Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Jerusalem: nonviolent protests part 1

   The first part of this two-post sequence is on joint Palestinian and Jewish protests against the especially dangerous Isreali government settlements in Jerusalem, that government’s attempt to blow up any two state solution there,  and the likelihood of a third intifada (h/t Ilene Cohen); the companion, Protests and Explanations will be on a letter from Bruce Fetter, an historian of Africa at the University of Wisconsin with whom I have been in correspondence, about how to oppose unjust wars and occupations.  He notes that there are often morally straightforward and minimal conditions for protest and questions larger “leftist” explanations.  His letter raises the issue of how against the grain political insights can also often lead to wider questioning and explanation.

          In  occupied Jerusalem, Israel has suddenly created a  crisis with its dispossession of the Palestinians at or near holy sites, and building over their homes as if they had not existed – again this is, illegal internationally, psychologically hideous (feel into what it means to possess or build over the homes of others your government has despised, expelled and murdered)  and whose occupation of the territories is  morally repudiated by the world, including even the U.S. (Israel gets  $3 billion in US military support yearly and the US often explicitly sides with Israel – for instance, in foolishly rejected the Goldstone report.  But in this case, the US is perhaps considering abstaining from a UN Security Council condemnation of Israel - a brief item on Andrew Sullivan, two days ago).

      As a result of the occupation, Israeli products made in the territories cannot now be sold in Europe under the agreements Israel has reached but instead at a specially high tariff rate – Sbamir Salads  has just been caught using a fake Tel Aviv address and phone number in an attempt to avoid this, according Akiva Eldar, March 26th).  Israeli dishonor is in small and large things.  See here,

         The Jerusalem settlements are dramatically at the expense of any possible  two state solution. Jerusalem has holy sites for Islam and Judaism; East Jerusalem must be the capital of Palestine with such sites preserved.  But with the support of the government, the settlers are moving to destroy the Al-aksa mosque (see the second story below).  Elite Israeli politics are divided between fascists like the Foreign Minister Lieberman and belligerent opportunists like Netanyahu, who tolerate or egg on the threats to Islamic sites.

      Obama initially launched  and then abandoned a promising effort to halt the settlements and to encourage a decent, negotiated solution.   Israel  pretends – for diplomatic show -  that it isn’t steadily encroaching on Jerusalem.   Hence, the gratuitous insult to Vice President Biden, a longtime AIPAC supporter  who had come to affirm US slavish support for Israel  – just in time to have new dispossession of Palestinian owners and building in Jerusalem announced “as a surprise” to Netanyahu.  But Netanyahu’s choutzpah unintentionally did all the world and especially Israei citizens a favor; a crazed dog sank its teeth into a sleepy master’s hand.  In Netanyahu’s visit to Washington this past week, hostility was marked.  There was no ordinary, joint Obama-Natanyahu press conference or “photo op.”

      The US has also suddenly become clear – thanks to the Pentagon and General Petraeus – that its previously zealous support for Israel compromises its occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and endangers American soldiers.  The awful activities of Israel toward the Palestinians create widespread sentiment – and not just among Muslims – against America, and provide, as an outlier, the slogans and a source of recruitment  even for Al Qaida.  Al Qaida cannot be isolated and destroyed, as Petraeus suggested,  as long as there is no two state solution. 

         There is thus a conflict between the US “national” interest even as an imperial power in the Middle East and the supposed elite “national” interest of Israel.  But as I suggested in “A sea-change” here, most Americans have no interest in wars or occupations accompanied by bipartisan government/AIG/Goldman Sachs thievery and depression (17.2% real unemployment – nearly 1 in 5 American workers cannot find a full time job; gnawing anxiety about the future for most of the now failing middle class; foreclosures) for citizens.  The idea that Petraeus or the political elite speaks for a common good among Americans is false.  What he does speak for is a step toward decency and avoiding a further Middle East conflagration over years that the US would lose more disastrously even than it has so far.  Similarly, ordinary Israelis would benefit from a decent settlement with the Palestinians – that is a common good, and not the attempt to be the scary war state, the bellowing bully on the block, which costs Israelis in every way (dying in unnecessary wars, preparing always for war, being abjectly dependent on the American empire, permitting the ferocious exploitation of the Palestinians and shamefully blaming the victim, going on about lives in Israel while putting on  a “good face” that the ground is not on fire under them.  It used to be said that only she whose hair is on fire will need to plunge into the cooling waters of Buddhism.  Analagously, ordinary Israelis need peace and genuine physical security as if their hair is ablaze.

