The Deadlocked City


Ariel Sharon knew what he was doing on September 28, 2000. In hot pursuit of the Israeli premiership, he marched onto Jerusalem’s most contentious piece of real estate, the magnificent plateau, paved with pink and gray polished stone, which Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary). Other than during the Friday prayers, the site often seems nearly empty. On this particular day, Sharon arrived guarded by almost a thousand armed policemen and soldiers.

He later claimed that his sole purpose had been to test “the freedom of access and of worship” on the Mount. His real motive was to win over the support of the extreme right and thus foil Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to political power. He would attain his aim, though, only with some support from Yasser Arafat. At this time, Arafat also needed to improve his image as a hard-liner. Palestinians had been increasingly dissatisfied with him. They were demoralized by the abstractions of a “peace process” that never brought them any benefits but only increased their daily sufferings and humiliations. Israel, under Ehud Barak, continued to plant more settlers in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem than it had under Benjamin Netanyahu. It was as though during the recent peace talks in Northern Ireland the British government had continued to ship more Protestants from Scotland to Northern Ireland and settled them on land expropriated from Catholics in Londonderry. To protest Sharon’s provocation and improve his own declining image, Arafat either launched a bloody Palestinian uprising or did nothing to prevent it: the worst outburst of violence by Palestinians in a hundred-year conflict that is now more intractable than ever before.

Ehud Barak, the then prime minister, also thought he knew what he was doing in permitting Sharon’s expedition to this most sensitive Muslim shrine. Only a few days earlier, Arafat had been Barak’s guest at a small dinner at Barak’s private house. (In retrospect the setting seems hard to believe.) On this occasion, Arafat made a last-minute appeal to Barak to block Sharon’s visit, just as similar political demonstrations on the Mount had been prohibited before. Barak turned him down. He, too, was badly slipping in the polls. His coalition had broken apart. He wanted Sharon to replace Netanyahu as the Likud candidate. Polls indicated that he had an outside chance to beat Sharon but not Netanyahu.

Barak is a highly intelligent but politically maladroit former general whose hobby is taking complicated watches apart and putting them together again; he is both the most decorated soldier in the Israeli army and an accomplished pianist. He should have known that on Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif, the wars of religion continue under a different name. In Jerusalem, hatred has often been another form of prayer and never more so than when the knives are pulled and the bombs are thrown. The religious hatred called odium theologicum has long been an instrument for gaining power and property, whether in local politics or in real estate speculation.…

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