With the recent death of Yassir Arafat, the focus of the world is once more on the plight of the Palestinian people and the hope - not overly optimistic - of reviving a nearly moribund peace process. In addition, events in Iraq are continuing to cause grave concern as American troops mount a full assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. Instability in the Middle East has been a constant factor in world politics for the last half-century. Many observers contend that the unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is one of the primary causes for this instability and for its wider global consequences, most notably the September 11 attack on the United States by Islamic fundamentalists.
The article which follows is an expanded version of a piece which first appeared in the (Tokyo) "New Observer" in May, 2001.
Map of Israel/Palestine
The Israelis have a fixation with security. They insisted on examining every man woman and child on the ship, even the people who didn't plan to go ashore. When you do go ashore they have a tent erected at the foot of the gangplank and you have to walk between two rows of tables with machine-gun toting guards on each side. Every bag is emptied completely and every item is searched. If you have a camera or a tape recorder you have to turn it on or display the batteries. Absolutely nothing is left unsearched. The guards are impatient rather than impolite and raise their voices when people are slow to follow their demands. You get the sense immediately that Israel is a suspicious country living on its nerves. The Israelis have good reason to be nervous.
The tour buses were lined up. We were in Ashdod, a relatively new port in the south of the country. Our guide was a lean sunburned man in his early 50s called Rafi, an Army veteran by the look of him, who was old enough to have taken part in the wars of 1967 and 1973. He was an Ashkenazi (European background) and a Sabra (born in Israel). Rafi was very smooth and friendly and warmed us up with a lot of dry little jokes in the self-deprecating Jewish style. We began to like him because he was such an amusing fellow. Gradually he began to play on our acceptance and started to introduce a number of political opinions. The 'Arabs' were lazy, the 'Arabs' were emotional, the 'Arabs' often behaved like children, etc., etc. Like nearly all Israelis he never referred to the local non-Jewish population as 'Palestinians'. They were always called 'Arabs' which put them in this large non-defined category of people who could live anywhere from Syria to Morocco. The implication was that they had no business living in Israel.
The first thing that strikes you about Israel is how small it is. It has an American feel, at least superficially, because all the highway signs and roadside barriers are straight out of the USA. The land is under intense cultivation and control of water rights is one of the unspoken reasons for Israeli reluctance to return lands to Syria (the Golan Heights) or to the Palestinians on the West Bank. Everywhere you see young people in uniform carrying automatic weapons. Israel has a conscript army and everyone, girls as well as boys, has to serve for three years. In Japan you will come across many young Israelis selling jewellery from stalls in downtown areas . Most of them have just come out of the Army and this is their familiar work-travel arrangement before they settle back into the society.
We arrived in Bethlehem where Christ was born. There is a church which has been built over the stable, the humble but famous little structure that we all sing hymns about every Christmas. The stable was a cave in a hillside because the herders didn't bother building stables when there were so many of these convenient caves about. Jesus was born in one of these caves. After you go into the church (jealously claimed by three different Christian sects: Armenian, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox) you have to climb down a very narrow stairway to get to it. The space is very small and usually there are too many people jostling to get down the steps. Most of them are just curious people with cameras. Some of them, on the other hand, are religious pilgrims. For them it is a very emotional occasion. Perhaps they have been saving money and waiting for years for this moment.
Church of the Nativity, tourists descending to the birthplace of Christ.
Religious feeling can be a dangerous thing when carried to its logical extremes and this is one of the main reasons that Israel, and the Holy City of Jerusalem in particular, remains such an unstable place. The political situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians is extremely volatile, punctuated by a constant stream of inflammatory rhetoric and frequent murderous episodes. A political settlement involving compromise remains difficult but not impossible in spite of the huge gulf of distrust that separates the two communities; and one must also bear in mind the wide differences of belief and opinion that exist within each community. A political settlement generally depends upon patterns of thought which are pragmatic, logical and rational. For many of the religious sects (some nominally within the same religion), and indeed several of the political parties, such patterns of thought are repudiated as a sign of weakness. There can be no compromise because God has made his wishes known to them and that’s that, no need for further discussion. Not surprisingly, each sect or political movement tends to become antagonistic and intolerant towards other sects and movements, as each tries constantly to shoulder the others aside in a space that is much too small.