           The first story below contains a heartening note, the role of ordinary Israeli citizens in standing up against government depravity. David Grossman, the novelist, Avraham Berg a former Knesset speaker  and many others stand out for peace.  The article bizarrely refers to them as “leftists” rather than say defenders of law (international law) and decency, of the prophets, and what is good in Israel.  They stand for the salvation of Israel as a decent place rather than as a genocidal oppressor of indigenous people.  The same is true of 68 high school students who announced this winter that they would not serve in an occupying army (their intention was to resist at the likely cost of prison).  The protesters warned Netanyahu about his bureaucratese – that is, lying – and underlined that he got dealt with pointedly in Washington (much truth has been said about the currently buffoonish Bibi in Israel this week). 

       Burg rightly stresses that Netanyahu and Lieberman are currently determined to eliminate the possibility of a two state peace by dispossessing Palestinians and seizing Jerusalem.  There is the Al-Aksa mosque in the holy city, one that Israel has been cautious about, to some extent (see the second story below, a sad historical account).   The Israeli government may thus provoke further “religious war” in the Middle East (and quite likely over time  take down most of human life on the planet with them). It is almost the anniversary of  Martin King’s speech on Vietnam - see here and here - in which he stated the likely alternatives: nonviolence or annihilation.  The continuing 2010 assault on Jerusalem deeply illustrates King’s point.

         Second, Sharon’s militarist "visit" to the Al-Aqsa mosque triggered the second intifada.  Ordinary Palestinians will rise up against such provocations, let alone any attempt to destroy the Mosque itself.  Perhaps these benighted  settlers want to imitate the Taliban collapsing the great stone statues of Buddha.  They do not realize that all their decrying of “gentiles,” the rabid calling for murder of gentile babies supposedly based in the Torah, their invoking, of Joshua and the “battle” – genocidal massacre – of Jericho, does not cover their naked evil before the world. 

      Settlers fantasize that there are Jewish holy sites under the great Mosque,   Israel has already “allowed” the building of a “theme park” – call this Disney Torah-land - over displaced Palestianians which blocks one entrance to the Haram Ash-Sharif and the mosque.  Consider counterfactually if occupying Arabs were to destroy the Temple Mount, how Jews might react.  Or recall my post “Imagine” here in which a hypothetical late 21st century Saudi-China would occupy Vatican City, and tear down the Vatican around the Pope (despite the latter’s odious crimes of concealing child-rape and becoming an accomplice in it, it is hard to see most Europeans and Americans putting up with it). With the Israeli government winking and egging them on, there could be no more incendiary provocation than the settlers intend.

       Fortunately, the world is slowly focusing on the Israeli occupation, the treatment of indigenous people as subhuman, to be moved out or killed.  There are often shootings by the Israeli army of Palestinian teenagers who protest, an ordinary exercise of freedom.  These deaths are caused by the fact that Gazans are held in a “large open air concentration camp,” as my friend Tom Farer speaks of it, and forbidden to leave.  The Israeli government is lawless in the territories (a bloody tyrant); it has isolated itself in the world (see here and here) and screams at others that they do not understand, that even Jews who call it to account are supposedly “anti-semitic.”  

        Given the international recognition that the Iraeli occupation must end, it is likely that the Palestinians will pursue a nonviolent intifada against it, even against an attack on the mosque (though this is less likely).  Like the first intifada or better, they will turn away from murderous and counterproductive suicide bombers – there has been a long silence of such bombings in Israel now despite the slaughters in Gaza, the steady murder of  demonstrators -  or Hamas missiles (few and mostly errant).  Nowhere more clearly than in these ineffectual acts of violence has its role as seemingly justifying the oppression (by murdering Israeli innocents) and bringing down the greater violence of oppressors been more on display.  Sucide-bombing, killing women and children rather than even those responsible for Israeli policies, strengthens reaction, does a favor to otherwise buffoonish (though genocidal) oppressors.

     But the resisters do not yet understand the benefits of civil disobedience; a self-conscious campaign would likely be supported or participated in by many Israelis like Grossmann and international activists like the nonviolent International Solidarity Movement (think of Rachel Corrie or Thomas Hurndall).  Especially in the new international climate – with America unwilling to go along in the old, now glaringly irrational way, organized nonviolence modeled on Gandhi  or King, would enormously strengthen the cause of justice in the Middle East.

