Perils to Jerusalem and its Holy Places
(Excerpts from Henry Cattan, The Palestine Question, pp. 260-267)
RELIGIOUS SIGNIFICANCE OF JERUSALEM
Jerusalem is unique among all the cities of the world because of its association with three great religions. It is the spiritual and religious heritage to one half of humanity and is holy to one thousand million Christians, to eight hundred million Moslems and to fourteen million Jews.
Jerusalem is the birthplace of Christianity. All the Holy Places, sacred shrines and sanctuaries connected with the birth, life and death of Christ are found in Jerusalem and in nearby Bethlehem: the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Nativity, the Cenacle, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives and 38 churches.
Jerusalem is also holy for Islam:
All Islamic traditions and sacred writings point to the unmistakable fact that Jerusalem is holy for all Moslems, second only in holiness to Mecca and Medina. It is the qibla (direction of prayer) and the third of the sacred cities.
The name of Jerusalem in Arabic is Al Qods, which means ‘The Holy’. On the site of the Haram Al-Sharif (sacred enclosure) in the Old City of Jerusalem stand two famous Islamic sanctuaries: the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock (commonly but erroneously called the Mosque of Omar) and the Mosque of Al-Aqsa. The first was built in the seventh century and is associated by Islamic tradition with the intended sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. The second, meaning ‘the farthest’, was built in the eighth century on the place from which, in accordance with Islamic tradition, the Prophet ascended to Heaven during his Night Journey, It is mentioned in the Quran (surah xvii: 1) as ‘the farthest Mosque’.
To Judaism, Jerusalem has been a holy city since the building of the Temple of Solomon. This temple, completed in 962 BC, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. A second temple of a humble character was built around 515 Bc after the return of the Jews from captivity but was again destroyed by the Macedonians in 170 BC. It was reconstructed in Herod’s time only to be destroyed for a third time by the Romans following the Jewish insurrection in AD 70. Today the most important Jewish sanctuary in Jerusalem is the Wailing Wall which the Jews consider to be a remnant of the western wall of Herod’s temple.
The significance of Jerusalem, however, does not lie merely in the Holy Places and sanctuaries of the three monotheistic religions as all three have a vital interest in preserving the living presence of the adherents to their faith in the Holy City.
Jerusalem has been the scene of many dramatic events and the cause of many wars during the 38 centuries of its known existence. It has suffered more than 20 sieges, changed hands more than 25 times, was destroyed 17 times, and its inhabitants were massacred on several occasions. The last act in the drama of Jerusalem occurred in our lifetime: it was seized and annexed by the State of Israel which, as we have seen, has displaced most of its original Arab inhabitants. Israel’s usurpation of Jerusalem has created an explosive conflict of world importance which has engaged the attention of the UN for more than three decades and was the subject of scores of decisions and resolutions of the international organization which have remained without implementation.
DESIGNS ON ISLAMIC AND CHRISTIAN HOLY PLACES
Intoxicated by their capture of the Old City in 1967, some prominent officers of the government of Israel caused world concern by asserting claims against Islamic Holy Places in Jerusalem and Hebron. Ambassador E. Thalmann of Switzerland, charged by the Secretary-General of the UN with a fact-finding mission on the situation in Jerusalem, reported: ‘Statements by Israel official representatives and Jewish personalities concerning Jewish claims and plans in the Temple area had an alarming effect. The Israeli Minister for Religious Affairs was reported to have declared at a press conference at Jerusalem on 12 August 1967 that the authorities considered the site of the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock as their property ‘by past acquisition or by conquest’ and that there was question of rebuilding the Temple of Solomon in the area of the Haram Al-Sharif. He was also reported to have said:
As to the Holy lbrahimi Mosque, the Cave is a Jewish shrine which we have bought, in the same way that we bought the Holy Rock in the days of David and the Jebusites and our rights in the Cave and the Rock are rights of conquest and acquisition.
The matter did not rest at ominous threats but soon evolved into provocative acts. Ambassador Thalmann reported:
Most of the Arabs interviewed by the Personal Representative stated that the Moslem population was shocked by Israeli acts which violated the sanctity of the Moslem shrines. It was regarded as a particular provocation that the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Army, with others of his faith, conducted prayers in the area of the Haram AI-Sharif.
AGGRESSIONS AGAINST ISLAMIC AND CHRISTIAN HOLY PLACES
An outrage which shocked world opinion and was strongly condemned by the Security Council was the arson committed on 21 August 1969 at the Mosque of Al-Aqsa. The culprit told the authorities that his purpose was to burn the mosque so that the Temple of Solomon could be built on its site. Extensive damage was caused to the roof of the mosque and a historic twelfth century carved wooden pulpit was gutted by the fire. The culprit, an Australian, was deported on the plea that he was mentally deranged. Christian Holy Places also were not spared and there were desecrations of shrines and cemeteries on Mount Zion. More recently Christian clergymen were harassed and church property in Jerusalem was vandalised in a series of attacks on Baptists, Roman Catholics and Orthodox. ‘It is a Jewish obligation to destroy graven images. The Christians have no place in Jerusalem, which is the Jewish capital’, declared one of those detained for vandalism at Christian sites.
