is derived from Uru-Shalem, meaning “founded by Shalem (the Canaanite God of Dusk)”.
Temple Mount Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, in its ‘City of David’ form, lasted a mere 73 years. In 928BC the Kingdom divided into Israel and Judah, and in 597BC the Babylonians conquered the city and destroyed Solomon’s temple. The Jews recaptured it in 164BC but finally lost it to the Roman Empire in 63BC. Before the present-day troubles the Jews, in total, controlled Jerusalem for some 500 years, say historians – small beer compared to the 1,277 years it was subsequently ruled by Muslims and the 2000 years, or thereabouts, it originally belonged to the Canaanites.
A burning issue now is the control of, and access to, The Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, the third holiest in Islam after Mecca and Medina, and the centre of Christian belief also. Here, according to Biblical tradition, Solomon built the first temple, completed in 953BC and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586BC. After years in exile the Jews built their second temple, which was destroyed by the Romans under Titus in 70AD. When the Jews rebelled against Roman occupation a second time Hadrian barred them from the city.
The 4th century, when Jerusalem became a Christian city, saw the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Persians came and went, leaving a trail of destruction. Then, after the Islamic conquest in 690, two major shrines were constructed over the ruins of the earlier temples, the Dome of the Rock, from which Muhammed is said to have ascended to Heaven, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
To Muslims Jerusalem is known as Al-Quds (The Holy). From the site they call the Noble Sanctuary (Haram Ash-Sharif) – Jews call it the Temple Mount – the Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven. In 685 work started on the Dome of the Rock Mosque, a building of great beauty which has remained practically unchanged for 13 centuries. The octagon-shaped mosque is topped by a gold dome that spans 20 metres across the Noble Rock.
Nearby in the Noble Sanctuary stands the Al-Aqsa Mosque, completed in 705 on the site of the original timber mosque and capable of holding 5,000 worshipers. While the Dome of the Rock commemorates the Prophet’s journey, the Al-Aqsa Mosque became a centre of worship and learning and included no fewer than four schools of law. It attracted scholars from all over the world to study and teach within the precincts. During the crusades the Knights Templar, believing the Dome of the Rock to be close to the old Temple of Solomon, made their headquarters in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, calling it Templum Domini, hence their name “Templar”.
In September 2000 the insensitive Sharon made an unwelcome visit to the Temple Mount with a 1,000-strong armed bodyguard. Muslims regarded it as provocative and an assault on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the riots that followed triggered the Second Intifada (meaning “uprising” or “shaking off” and sometimes called the Al-Aqsa Intifiada). As a result the Israeli authorities have made access to Haram Ash-Sharif impossible unless you are a Muslim. I approached it from two directions but was turned away by surly Israeli police on both occasions.
The Crusaders re-took Jerusalem in 1099 and The Temple Mount became the headquarters of the Knights Templar. In 1187 Saladin ended the Crusader Kingdom and restored the city to Islam while allowing Jews and Christians to remain. Today some Jewish religious groups want control of the site for their spiritual centre and for a third temple to be built in accordance with ancient prophecies. Their plans threaten the Muslim shrines and only serve to keep political tension boiling.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem: a young Russian artist creates a more pleasing image than I ever could. Photo: Stuart Littlewood
What happened to the Arabs who chose to stay while the modern state of Israel annexed and swallowed up their lands? In the western world citizenship and nationality mean much the same thing, but in Israel they are two separate and very different statuses, explains Roselle Tekiner. “Citizenship (ezrahut) may be held by Arabs as well as Jews while nationality (le’um), which bestows significantly greater rights than citizenship, may be claimed by Jews alone.” Arabs or other non-Jews cannot be ‘nationals’ of Israel. Only Jews can be ‘nationals’, and their nationality rights are granted by the Law of Return.
By the same token the national lands in Israel don’t belong to the people, unless they happen to be Jews. “The process by which the land becomes ‘national’ land is through purchase or confiscation by the Jewish National Fund.”
This process, called “redeeming the land”, is a concept taken from the Bible – except that the state, rather than God, returns the Jewish people from ‘exile’ and re-unites them with the Biblical lands which now, in Jewish eyes, have become their inalienable property. The racist nature of New Israel is quite brazen, and any political party setting up to campaign for a secular state to represent all of the people equally, is banned by law. It is plainly not the liberal western-style democracy that we’re led to believe.
Furthermore, Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention makes it clear that an occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies. The International Criminal Court, set up in 1998, regards such practice as a war crime. But because Israel, along and the US, didn’t sign up to the ICC it feels free to carry on with its illegal settlement programme.
Genuine settlers, of course, come in friendship and with consent. But Israeli settlers are mostly hard-line religious squatters who support their own government’s use of violence against Palestinian civilians. Their settlements are usually fortified colonies with gun towers, mine-strewn death strips and army back-up. They may appear heroic in Israeli eyes but are offensive to the Palestinians and a breach of international understanding of what constitutes acceptable behaviour.