Palestinian Arabs, Bethlehem
Our next stop was Jerusalem, Hebrew YERUSHALAYIM, Arabic AL-KUDS, one of the most ancient cities of the Middle East and one of the principal holy places of the three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan but the Israelis took over the whole city after the Six-Day War of 1967 and named it their new capital. The Israeli KNESSET (Parliament) meets in Jerusalem but the United Nations does not recognize the Israeli claim and most foreign embassies are still located in Tel Aviv. Politics and religion are intertwined in this city to such an extent that it has become one of the most contentious 42 square kilometres on the face of the earth.
Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock dominating the Old City
The city is nestled on a series of valleys and low hilltops and presents an attractive uniform appearance since there are restrictions on the height of new buildings and all buildings both old and new are constructed from the same shade of limestone. The English writer Ludovic Kennedy described it as 'biscuity-beige' but it seemed lighter and whiter to me: it depends what time of the day you look at it. Dominating the city skyline are the raised walls of the Old City topped by the Muslim Dome of the Rock which flashes golden in the sunlight. The dome and the neighbouring Al Aksa mosque were built on the site of Solomon's Temple between 688-91 after the Arabs had taken Jerusalem from the Byzantines in 637. A deranged Christian tourist set fire to these buildings in 1969 causing extensive damage, and in the early 1990s there was a serious attempt to blow them up on the part of a extremist Jewish group who wanted to restore the original Jewish temple on the site. The Old City is a constant setting for religious feuds and rioting which have been exacerbated by recent attempts on the part of Jewish groups to force their way into traditionally Arab neighbourhoods. Ariel Sharon, a former Israeli Army commander and present head of the right-wing Likud party, has offended Palestinian Arabs by occupying a prominent building in the Old Town and draping it with a huge Israeli banner.
Our guide Rafi was nervous as we entered the Old City through the Jaffa Gate. He had already warned us to leave all our valuables on the bus because of Arab pickpockets and thieves and now he begged us to stay close together and speak to nobody. The older people in the group were suitably intimidated by all this War Zone rhetoric but the younger ones were sceptical, and rightly so. In the event, this place was nothing to worry about compared to parts of Belfast. The walled enclosure of the Old City was divided into Armenian, Christian, Arab and Jewish quarters. We were headed from the southwestern Armenian section to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located in the northwestern Christian quarter. Our path took us through the narrow crowded alleyways of the Suq with its open shops on both sides, reminiscent of the teeming 'galis' of Benares. A sharp left turn took us to the entrance to the Christian church which had been built over the Hill of Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion of Christ.
Rafi attends to his flock in the Old City
This church faces a courtyard with a mosque built by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I (the Magnificent). The church, or rather, churches (there are several different altars somewhat mashed together) marks the end of the Via Dolorosa or the path taken by Jesus on his way to execution. He was condemned by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate who agreed to the sentence in an attempt to mollify the Jews and prevent religious riots (the ancient history of Jerusalem sounds a great deal like the present history) and so Jesus was forced to carry his cross through the streets. This passage to his execution is marked in the Catholic Church by the 14 Stations of the Cross, each station marking a different incident along this final journey. It came as a matter of surprise to discover that the last five of these events (Stations 10-14) all occurred within the area now enclosed by this church. In fact, some of these events happened on the same spot or within a few steps of each other. As you enter the church you are faced with a steep stairway to the right which brings you to Station Ten: Jesus stripped of His garments, followed immediately by Station Eleven: Jesus is nailed to the cross and Station Twelve: Jesus dies on the cross. This is followed by Station Thirteen: Jesus is taken down from the cross. This whole area is marked by a Greek Orthodox altar with many small candles. A few steps forward and a turn to the left brings you to Station Fourteen: Jesus is buried in the tomb. This came as a bit of a surprise. For some reason I had always imagined that the tomb was some distance away and that the body had been carried in a procession by his disciples. Apparently not. The guide (not Rafi) gave a sensible explanation. Saturday was the Jewish Sabbath and the burial had to take place before nightfall on Friday. Since Jesus was executed on a Friday (Good Friday) his followers had to work fast. They took down his body as soon as they were allowed and washed it on a large stone (still there) just in front of a cave in which they hurriedly interred it as evening fell.
Armenian priest, Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is occupied by six different Christian sects: they are the Catholic Franciscans -- the least objectionable of the various Catholic orders from the point of view of the Arabs after the Crusades, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenians; lesser privileges are afforded to the Syrian Orthodox, the Egyptian Copts and the Ethiopian Copts. The doors are opened every morning and shut every evening by an Arab Muslim family who were given the keys by Salah-uh-din (Saladin) after he drove out the Christian Crusaders in 1187. Each sect has to agree on any changes, no matter how small, that are made within the church. Rafi (back in control) directed our attention to a ladder that stood on a ledge over the main entrance. This ladder has stood there for forty years, he told us gleefully, because they can't agree where to move it. That ladder is a good metaphor for Jerusalem as a whole.
Great hatred, little room
Maimed us from the start;
I carry from my mother's womb
A fanatic heart.
The poet Yeats was discussing another divided country, my own, but he could just as easily have been talking about Jerusalem. For the next 11 numbered paragraphs you are about to be subjected to a quick survey and commentary on the history of Jerusalem. I would not inflict this upon you unless I thought it necessary and I promise you I have left out as much as I could. Without some comprehension of the historical background, however, it is nearly impossible to understand what is going on here in the year 2000. The past controls the present to a greater extent in this city than in any other place on earth.
1. Jerusalem has existed for at least 4000 years, perhaps longer. It was controlled by the Egyptians when we first hear of it in the 15th century BC and was then conquered by the Hebrews under Joshua in about 1250 BC. Two hundred years later David was anointed King of Israel. David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and his son and successor Solomon built the First Temple, great walls and a palace. In 586 BC the city and Temple were completely destroyed by the Babylonians, and the Captivity of the Jews began, as recorded in the Bible. It ended in 538 BC when the Persians, who had overcome Babylon, permitted the Jews to return to Jerusalem. The Temple was restored (515 BC) and the city became the centre of a new Jewish state. But with the coming of Alexander the Great and his victory at Issus in 333 BC, Jerusalem was drawn for the first time into the orbit of Western power politics.
2. The Jews succeeded in expelling the Greeks in 167 BC, and Jerusalem regained its position as the capital of an independent state ruled by the priestly Hasmonean dynasty. Rome had for some time been expanding its authority in Asia, and in 63 BC Pompey captured Jerusalem. A clash with Jewish nationalism was averted for some time by the political skill of a remarkable family, whose most illustrious member was Herod the Great, who was appointed "client" king of Judaea by the Roman Senate in 40 BC. Herod was king for the next 36 years, during which period Jerusalem reached its peak of greatness, growing in richness and expanding even beyond the new double line of walls. The Temple Mount esplanade was artificially enlarged with supporting walls (including the Western Wall) to house Herod's greatest creation, the splendid new Temple, which took more than a generation to build. Jerusalem became a great metropolis. Herod died in 4 BC and was succeeded by his son who was subsequently deposed by the Romans in AD 6 and replaced by the first of a series of Roman procurators. It was under the fifth procurator, Pontius Pilate, that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death. In the New Testament, Herod is depicted as a villain who ordered the death of all newborn male children in an attempt to prevent the birth of Christ. In any event, if he died in 4 BC, Jesus had yet to be born. Alternatively, Jesus was indeed born during the reign of Herod which means we have celebrated the Millenium four years too late and our whole system of dating is incorrect.
The Romans were the superpower of their day
3. The subsequent history of Jerusalem is equally violent and distressing. In 66 the Jews rebelled against Rome, and in 70 the city was besieged and almost wholly destroyed by Roman forces under Titus. The Temple, Herod's greatest creation, was completely destroyed and has never been rebuilt. For this reason, the Western (or 'Wailing') Wall, the only remains of the Temple foundations, remain a sacred place of worship for all Jewish people. The Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to plant a Roman city, Aelia Capitolina, on the site in 135 and the Jews were expelled. The general layout of Hadrian's city has lasted to the present day.
4. Christian pilgrims early found their way to Jerusalem. It was, however, the conversion to Christianity of Constantine the Great and the famous pilgrimage (326) of his mother, Empress Helena, who found "the True Cross," that made possible the building of the famous shrines in Jerusalem, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and inaugurated one of the city's most splendid and prosperous epochs. The Christian glorification was carried on into the 6th century until this golden age was brought to an end by the Persian invasion in 614, in which the inhabitants of Jerusalem were massacred and the churches destroyed.
5. The Byzantines -- the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople -- returned for a short time (628) but in 638 the Arab Muslims entered Jerusalem, and in 688-691 built the Dome of the Rock on the site of Herod's destroyed Jewish Temple. It remains today as the most prominent landmark in the city. The Arabs were tolerant towards Jews and Christians but in 1071 new Muslim rulers cut the Christian pilgrim routes from the West and this decision (plus the destruction of Christian shrines) became the rallying cry of the Crusades.
6. The Crusades remain a fascinating period of European history. In one sense it was an attempt by a vigorous and belligerent priest (Bernard of Clairvaux) to defend the holy places associated with the life and ministry of Christ but it was combined with a more general political need to stop many proud and violent local aristocrats from attacking each other's castles, laying waste to the lands of their neighbours and indulging in wholesale massacre of the local peasantry. It was displacement activity on a large scale and sorely needed. It caught the imagination of the time, much as the First World War was to engender a similar enthusiasm at a later period. The various kings, knights and nobles of Europe thought it was a brilliant idea, locked up their wives, and set off for Jerusalem in a glow of high language and dreams of plunder.
Crusaders take on the locals
7. In the beginning they were successful. They killed for Christ on an alarming scale: Arabs, Jews, local Christians, it didn't matter. The crusader state took its name from the city, as the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The great Muslim sanctuaries became Christian churches, and in 1149 the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as it exists today was consecrated. Muslims and Jews were barred from living in the city. The kingdom in Jerusalem lasted from 1099 to 1187, when it was overthrown by Saladin (who gave the keys of the Church to the present landlords). Jerusalem was again in Christian hands from 1229 to 1247 when the Holy City fell to the Egyptians. The great sanctuaries became Muslim again, and the only Christians who remained were the Greek Orthodox and other Oriental groups. In the 14th century the Franciscans began to represent the Roman Catholic interests (that's why they are still in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). The Jews, who had been barred by the crusaders, returned and from the mid-13th century inhabited their own quarter. The layout of the quarters was fixed in that period.
8. In 1517 the Ottoman Turk sultan Selim I took the city and inaugurated a Turkish regime that lasted 400 years. The 16th century was a period of great urban development and his son and successor Suleiman (the “Magnificent”) built the new walls, which still encompass the Old City, and erected the mosque which now stands across the courtyard from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But by the end of the century the city began to decline, a process that lasted for the next 300 years.
9. By any reading of this history so far the Jews had been shunted aside by Hadrian (135) during the Roman period. Their temple had been destroyed and they were forced into exile. They wandered back piecemeal in time to be massacred by the Christian Crusaders and were banned again. They began to return after the Crusaders left but only under the Ottoman Turks were they able to return in large numbers. They were subject to a special tax but they were tolerated. In the late 19th century as Ottoman power declined more and more European Jews from the Diaspora (the scattering of Jews throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa) began to buy land and settle in what was now called Palestine. A movement called Zionism took root which preached a return to the heartland of the religion.
10. The defeat of Turkey in the First World War (1914-18) put Britain in charge of Palestine and the British tried unsuccessfully to balance the conflicting demands of Jewish immigrants -- then about a third of the population -- and local Palestinian Arabs. The Second World War (1939-45) and the discovery of the full horror of the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe created a great deal of sympathy for the idea of a Jewish homeland in Israel. Jewish refugees from Europe streamed towards Israel and the British were incapable of stemming the flow. Jewish militants began a terrorist campaign against British troops in Palestine and in 1947 the British pulled out. The surrounding Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan, Syria) immediately attacked the Jews in Palestine and were soundly defeated. The new state of Israel was declared in 1948. Surrounded by Arab enemies it joined France and Britain in an attack on the Suez Canal in 1956; it wrested East Jerusalem from Jordanian control in 1967 and also the Golan Heights from Syria; in 1973 it pushed its western borders with Egypt as far as the Suez Canal (it later withdrew as part of a peace settlement brokered by the United States). Israel was triumphant.
King David Hotel bombed by Jewish insurgents, 1946
11. The new state flourished and was supported by Western governments, in particular the USA. One of its policies was to offer citizenship to any Jew from anywhere in the world who wanted to come live in Israel. This has created huge social problems. It began with the introduction of 'Sephardi' or Syrian, Iraqi and North African Jews (the latter were descendants of Spanish Jews ejected by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella -- sponsors of Christopher Columbus -- in the 1490s). They were 'Oriental' and the Ashkenazi, the European Jews, viewed them with contempt. The immigrants were sprayed with DDT as they disembarked from the ships that bore them to the Promised Land in the 1950s and 1960s and this is an insult that has never been forgotten. They have consistently voted against the Labour Party that was in power at the time. In recent years there has been a huge influx of Russian and Eastern European Jews who were unable to emigrate during Soviet times. The policy of Israeli governments of whatever political persuasion is clear: increase the Jewish population at whatever cost, never mind the ability to absorb them and give them jobs. The main thing is to outnumber the Palestinian Arabs.
I tried several times to talk to Palestinian Arabs but they just looked at me and smiled. No way were they going to get involved in a political discussion with a stranger. They were quite friendly and not without a sense of humour. I went into a music shop to search out some local music. I got into a discussion with the young Palestinian guy behind the counter and he asked me where I was from:
-- Ireland, I said (expecting cautious comments about the IRA, the PLO, and points of similarity)
-- Oh, yes, I've heard of Ireland, he said.
-- You have? says I, anticipating.
-- Yeah, you people drink too much!
Collapse, disillusion, laughter … unfortunately, the music he recommended was crap. The best Arabic music comes from Lebanon and Egypt, apparently.
Trouble flared up again between the Israelis and Palestinians shortly after my visit in July 2000. Now known as the Second Intifada (uprising) the trouble began in Jerusalem. Go back to the history of Jerusalem above and the causes of the present violence will begin to come into focus. The Temple Mount (Haram-al-Sharif in Arabic) dominates the Old City. It was the site of Solomon's temple 3000 years ago (destroyed by the Babylonians) and the Second Temple of Herod 2000 years ago (destroyed by the Romans). The victorious Arabs built the Dome of the Rock on the site in 688-691 and also the nearby Al-Aksa mosque, both of which structures still exist. For Muslims Jerusalem is a Holy City because they believe that the prophet Mohammed flew here on the night of his death and ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount (this is a matter of faith, not reason: Christians and Jews have a number of beliefs which could also be said to stretch credulity) . Only the Western Wall of Herod's temple remains and it has become a sacred site to Jews.
The Western Wall
The fears of our guide Rafi were unfounded. The only dangers we encountered in our tour of the Old City were large numbers of people trying to sell us bottled water, camera film and cheap souvenirs. We came down a series of steps and alleyways and there before us in an open space was the Western Wall. The surrounding streets and houses had been demolished after 1967 to create this open space. In order to get in you had to go through gates and a checkpoint.
The Western ("Wailing") Wall
The Wall itself was divided into two sections by temporary barriers, men on the left and women on the right. At the entrance you were given a paper covering to place over your head (Jews are always supposed to wear a little skullcap called a yarmulke when they go to prayer) which was all right except they would keep blowing off in the breeze. A couple of hairpins would have come in handy. The Wall itself is a honey-coloured limestone with lots of cracks and fissures. People write prayers on slips of paper and stick them into the cracks, even quite high up. I was wondering how they managed to do that as I laid my own hands on the wall and felt its warmth. Next to me were some people at prayer, some of them bending rapidly from the waist up-and-down in a way that seems unique to Jews. They even have a name for it, they call it 'devenning'. It was 40 degrees in the shade and we were not in the shade. All around were these people wearing three-piece black woolen suits with black hats clamped over their heads. These were the 'Hassidim' who had come from Eastern Europe three or four generations ago and who had been making no concessions ever since to the change in climate.
Hassidim at the Western Wall
Over on the left was an opening which proved to be a small synagogue. I went in. There were a lot of Hassidim bending over scrolls and there was one young fellow I can still see clearly when I shut my eyes. He was about 23 or 24 in the usual black suit and black hat with long ringlets dangling in front of his ears. He was in front of an open book at a pedestal but he was not reading from it since it was quite obvious he had the whole text memorized. He was reciting prayers at a tremendous speed with no pauses at all and bobbing up and down from the waist like a piston. He was surrounded by a group of about a dozen older men who would growl a few words at intervals, apparently in response to the prayers. The young fellow had two bright splotches of red on his cheeks, whether from excitement or fervour it was hard to tell. I watched him, fascinated. The whole performance reminded me of some youthful musical prodigy playing the pipes in a pub in the West of Ireland and being watched like hawks by older men gathered round and following his every move, growling in approval when he met their high standards. Viewed objectively (and I use the term as in ‘seen as an object’) people who are deeply immersed in an inner world are very hard to distinguish from one another: mystics, drug addicts, saints, fanatics. Some politicians could be added to this list.
Sacred Space and Present Conflict
One of them might be Ariel Sharon. We have met Mr. Sharon briefly already. He was the gentleman who draped an Israeli flag over a building in the Old City. Sharon is responsible for these October riots.
The Temple Mount, as we have seen, is sacred to two religions. Sacred space is a delicate matter. We have seen already how six different Christian sects mount guard over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the modern state of Israel the Christians of whatever persuasion are a minority. The main religious and political conflict exists between the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Muslims. We have also read above of an attempt by a Jewish extremist group to blow up the Dome of the Rock which was foiled by the Israeli government. The present government has now allowed the same thing to happen in symbolic terms. The reaction has been immediate and explosive and large numbers of people have been killed or injured as a result. The government (that of Ehud Barak at the time of my visit) is to blame, whether through foreknowledge or negligence makes no difference.
This man Ariel Sharon, under armed protection, went up to the Temple Mount in the heart of the Arab Old City to say prayers at the site of the Jewish Temple. It was a typical confrontational tactic and its symbolic meaning was not lost on the Palestinians. We will drive you out and rebuild the Temple. You people are living on borrowed time.
I could go on at great length. There is a great deal more to say, and hundreds if not thousands of books and articles have already been written about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. These people share the same space but since the 1930s just cannot seem to get along. Violence, murder, discrimination and plain old-fashioned bullying takes place now on a daily basis. In a way this reminds me of Ireland under the British before we managed finally to get rid of them in the south and reach an accommodation of sorts in the north. Our problems seemed intractable at one time, incapable of solution. Now at least there is hope. I see no similar hope in Israel/ Palestine. The differences go too deep and the distrust is palpable. I sympathize with the Jews because of the Holocaust but it is entirely unreasonable for them to try to sweep the Palestinians aside as if they were a people of no account. The Jewish people have historical roots in the land – this is undeniable -- but they were swept out by the Romans and were never more than a minority among the local population for the next 18 centuries. They cannot realistically expect to wipe the slate clean and start all over again. The more I observe Israeli actions and attitudes the more I begin to suspect that this may be exactly what they have in mind.
Another article on this blog entitled Zionists looks at some of the public pronouncements of the leaders who created modern Israel.
(For readers interested in a possible two-state solution to the conflict, have a look at this 20-minute slide presentation and narration entitled Palestine-Israel 101 produced by a group calling itself the American Task Force on Palestine.)