he Palestinian-Israeli crisis is taking a dangerous turn towards a religious war with the holy city of Jerusalem being in the centre of the dispute. In recent weeks, several attacks and counter attacks by both the Palestinians and Israelis have increased tension as Palestinians fear that Israel is trying to destroy or divide the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest place of worship.
A week after a Palestinian protester was hanged inside a bus, two armed Palestinians on Tuesday raided a synagogue in West Jerusalem and killed four rabbis and a Druze policeman. The attack is reminiscent of the 1994 Hebron mosque massacre, when a Zionist hardliner angered by the 1993 Oslo peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation shot and killed more than 30 worshippers.
Tuesday’s attack also reminds us of a massacre that took place 66 years ago.
In April 1948, a month before Israel was set up, there existed a Palestinian village called Dier Yassin, where today several Jewish settlements and the synagogue that came under attack this week stand. More than 100 Palestinian civilians were taken out of their homes and killed by Zionist terrorists just before the dawn on April 9, 1948.
A piece of similar gory history is etched in every inch of Jerusalem, the city of peace, which the Muslims call al-Quds – the sacred land.
The recent escalation in violence in Jerusalem, to which Jesus made a triumphal entry on Palm Sunday two millennia ago and where he had his Last Supper before Judas betrayed him for 30 silver coins, has drawn calls for restraint from world leaders. Pope Francis voiced dismay at the “alarming increase in tension in Jerusalem” and appealed to both sides to take the “courageous decisions” needed to achieve peace. Jordan, which is the custodian of the two mosques on the Temple Mount -- the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock mosque -- also called for restraint.
The escalation of violence was sparked by Israel’s decision last month to deny the Muslims entry to visit the al-Aqsa mosque. Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas described the move as a declaration of war and called on the Palestinians to defend the religious site. He accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of violating the sanctity of the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest place after Makkah and Madinah, by allowing provocative visits by hardline Jewish politicians.
The Palestinians believe that the move to shut down the al-Aqsa mosque is linked to Israeli plans to destroy the mosques, and build what the Jews call the ‘Third Temple’. They claim that the ongoing excavation work beneath the mosque is aimed at weakening the foundation and causing its collapse. Next month, Israel’s parliament is set to vote for a motion to divide the al-Aqsa mosque into two parts – one for the Jews and the other for Muslims. The man who is spearheading the moves to destroy or divide the al-Aqsa mosque was shot and wounded last month by an angry Palestinian.
In 2000, when the then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the Al-Aqsa mosque and declared Israel’s sovereignty over it, the Palestinians rose in anger and this gave rise to a five-year Intifada during which thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis were killed.
The current tense situation in Jerusalem points to another Intifada.
The status of Jerusalem has been a contentious issue in the Middle East peace process.
The 1947 UN partition plan – which led to the ethnic cleansing of millions of Palestinians from their homes and more than three major wars in the region – called for international supervision over Jerusalem. The plan was adopted by the General Assembly with a two-thirds majority. But Israel did not agree to its implementation.
Over the years, the view that Jerusalem should be the capital of both Israel and Palestine gained international recognition. However, Israel in 1980 declared the whole of Jerusalem as its capital through a constitutional amendment. No country, not even the United States, Israel’s staunchest ally, has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Palestinians in a compromise that underscores their willingness to resolve the crisis through peaceful means have agreed to a plan according to which West Jerusalem will be Israel’s capital while East Jerusalem will be the capital of the future Palestinian state.
But Netanyahu has insisted that “Jerusalem belongs to the Jewish people and will remain under Israeli sovereignty for eternity.”
Such provocative statements together with Israel’s rush to build scores of settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, and the moves to divide the al-Aqsa mosque are pushing the Palestinians to fight the final battle of their life.
Palestinians say the issue today is al-Aqsa. “Al-Aqsa is our faith. It is our essence. People are willing to give up everything for it,” a Palestinian youth told the Guardian newspaper. The Temple Mount was holy to both the Jews and the Muslims. The Jews pray at the Wailing Wall, while the Muslims pray at the two mosques on the Temple Mount.
The Temple was built by King Solomon, son of King David. The Muslims regard both David and Solomon as messengers of God. In the early days of Islam, Muslims had been facing Jerusalem when offering prayers until revelation came to Muhammad that they should turn towards the Makkah mosque built by Abraham, the father of both the Jews and the Arabs.
Also in the early days of Muhammad’s mission, according to Quran, one particular night he was taken by Angel Gabriel from the mosque in Makkah to the al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem from where he experienced a spiritual journey that culminated in a communion with God. Such is the significance Muslims accord to Jerusalem which came under Muslim rule during the caliphate of Umar, a decade or so after Prophet Muhammad’s demise and after centuries of Byzantine rule. Umar, known for his frugality, just rule and respect for Christianity and Judaism, built the Dome of the Rock mosque on the mountain top.
When the Turks or the Ottomans were defeated in World War I, Palestine came under British Mandate in terms of a decision by the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations. In 1917, Britain made the controversial Balfour Declaration allowing the European Zionists to set up a Jewish state in parts Palestine. But the Zionists want the whole of Palestine and more. Successive Zionist regimes have followed a policy of building Jewish settlements in Palestinian lands occupied after three major wars.
These settlements are now expanding to East Jerusalem. The United States only makes perfunctory protests which Israel takes as approval. The US has no political will or courage to go before the United Nations Security Council and stop Israel’s settlement building activities in occupied Palestine. If others try to bring a resolution, the US uses its veto power, frustrating moves aimed at finding a solution to the Palestinian problem within the UN system.
The US should understand that the present crisis is serious and do more than sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Jerusalem. It should also understand that if it does not interfere now and find peace, history will hold the US responsible for not preventing a religious war in Palestine.