        On the word irrational: America enormously benefits from the role of Israel in the Middle East, from divide and rule, and has largely controlled the oil or the flow of oil  for fifty years as Chomsky has emphasized.  But the policy became fantastic hubris under Bush – to reshape the Middle East at gun point, the circumstances – two lengthy, losing and aimless occupations and international economic collapse - are now changed.  But rather than further Israeli encroachments/destruction of the holy sites of Islam as a provocation, it would be far better to have a nonviolent Palestinian (and Jewish and international) campaign of nonviolence for a decent solution as the new intifada.  Such a resistance would attract allies both in Israel and internationally. 

         There is already great anger and protest from below among Palestinians (all of it a matter of justice).   But the price exacted by Israeli government occupation is daily a  demoralizing one.  Perhaps only so great a provocation as an attack on the holy sites will generate a new intifada.  We are thus left to hope that Palestinians, who have shown great courage in the face of relentless injustice, can mount serious civil disobedience in the face of this.  If Obama stands up sufficiently, such a crisis might also be avoided; similarly, protestors from below in Israel can join with the Palestinians to end the occupation.  But the latter two components are both less central and  less likely.  As in South Africa, the Desmond Tutus come from below, among the oppressed. 

         But as Tutu emphasizes in No Future without Forgiveness, Truth and Reconciliation only happened after the electoral victory, not in the worst periods of apartheid.  We will have to all work so that a combination of pressures awaken decency in the Israeli elite before they do something – which they give every sign of yearning to do – which will produce long years of further conflagration.

       Still, King and Gandhi came forth during the oppression, not as part of the transition (and both were murdered before the transition).  King had some favorable circumstances (the vacillating but decent about civil rights federal judiciary and occasionally the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations).  Like any revolutionary protest movement, nonviolence needs some split in the ruling class, some revolutionary situation due to War, to make its appearance.  The US elite seeing Israel clearly as an ally when within its 1967 borders but a threat to its aims in the Middle East otherwise is a big shift, one with potentially very positive effects in opening the door to a civil disobedience campaign.

     Such a civil disobedience movement would even more forcefully give the lie to the Israeli government’s charge that it has “no partner to negotiate with.” The charge by the way is projection.  The Israeli elite has had no interest in negotiating, is no partner for peace, has done much, since 1967, to sabotage peace (that government initially created Hamas to undermine the PLO; it does everything in its power to disempower Palestinians not unlike European rulers pre- and during-World War II toward Jews).  Its coercive displacement of Palestinians and building in Jerusalem in the face of Obama’s counterpressure illustrates this point.  Israel is strong militarily, has a large store of nuclear weapons, and a more powerful ally.  It could work for peace.   Such a policy would be that of a hero, a statesman, somebody who really was strong, not a coward, a bully, a blowhard afraid to look in the mirror of his own words, up to this moment, a Netanyahu…

         Third, psychologically, ethnic cleansing and celebrations of genocide live on in history like a dark cloud, nurturing among the “victors” further wars and villainies until they destroy themselves. In Israel, many of the original Jewish settlers fled from genocidal Europe.  Celia Gilbert has written a poem June 20, 1944 (see here) on the Germans taking clothing and gold from the teeth of those they had forced into the last stages of misery and murdered.  Such things were sent back into Germany, planted in German mouths…There is a particular madness in the culture of Germany which will take ages to heal (see my poem Carmelites here). 

      This is even more true of US genocide toward Native Americans (not to mention slaves). 50 years later, the Germans have at least begun to take in the holocaust and memorialize the victims. In Denver we have Evans Boulevard, in Colorado, Mt. Evans, distinguished research professorships at the University of Denver and Northwestern are called Evans professorships, there is even an Evans Chapel at the University of Denver.  But John Evans was the Governor who sent out Chivington – whose statue is still in front of the state house – to do the Sand Creek massacre.  He commanded the slaughter of women and children...

      If one wants to understand American acquiescence in unjust wars (not that there isn’t lots of protest, fortunately) or that even Obama, the anti-Iraq war candidate, makes or escalates so many wars, here is a reason.  There is a deep psychic cost – not to say hideousness -  in living in the clothes and former homes  of the murdered and displaced, of celebrating those who committed atrocities.

       Nearly all states have this issue.  But Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine names this issue glaringly for Israelis. Yet Israel can today choose to stop a further ethnic cleansing in the occupied territories, and make peace with the Palestinians.  They can probably grab 80% of the old territory of Palestine (expanded from 50% that the original UN agreement gave them).  Claiming bizarrely  that they are endangered, Netanyahu, Lieberman and the settlers, one might say, outdo themselves in greed and foolishness.  Obviously it would be good to hold them to 50% or if one thinks about what Israel has done, a decent democratic equal rights-based single state solution looks increasing desirable. But if one wants to see paranoid madness (that one dare not talk about a future), look at mainstream Israeli politics.  How many displaced or "accursed" peoples (my anarchist grandfather JJ's word - "scion of an accursed race" in the first sentence of his autobiography The House Stood Forlorn)  ever receive a state, let alone could illegally and immorally expand it by another 60% of their original territory and still can appear to be making a decent deal (a little like forcing medical "insurance" companies to cover "preexisting conditions" and thus somehow appear decent).  Yet the Israeli elite (and many ordinary Israelis) have no peace, live murderously under a dark cloud of paranoia, guilt and greed…

       Jews suffered both from the crimes against them of the ages – pogroms and the Nazis, for example – and to be allowed to settle in Israel (it was the only place Europe and America would allow Jews as a national home), the committing of crimes (as if the Palestinians are today the Jews of the occupied territories).  The notion of securing one’s life by fighting against all the dangerous others (even Palestinians who did Jews no  harm) is strong and irrational in Israeli politics.  They name the dangers in others when they themselves have been the dangerous ones (once again, 300 children murdered in Gaza last January to 1 7 year old Israeli boy murdered by Hamas).

       Of others, Jews might rightly say: Germans and Americans, heal yourselves.  But that will not solve the Israeli's problem.  When I read that David Grossmann and Avraham Burg and other Israelis of conscience stand with the Palestinians in Jerusalem against this government madness, that high school students refuse to serve the army of occupation, it brings tears to my eyes for all of us, and the hope that their courage and decency – joined by that of all the rest of us - can finally do something to join with the Palestinians.  To heal the Jews and the world, we must stand up for decency toward Palestinians.

March 26, 2010

300 protesters gather in Sheikh Jarrah

Weekly leftist protest in east Jerusalem neighborhood spills over to Shepherd Hotel, where construction permit was granted this week. MK Dov Khenin: 'Netanyahu can lie to the world, but cannot do this with us'

Ronen Medzini

Published: 03.26.10, 17:14 / Israel News Ynet

Leftists and residents of the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah held their weekly protest against the entrance of Jewish residents to homes in the Simon the Just compound in the Arab neighborhood on Friday, but this week, they also protested against the construction permit granted to the Shepherd Hotel in the east of the city which has added fuel to the crisis between Israel and the United States.

Some 300 people gathered to protest, including MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, and author David Grossman, planned to march from the compound, where they protest every week, to the hotel, under the slogan: "There is nothing holy in an occupied city." A group of some 50 demonstrators had already gathered at the hotel.

East Jerusalem

Haredim riot in Sheikh Jarrah / Shmulik Grossman

Shortly after rally against Jewish presence in east Jerusalem neighborhood concludes, dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jews arrive at the scene, stone passing cars. Leftist: We'll fight for Palestinians' right to return to their homes

"The struggle here, in a certain sense, is not just for the Palestinians' rights, but for the future of us all in this land," Khenin told Ynet. "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sells his bluffs in a different way every time. When it was about Ramat Shlomo, he said this was 'just an approval in principle, not a construction permit,' now of Shepherd Hotel he says, 'The principle approval was granted earlier, the permit is of no significance'. He may be able to lie to the world, but he cannot do this with us."

According to Khenin, this week's protest is of special significance: "It is not just against the expulsion of Palestinian families from the neighborhood, but is also against steps to build a settlement that started at the lower part of the neighborhood, and this week expanded to the Shepherd Hotel in the upper part.

"This is not a technical authorization or a clerical decision. This is a government move to create an Israeli settlement in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood in east Jerusalem. This is a dangerous move, that works against the possibility of two capitals in Jerusalem – and without this principle we cannot reach a peace agreement." 

Burg also commented on this past week's incidents in the neighborhood: "This protest has a different meaning, in the sense of: 'We told you so'. Netanyahu, we told you that the moment of truth can be found in Jerusalem in general and in Sheikh Jarrah in particular. You didn't want to listen to us? So this is what they told you in Washington with disgrace."

According to Burg, the prime minister is now standing at a political crossroads: "The demonstrators here are begging from someone to plant some sense into the prime minister's head and some courage in his heart, so that he may have the strength to make the only decision that is currently possible. If he does not decide, he will drag Israel and the entire Middle East into an endless religious war. If he makes the right decision, which includes dividing Jerusalem and a retreat from all the mad settlements of the past 40 years, he will enter the national pantheon alongside Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin."

Shmulik Grossman contributed to this report

Israel plans expansion to Western Wall plaza

Published Thursday 25/03/2010 (updated) 27/03/2010 13:41

Jewish worshopers pay that the Western Wall in the Old City of occupied East

Jerusalem on 7 December 2006. [MaanImages/Magnus Johansson]

By Jonathan Cook

Jerusalem - The Israeli government has indicated that it will press ahead with a plan to enlarge the Jewish prayer plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, despite warnings that the move risks triggering a third intifada.

Israeli officials rejected a Jerusalem court's proposal to shelve the plan earlier in the week after the judge accepted that the plaza's expansion would violate the "status quo" arrangement covering the Old City's holy places. Islamic authorities agreed to the arrangement after Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967.

The proposed area for an expanded compound is in the area of the Mughrabi Gate, and one of the entrances to the Haram Ash-Sharif, or noble sanctuary, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Waves of Israeli encroachments on the site starting in August at the start of Ramadan and surging in February and March led to protests and violence targeting Palestinians. A heavily armed visit to the compound by Ariel Sharon in 2000, shortly before he became prime minister, to declare Israeli rights there sparked the Second Intifada.

In recent weeks, analysts have grown increasingly concerned that a third intifada is imminent as Benjamin Netanyahu's government advanced settlement building projects in East Jerusalem and declared several places deep in the occupied West Bank Israeli heritage sites.

Another assault on Muslim control so close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque would risk "pouring fuel on the fire" said Hanna Sweid, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament who filed the original planning objections to the Israeli scheme.

According to evidence presented to the Jerusalem court, Israeli officials used minor storm damage to a stone ramp leading to the Mughrabi Gate as a pretext to tear it down six years ago. The intention was to replace the ramp with a permanent metal bridge and then extend the Jewish prayer plaza into the area where the ramp was positioned.

The scheme is the brainchild of Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi in charge of the Western Wall, who declared the damage to the ramp in 2004 a "miracle" that offered Israel the chance to take control of more land from Islamic authorities in the Old City.

The rabbi's plan was approved in late 2007 by a special ministerial committee headed by Ehud Olmert, then the prime minister. The project also won the backing of Netanyahu although he froze construction work in July under orders from the Jerusalem court.

In January, Israeli justice Moussia Arad proposed that the ramp be reinstated, or at the very least that the bridge follow the exact route of the ramp, and that all prayer at the site be banned. That position won the backing of United Nations officials monitoring Israel's work at the Mughrabi Gate.

Since the work on the gate began, Jordanian, Turkish, and Palestinian Islamic authorities have all expressed deep concern as the work was increasingly seen as a prelude to further expansion.

Observers had hoped that, faced with the danger of another row with the United States so soon after the diplomatic crisis sparked by Israeli settlement building in East Jerusalem, Netanyahu might agree to the court's compromise.

They have been proved wrong.

"Netanyahu has a history of trampling on Palestinian rights in the Old City," Sweid said. "There is every reason to be worried about what he plans to get up to this time."

In 1996, during his previous stint as prime minister, Netanyahu opened the Western Wall tunnel, another excavation site close to the mosque compound, resulting in clashes that killed 75 Palestinians and 15 Israeli soldiers.

Israel says the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock sit on the ruins of two ancient Jewish temples, built by Solomon and Herod. People of the Jewish faith thus refer to the site as Temple Mount and in recent negotiations, some even attempted to stake out a degree of Jewish sovereignty of the area.

Last week, in a sign of the explosive consequences of tampering with the status quo concerning Jerusalem's holy places, clashes broke out in a "day of rage" in East Jerusalem following Israel's announcement that it had rebuilt an old synagogue, the Hurva, close to the mosques.

"The Haram Ash-Sharif is a site of unrivaled Muslim sensitivity and the Israeli government is playing with fire here," said Mohammed Masalha, a lecturer who heads a coalition of Islamic groups inside Israel that brought the court case.

In evidence presented to the court, Meir Ben Dov, an Israeli archaeologist and the excavations director at the Western Wall for nearly four decades, produced photographic evidence showing that the storm had caused only a minor landslide.

"I was asked by the government to inspect the damage two days after it occurred and I found maybe a dozen stones had been dislodged," he said. "The ramp could have been repaired in less than a week but instead they decided to demolish it."

Judge Arad, Ben Dov said, had been "shocked" when she saw the photographs.

Ben Dov said his recommendation that the walkway be repaired for 14,000 US dollars was ignored by Israeli officials, including the then-tourism minister, Benny Elon, a settler rabbi who heads a far-right party. Instead, the government tore down the ramp and built a temporary wooden bridge to the Mughrabi Gate while excavations were carried out in the area exposed by the ramp's destruction.

The Jerusalem comptroller, Shulamit Rubin, the city's watchdog official, criticized the excavations at the time, saying they were illegal because the necessary authorizations had not been sought.

The secretive nature of the excavations was widely assumed by Islamic groups to be evidence of an Israeli intention to search for parts of the destroyed temples. With such evidence, Israel would have a stronger claim to extend its control.

The unscientific approach to the excavations was highlighted in early 2007 when it emerged that three years earlier, Israeli archaeologists had unearthed a Muslim prayer room from the time of the Saladin, dating to the 11th century, but had kept the discovery quiet.

In February 2007, when Israel brought heavy machinery to the Mughrabi Gate excavations, hundreds of Palestinians clashed with police while the Islamic Movement within Israel staged large demonstrations. Islamic Jihad said it had fired two Qassam rockets from Gaza in response, and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade threatened to carry out attacks if the work was not halted.

Islamic authorities also expressed fears that the compound of mosques might be damaged by the bulldozers, and that the heavy machinery might also destroy the as-yet-undiscovered Al-Buraq mosque, believed to be located close to the Mughrabi Gate and marking the site where the Prophet Mohammed tethered his horse on his Night Journey between Mecca and Jerusalem. 

To calm the situation, Israel allowed Turkish experts to examine the excavations a short time later. They reported that Israel was trying to sideline Jerusalem's Islamic history so that its Jewish aspects could be emphasized.

Israel had another reason for pushing ahead with the illegal excavations, said Kais Nasser, the lawyer representing the Islamic groups. "They needed to unearth something, anything, that could be claimed as an antiquity to nullify Muslim demands for the ramp to be reinstated. Rebuilding the ramp would then be impossible because it would risk damaging an archaeological site."

Nasser said Israel hopes that if it can present the bridge as the only feasible option, then there will be no obstacles to expanding the prayer plaza.

Ben Dov said he shared such suspicions about Israel's activities at the site, adding that the goal of Israeli officials seemed to be to gain control over the whole 480-meter length of the Western Wall.

He and other observers have said it was just another example of a long-standing policy to gradually encroach on Muslim control of the mosque compound.

Among the most significant was the creation of the City of David, an Israeli archaeological park, directly south of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. Run by the extremist settler group Elad, the site has taken over neighboring Palestinian homes and, along with the Jerusalem municipality and government officials, has pushed for dozens more homes to be demolished. The group eventually wants to link up the park with the Temple Mount.

Jewish settlers have also been concentrating their efforts on taking over Palestinian homes in the Muslim quarter, close to the Haram Ash-Sharif, and have been supported by right-wing politicians, including in the past by Netanyahu.

One settler organization, Ateret Cohanim, has been especially active, and is known to be excavating under Palestinian homes around the compound in the hope of discovering traces of the temples.

"What we see here is an unholy alliance of government ministers, Jerusalem municipality officials, and settler organizations trying to revive a supposed golden era of Jewish sovereignty from thousands of years ago," Sweid said.

In addition, he added, Israel believes that a more significant Israeli presence close to the mosques would strengthen its hand in any final peace talks over the division of Jerusalem with the Palestinians, with Israel able to stake a bigger claim to sovereignty over the site.

At the Camp David talks in 2000, then US President Bill Clinton proposed dividing sovereignty so that Israel would have control over both the "subterranean spaces" of the mosque compound and the Western Wall. During the talks, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak alarmed observers by calling the whole compound the Jewish "holy of holies," a term previously used in referring only to the inner sanctum of the destroyed temples.

There are additional fears among Palestinians, and the wider Muslim world, of darker plots being hatched by even more extreme groups.