Israeli squatters, backed by Netanyahu, are attempting to make a Palestinian state impossible. Netanyahu’s plan is to keep the Palestinians (some 12 million strong, 4 million of them in the Occupied Territories) stateless and without citizenship rights forever. — Juan Cole, Informed Comment website.
In 1990 the extent of the conflict prompted the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, to write: “Every day, there is the toll of the dead for whom we offer up our prayer. We have endeavoured to bring a word of comfort to the wounded and to those disabled for life. We would have liked to visit the prisoners and those who have been tortured, and we suffer with those who continue to be tortured. We pity those who are obliged to carry out such orders, perhaps against their conscience and against their will. We lament the wound which will scar their soul, their human person.
If the Zionists tried to ethnically cleanse England, how long could their ugly wall (here decorated with some of Banksy’s “bad art”) keep us out of, say, the city of Cambridge? Photo: Stuart Littlewood
“We have seen people deported from their homeland, houses sealed or demolished, and whole families left without shelter. Economic sanctions continue to add to the hardship of life: water resources are seized, land is expropriated, trees are torn down, crops destroyed, access denied to market, high taxes arbitrarily imposed, etc.”
He pointed to Palestinian schools and universities that had been closed for long periods, with serious implications for the thousands of youngsters who were prevented from continuing their studies. And he warned that the disintegration of the economic, agricultural and educational infrastructure was destroying the social fabric. There was no justice system, and political activity had been driven underground, with dangerous consequences.
Children, he said, witnessed violence and humiliation, were themselves victims of it and thirsted for revenge or fell into despair, thus feeding the cycle of violence. “Censorship of the press has contributed to this hardening of attitudes by preventing the publication of facts which could often be useful in the search for peace.”
The Patriarch wrote of the Jewish-Palestinian relationship: “We firmly believe that the love God has for one people cannot imply injustice for another people. Politics and the evil in man cannot be allowed to disfigure the love of God for all his children.”
At the Christian heart of Jerusalem: the steps of Calvary at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is the custom for visitors to pose for photographs on the steps. Photo: Stuart Littlewood
He said no-one had the right to expropriate Jerusalem. “All believers have the right to consider Jerusalem as their spiritual homeland, the place where peace and love can be found.”
Religion and Church clearly have a challenging and often dangerous part to play here in the Holy Land’s front line. The Church sees its task not so much to offer political solutions but to ask each man or woman, whatever their status, to respect the rights and dignity of all human beings. Where politics violates those rights the Church feels it must take steps to protect the weak and the oppressed, and deal with injustice regardless of who commits it. The churches in Palestine operate in a hostile environment that is a world away from cosy church life in England or America.
Politicians meanwhile condemn Palestinian terrorism in the shrillest terms. But terrorism, they seem to forget, includes violence carried out by the state against people not directly involved in the conflict – acts like bombing civilians, collective punishment, kidnapping, torture, assassination and imprisonment without trial.
We hear heart-rending stories of cruel injustice. The guilty parties are not only those who plan and carry out the atrocities but the politicians themselves, who create the injustice that provokes the terrorism then self-righteously cook up a “war on terror” to somehow justify their perverse policies.
A foremost expert on suicide terrorism, Professor Robert Pape, has said that “overwhelmingly suicide terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw their military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland.”
From Lebanon to Sri Lanka, to Chechnya, to Kashmir and to the West Bank, he says, “every major suicide terrorist campaign – over 95 percent of all the incidents – has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw.”
In the occupied West Bank, according to Pape, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have used ordinary guerrilla tactics for the most part, not suicide attacks, against settlers. They reserve the use of suicide attacks to penetrate into Israel proper.
Since returning from Palestine I have constantly wondered how I, a peace-loving citizen living in a little market town near Cambridge, would feel if prevented from visiting relatives in Cambridge, shopping in Cambridge, going to work in Cambridge, comforting my sick mother in Cambridge, attending a family funeral in Cambridge, and accessing schools, university and hospitals in Cambridge.
How long could I control my rage if confronted with an ugly 8-metre concrete wall with gun towers snaking across the Green Belt to keep me out of Cambridge… or if compelled to run the gauntlet of armed roadblocks and checkpoints everywhere I turned… or if I risked being felled by a sniper’s bullet any minute… or if foreign troops in the dead of night were to break down the front door and trash my home on the pretext that I threw a stone?
How long could I stand being treated like the inhabitants of Jericho and Qalqilya and a hundred other Palestinian towns, imprisoned and cut off and watching helplessly as the local economy, and my life chances and those of my family, ebbed away?
Radio Free Palestine series: