Israeli-Palestinian clashes center on holy sites

Wednesday, October 11, 2000 | Tag Cloud Tags: ,

JERUSALEM, Israel, 11 October 2000 (Newsroom) -- With more than 90 deaths and the destruction of synagogues and mosques, observers increasingly are describing the recent strife between Palestinians and Israelis as a religious war.

Though politicians on both sides see the conflict as a battle over territory, religion is a spark that both sides have fanned with attacks on each other’s holy sites. Israeli and Palestinian clerics agree that the sectarian strife has cut deep wounds and will make it increasingly difficult for the two sides to find a way to coexist, even though leaders have distanced themselves from the vandalism.

Chief Israeli Rabbi Meir Lau called desecration of a former mosque in Tiberias "a disgrace to Judaism."

Rabbi Yehuda Kaplan, once an Army officer and currently an educator in Jerusalem, told Newsroom that although the current situation again looks like a "war of survival" for the Jews, he prays that "after all of this settles, we will figure out a way to live together.

"It's a hard task, but God never gave an easy one to the Jews," Kaplan said. "There will be no other neighbors for us. They should respect our holy places, and we should respect their mosques."

Sufi Sheikh Abu Saleh said that "the answer to the strife is Abraham: his two sons, Israel and Ishmael, have to reconcile. Allah wants it."

Full-scale violence began September 30, the day after Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Jerusalem Temple Mount. The compound -- site of bloody clashes in 1990 and 1996 -- is the most sensitive spot in Israeli-Palestinian relations. The Palestinians insist on full control of the shrine, the third holiest site in Islam. The site is home to two major mosques marking the spot where Islamic tradition says the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Israel has said it would consider less than full control but would not accept Palestinian rule over the compound, former home of the biblical Jewish temple, the most sacred shrine of Judaism. According to Jewish tradition, the site also is where Abraham was instructed to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Many fundamentalist Christians who are sympathetic to Zionist causes venerate the site as the place where Jesus preached and where the Third Temple is to be built for his dwelling after the Second Coming.

Mideast peace talks broke off over the status of Jerusalem's Old City and the Temple Mount in July and never recovered. Israel blames Palestinians for starting the recent violence two days prior to Sharon's visit. Sharon's arrival, Israelis assert, became a pretext for escalating the clashes. Israel blames Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat for using bloodshed in an attempt to win back international sympathy and pressure Israel for more concessions.

Palestinians see Sharon's visit as a provocation that triggered violence across Palestinian territories and Israel. In Nablus (biblical Shechem), a week of intense gunfights centered around Joseph’s Tomb, which was defended by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian gunmen. Jews believe the biblical patriarch Joseph is buried at the site, which houses a yeshiva, a Jewish seminary.

After a week of fighting at the tomb, resulting in the deaths of six Palestinians and an Israeli soldier, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered evacuation of the enclave. It was the first time Israel relinquished territory as a direct result of Palestinian violence. Hours after the Israeli army withdrew, rioters forced their way into the compound past Palestinian guards, who had promised to protect the tomb. The mob ripped apart and burned Jewish prayer books, set fire to parts of the compound, and broke through the stone dome of the tomb.

Regional Cooperation Minister Shimon Peres claimed the events at Joseph’s Tomb show that Arafat has a problem protecting holy sites. When Israel controlled the sites, there was free and safe access for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, he said.

"If the Palestinians cannot keep their promises regarding the holy sites, how can they be given control of other things?" Sharon asked on Israeli television.

Nablus Mayor Ghassan Shakaa, whose son was wounded during the clashes and evacuated by Israeli medics, said Palestinian security forces were overrun by the demonstrators. Shakaa said they would rebuild the site. Israel Radio reported, however, that Palestinians have begun constructing a mosque at Joseph’s Tomb.

After images of the vandalized Joseph's Tomb were televised, Jewish protesters launched a revenge attack. As word spread that a Tiberias man was among three soldiers captured by Lebanese guerrillas, hundreds of residents of the Jewish town converged on a 200-year-old mosque abandoned during the 1948 Middle East war. In recent months, however, Muslim activists from nearby Arab communities had been holding Friday prayers there in an attempt to regain control. Demonstrators burned a tire inside, blackening the walls and floor, and one man pushed stones from the roof of the mosque onto the street.

In a continued cycle of vandalism, Jaffa Arabs desecrated a local synagogue and rioting residents of Palestinian Shfaram vandalized the town’s ancient synagogue. Shfaram's mayor apologized for the damage and began work to restore the building.

Around the world, a number of synagogues were desecrated as a show of solidarity with Palestinians. Several Torah scrolls were burned Tuesday after vandals set fire to a synagogue in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Unknown assailants attacked two synagogues in Paris with firebombs, Israel Radio reported.

Meanwhile, in Israel, two rabbis and three yeshiva students were reported to have become victims of the violence. In the first days of the conflict, a head of the West Bank yeshiva, Rabbi Brandover, was dragged out of his car and severely beaten by Palestinian police when he mistakenly entered Palestinian territory. The rabbi was taken to a hospital in serious condition. Later, in a similar incident, three yeshiva students were bitten and stabbed by an Arab mob in Jerusalem.

Last Sunday, Israeli security forces discovered the bullet-ridden body of Rabbi Hillel Lieberman, 37, a U.S. citizen who taught at Joseph Tomb's seminary. Saturday morning Lieberman, the father of seven, left his West Bank synagogue on foot for Joseph’s Tomb in nearby Nablus after hearing that Palestinians had destroyed the shrine. Lieberman, unarmed and wearing a prayer shall, intended to save some of the prayer books left in the seminary. According the Israeli Army and Palestinian Radio, the rabbi was stopped by armed Palestinians, brutally beaten and killed.

Lieberman’s father, Rabbi Sidney Zvulun Lieberman of Brooklyn, New York, claims to be a distant cousin of Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democratic Party candidate for vice president. The senator says, however, that he is unaware of the connection.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations called on President Bill Clinton to hold Arafat personally responsible for rabbi's murder.

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