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Eye of the Storm

Israel’s Model of Political Despair in Jerusalem

by JONATHAN COOK

Relations between Israelis and Palestinians have descended into a dangerous melee of tit-for-tat attacks and killings, with the violence of the past few weeks centred on Jerusalem. The city, claimed by Israel as its “undivided capital”, has been torn apart by clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian residents since the summer, when 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was burnt alive by Jewish extremists.

Subsequent attacks by Palestinians culminated last week in a shooting and stabbing spree by two cousins at a synagogue that killed four Jews and an Israeli policeman. In this atmosphere, both sides have warned that the political conflict is mutating into a religious one.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, cautioned that Israel’s intensified efforts to extend its control over the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, including by imposing severe restrictions on Muslim worship, risked plunging the region into “a detrimental religious war”.

Yoram Cohen, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service, concurred. He warned last week that Israel was stoking religious discord by encouraging Jews to pray at the site over rabbinical objections.

But despite these warnings, the Israeli government announced today it was drafting a law that would ban Muslim guards on the esplanade, making it yet easier for Jews to visit.

Government ministers, meanwhile, accused Abbas of religious “incitement” and masterminding the violence in Jerusalem.

Ari Shavit, an influential Israeli analyst, also blamed what he termed an emerging “holy war” not on oppressive Israeli policies, but on the spread of an Islamist extremism.

Shavit and other Israelis have preferred to overlook the obvious parallels between last week’s killings and an even graver incident 20 years ago. Then, Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler, entered the Ibrahimi mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron in his Israeli army captain’s uniform and opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 29 and wounding 125.

One can only wonder why the timeline for Shavit’s holy war did not extend back to Goldstein’s massacre, or include the waves of attacks, including arson, by settlers on Muslim and Christian places of worship ever since.

Israel’s responses to these two massacres are more helpful in illuminating the fundamental causes of the recent surge in violence.

In Hebron, Palestinians rather than the settlers paid the price for Goldstein’s slaughter. Israel divided the Ibrahimi mosque to create a Jewish prayer space and effectively shut down Hebron’s commercial centre, displacing thousands of Palestinian residents.

Instead of pulling out of the settlers from the occupied territories following the massacre, Israel allowed their numbers to grow at record pace.

Although the anti-Arab Kach group Goldstein belonged to was outlawed, it has continued to operate openly in the settlements, including in Jerusalem. Goldstein’s tomb, next to Hebron, is a site of pilgrimage for thousands of religious Jews.

Palestinians, not...

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