Although Jewish religious purity laws have traditionally forbidden Jews from entering the Temple Mount, a growing number of rabbis are demanding that Jews be allowed to pray in the compound. Even more fanatical groups are known to favor blowing up the mosques and building a third temple in their place.

The recent rebuilding of the Hurva synagogue has added to such concerns. The Israeli media reported that, according to a 300-year-old rabbinical prophecy, the synagogue's rebuilding would herald the construction of the third temple.

A sordid affair: The Mughrabi quarter's ethnic cleansing

Israel's ethnic cleansing of the Mughrabi, or Moroccan, quarter of Jerusalem's Old City after its capture in 1967 was one of the more sordid episodes of the 1967 war.

Until it was destroyed by Israel in 2004, the stone ramp that led to the Mughrabi Gate -- one of the main entrances to the elevated compound of mosques known as the Haram Ash-Sharif -- was the only visible reminder that the quarter, once home to 1,000 Palestinians, had ever existed.

At the end of the Six-Day war in June 1967, as Israeli troops poured into the Old City, the Israeli government was presented with an opportunity not only to restore a Jewish presence to the walled city but to create a newly expanded Jewish quarter that would have the Western Wall at its center.

Before 1948, prayer at the wall had been possible only at several points along a narrow alley at the margins of the densely populated Moroccan quarter, an area bequeathed in the 12th century to Saladin's followers by his son Malik Al-Afdal.

But in the immediate wake of the "miraculous" victory in 1967, the Israeli government saw the chance to create a wide prayer plaza in front of the wall, making it the symbolic heart of an expanded Jewish state that could unite religious and secular Jews.

All that stood in their way were the quarter's 135 homes.

On the night of 10 June, Uzi Narkiss, head of the army's central command, authorized 15 private demolition crews to raze the quarter under cover of dark. He, like the politicians, knew that neither the international community nor the Israeli courts would consent to such a brazen violation of international law.

When Teddy Kollek, the mayor of West Jerusalem, consulted the justice minister, he had been told: "I don't know what the legal status is. Do it quickly and may the God of Israel be with you."

Uzi Benziman, an Israeli journalist, described the "near-mystic" compulsion that drove those behind the act of ethnic cleansing: "The officers and the contractors considered themselves emissaries, come to renew Jewish statehood as it had been 1,897 years earlier."

An officer went from house to house ordering the residents to evacuate. According to observers, those who refused finally fled when the walls of their homes came down. One old woman, found amid the rubble, died a short time later.

As the ruins were cleared and the ground leveled to create an expansive plaza in front of the Western Wall, the contractors were told to use the rubble from the homes to build a ramp up to the Mughrabi Gate. The gate is the only entrance to the compound for which Israel has kept the key. The ramp was designated the only access point for all non-Muslim visitors, including the Israeli police, to the Haram Ash-Sharif.

The Western Wall and the plaza, on land that had previously fallen under the control of the Islamic authorities, was placed under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry. A few days later, on the Jewish holy day of Shavuot, an estimated 200,000 Israeli Jews -- one in 10 of the population -- came to visit the wall.

Although Israel effectively annexed East Jerusalem, its leaders were still troubled by the possible international repercussions of being seen to seize control of the Old City's holy places, especially the compound of mosques. Under a so-called "status quo" agreement, Muslim officials were supposed to continue controlling the mosque compound, with Israeli oversight.

But that did not stop the rapid emergence of a movement in Israel seeking control of the compound too. Many Jews believe the ruins of the temples of Solomon and Herod can be found under the mosques.

From the early 1970s, extremist rabbis -- led by the Shlomo Goren, then the chief rabbi of Israel -- began lobbying for Jews to be allowed into the compound to pray, despite traditional rabbinical rulings against such a practice.

Jewish groups soon sprang up demanding more: that the mosques be blown up to make way for a third temple that would bring nearer the arrival of the Messiah.

Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, little of the status quo agreement remains. Israeli movement restrictions affecting both Gaza and the West Bank mean that today only a tiny number of Palestinians can reach the mosques. Palestinian institutions are also barred from operating inside Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, settlers and Israeli officials have encroached on more and more land around the mosque compound. At the Camp David talks with the Palestinians in 2000, Israel proposed for the first time that Jews be allowed to pray in the compound and that Israel have a degree of sovereignty over the site.

In recent years Israeli Jews have started to be escorted by Israeli police inside the compound through the Mughrabi Gate, although praying so far has not been sanctioned.

The author is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi. It is republished here with permission from the author.



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