Battle rages again over a holy city

Some two dozen have died in new clashes. Palestinians today mark Muslim conquest of Jerusalem 900 years ago.

Following several months of the most far-reaching peace talks in the history of their conflict, Israelis and Palestinians have again taken up the bullet and the stone.

Since late last week, Israelis and Palestinians have clashed at dozens of sites in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At least 25 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds injured. Two Israeli soldiers also have died.

There is little doubt that this new wave of violence will present higher hurdles for Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers, although in the end it may remind both sides why they need to end their conflict.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak have called on each other to restore calm, but they have also taken actions to foment the violence. For one thing, Mr. Barak allowed Ariel Sharon, a right-wing politician who heads Barak's opposition in parliament, to visit Thursday the part of Jerusalem's Old City that is most sacred to Muslims.

Mr. Sharon, reviled by Palestinians for his role in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, during which a militia allied with Israel slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian refugees, said every Jew has a right to visit what Jews call the Temple Mount and what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary.

He said his visit Thursday was meant to promote "peace," but given the timing, his adamant opposition to the peace process, and his history, his words rang hollow to Israelis and Palestinians.

"It was a blow to Barak and a direct blow to the peace process and to the Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim world," says Hanan Ashrawi, a former Palestinian peace negotiator and an unofficial Palestinian spokeswoman.

Accompanied by an estimated 1,000 Israeli police and security agents, Sharon listened to the archeologist leading his tour as the tension built around him. Muslim and Palestinian sensitivities run high over the Sanctuary, which contains two mosques, and which is considered the third-holiest site in Islam - the place from which Muslims believe the prophet Muhammed ascended.

But the 35-acre compound is also where Jews believe that the First and Second Temples of biblical times once stood. One portion of the compound's perimeter - known as the Western Wall - is Judaism's most sacred space.

Provocative politics

So it could hardly have surprised Sharon that his visit would be considered a provocation, even as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators attempt to finesse a solution to who should control the site after a peace agreement. "We, I think, are quite concerned that the visit by Sharon to this site risked creating tensions, and in fact it did," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Friday.

Sharon's visit prompted rock throwing by Palestinians inside the Old City on Thursday, and again on Friday after Muslim prayer services. In both cases, Israeli security forces responded with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and live ammunition.

Late Friday and throughout the weekend, the violence spread to the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip as well as to many cities and towns in the West Bank. In contrast, Israel itself was unusually quiet as Jews celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.

By mid-weekend, there was cause to believe that Mr. Arafat was not doing enough to stop the violence, despite his protestations to the contrary. Palestinian policemen, who are under Arafat's control, have been engaging in firefights with Israeli soldiers; in one case on Friday, a Palestinian policemen shot dead an Israeli counterpart during a joint patrol.

The Palestinian media have been filled with accounts of the unrest that do little to calm tensions and do much to inflame passions. Already the disturbances have been branded "Intifadah II" - a reference to the campaign of civil unrest in the late 1980s and early 1990s that more than anything else brought Israel to the negotiating table.

Israeli commentators and officials have wondered whether the Palestinian leader is using the violence as a negotiating tool. Their Palestinian counterparts have been wondering why Barak allowed Sharon's visit, although they acknowledge that a refusal would have played into the hands of the right-wing leader.

They accuse the Israelis of "massacres," citing the use of live ammunition. The shooting death of a 12-year-old boy in Gaza - hit by crossfire as he and his father cowered behind a low concrete wall - did little to bolster Israeli statements that their use of force was "appropriate."

Both Arafat and Barak will again be called upon to calm the situation in the days ahead.

Palestinians rally today

Palestinian groups have called for a show of force today, considered the anniversary of the day when the Muslim conqueror Saladin wrested control of Jerusalem from Christian crusaders almost 900 years ago.

Israeli-Arabs - Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who normally do not rush to involve themselves in disputes between Israel and the Palestinians - have announced a general strike in a show of solidarity.

"People see it for what it is," says Dr. Ashrawi of Sharon's visit.

"But it is aggravating a situation of conflict and potential violence," she goes on to say. "The last thing we need is provocative actions like this. Peace does not exist in a vacuum."

Sharon "is posing as the protector of a united Jerusalem and the Temple Mount," says Barry Rubin, deputy director of the Begin-Sadat Institute for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

Yet the most powerful message of Sharon's visit may not have been the one he intended, Mr. Rubin argues, and may serve the cause of a peace deal. "

Palestinians should understand that if they don't take the chance to make peace with Barak, they'll end up with a right-wing government," quite possibly one headed by Sharon.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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