Safe-Passage Solution Upsets Jews, Muslims

RABBI David Dudkevitch doesn't care that the emerging plan for Palestinian autonomy in Jericho offers Jews free access to the ancient synagogue on the outskirts of town where he has set up a yeshiva.

As far as he is concerned, the whole idea of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is an abomination that ``endangers the whole of Israel and denies the essence of the people of Israel,'' he says

Nine miles away, in the rocky hills of the Judean desert, the imam of the Nebi Mussa mosque, Mohammed al-Jamal, is no happier with the promise that, although his shrine will fall outside the borders of autonomous Jericho, Palestinians from the town will be assured safe passage there.

``It's not enough,'' he complains, sitting in the shade of the arched cloisters that surround the mosque's courtyard.

Rabbi Dudkevitch and Imam Jamal may not like it, but the arrangement for mutual access to their holy sites worked out last weekend between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat may have major ramifications.

The safe passage solution could offer a way around Israel's problems in future negotiations to extend autonomy from Jericho to the rest of the West Bank, including towns holy to Jews such as Hebron, where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are said to be buried.

The rabbi and the imam share more than dissatisfaction with the plans for their future being made by their governments: They are equally confused over just what safe passage will mean, and how it might work in practice.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ``doesn't tell anyone in the country what's going on, and he certainly doesn't tell us,'' says Dudkevitch, who established his full-time yeshiva on the site of a 6th century synagogue after Israel and the PLO signed their peace treaty last September.

``We don't know what it will be like in April,'' the date of the Nebi Mussa feast to which tens of thousands of pilgrims once came, echoes Jamal. ``They don't inform us of what is going to happen, nobody tells us.''

Nothing is left of Jericho's synagogue but its mosaic floor, in which a central medallion proclaims ``Peace Unto Israel.'' Dudkevitch and a score of students have installed themselves in the building that shelters the mosaic, draping it with Israeli flags, and guarding it with M-16 rifles, resisting a government eviction order that the Army has so far failed to carry out.

A wall poster explains the Israelis' presence. Jericho was the first city conquered by Joshua, it recalls, and the town proved the gateway to the land of Israel. ``The people of Israel have a commandment to be the owners of this land and the sole authority,'' Dudkevitch argues.

The Nebi Mussa imam attaches the same sort of importance to his mosque, claiming the shrine was built by Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders, and that the Arab hero ordered an annual feast there in order to ``gather Muslims to defend Jerusalem.''

In fact, the great walled complex with its myriad white domes originated in the 13th century as a shrine on the road from Jerusalem where Muslims used to venerate Moses, whose tomb on Mount Nebo was visible on the other side of the Jordan valley.

The feast was first held in the 19th century, when the Ottoman authorities encouraged an annual Muslim pilgrimage to the mosque during Easter week to counterbalance Christian celebrations in Jerusalem.

By 1948 the feast had acquired such political overtones that the Jordanian government banned it, and with autonomy in the air, Jamal expects a similar attitude from the Israelis this April.

``The military governor will probably close the area,'' he says gloomily.

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