Aggressions against Islamic and Christian Holy Places have increased in the last few years. Among the most serious mention may be made of the arrest of two Israeli soldiers in possession of explosives in 1980 in the Old City who were charged by the authorities with the intention of blowing up churches and mosques in Jerusalem; the shooting by an Israeli soldier in April 1982 of worshippers at the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock and the planting of explosives in various churches, convents and mosques during 1983. The most odious outrage, and the most dangerous in its sequels had it succeeded, was the attempt made during the night of 26/27 January 1984 to blow up the Mosques of the Dome of the Rock and of Al-Aqsa. The attempt was foiled by the Moslem guards of the mosques. A quantity of arms and explosives stolen from the army were found on the site.
In May 1984 27 Jewish terrorists who belonged to the Gush Emunim, an extremist settler group, were arrested and indicted with several crimes, including the plot to blow up the two mosques. The police investigation yielded the information that the terrorists had also planned to bomb the mosques from a helicopter but abandoned the idea for fear that they might damage the Wailing Wall. The crimes for which the accused were charged included the attempt in 1980 to assassinate three Palestinian West Bank mayors, two of whom were maimed; the murder in 1983 of three Arab students in Hebron University; the planting of bombs in 1984 at the mosque in Hebron; and conspiracy to blow up the two mosques in January 1984 in Jerusalem. Two of the accused pleaded guilty to conspiracy to blow up the two mosques and were sentenced to five and ten years. On 22 July 1985 the District Court of Jerusalem convicted three Jewish settlers and sentenced them to life imprisonment for murdering Arabs and sentenced eleven others to terms of imprisonment that varied from three to seven years. The accused were confident that they would be set free, if not by a court decision, then by a pardon. ‘We were acting in the interests of the state’ they frequently repeated during their trial. And their principal defence argument was that Shin Bet (the Israeli secret service) knew and approved of their attitudes. During their detention before the trial, the accused enjoyed preferential treatment as well as moral encouragement and financial backing from a section of the population. Several highly placed politicians assured the convicted prisoners of an early reprieve. In fact, at the time of writing, most of them have been reprieved and released.
Israeli designs on the Haram Al-Sharif area did not cease with the condemnation of the assailants in the 1984 outrage. During a visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in January 1986 by a number of Knesset members, one of them pulled out a prayer book and began reciting Jewish prayers in violation of the ban by the Israeli authorities on Jewish worship at Temple Mount. Some young men planted an Israeli flag on the esplanade while others attempted to force their way into the underground chambers under the mosque. A scuffle broke out which involved several hundred Moslems and 600 Israeli policemen as a result of which 12 Arabs were injured and 19 arrested. The Arab and Islamic states complained to the Security Council against this new outrage to Islamic Holy Places.
Although the aggressions committed against Holy Places are the work of terrorists, yet the Israeli government has some share in responsibility for their acts. The claims made by Israeli official representatives on the Temple area in 1967; the proclamation made by the Knesset in 1980 that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel; the constant biblical claims made by Israeli ministers to Judea and Samaria; the inaction, if not the deliberate laxity, of Israeli security forces in bringing to justice those responsible for the aggressions and the sympathy that the perpetrators enjoy in certain government quarters are no doubt contributory causes.
The danger to Holy Places, in particular, the Islamic mosques in the area of the Haram Al-Sharif should be taken seriously. The aggressions made against them are not the work of extremists or mentally deranged individuals as sometimes alleged by the Israeli government. Journalist David K. Shipler writes:
Officially, Israel recognizes Moslem control over the Temple Mount and its mosques. But in the last few years, the yearning to remove the mosques and build a Jewish temple there has begun to spread from a few religious fanatics into more established rightist political groups (International Herald Tribune, 11 July 1984).
The aggressions against Holy Places bring back to memory the fears that were voiced by the King-Crane Commission which prophetically warned of the danger to Christian and Moslem Holy Places were they to fall into Jewish hands. The King-Crane Commission was appointed in 1919 by the Supreme Council of the Allied Powers at the Paris Peace Conference at the insistence of President Wilson to elucidate the state of opinion in Palestine and Syria regarding the mode of settlement of their future following their detachment from Turkey. With respect to the Holy Places in Palestine the Commission said:
There is a further consideration that cannot be justly ignored, if the world is to look forward to Palestine becoming a definitely Jewish state, however gradually that may take place. That consideration grows out of the fact that Palestine is ‘the Holy Land’ for Jews, Christians and Moslems alike. Millions of Christians and Moslems all over the world are quite as much concerned as the Jews with conditions in Palestine, especially with those conditions which touch upon religious feeling and rights. The relations in these matters in Palestine are most delicate and difficult. With the best possible intentions, it may be doubted whether the Jews could possibly seem to either Christians or Moslems proper guardians of the holy places, or custodians of the Holy Land as a whole. The reason is this: the places which are most sacred to Christians – those having to do with Jesus – and which are also sacred to Moslems, are not only not sacred to Jews, but abhorrent to them. It is simply impossible, under those circumstances, for Moslems and Christians to feel satisfied to have these places in Jewish hands, or under the custody of Jews … It must be believed that the precise meaning, in this respect, of the complete Jewish occupation of Palestine has not been fully sensed by those who urge the extreme Zionist program. For it would intensify, with a certainty like fate, the anti-Jewish feeling both in Palestine and in all other portions of the world which look to Palestine as ‘the Holy Land’.
The fears expressed by the King-Crane Commission about the dangers involved in the Jewish domination of Palestine and its Holy Places, and confirmed by Israeli actions in Jerusalem, constitute a writing on the wall.
EQUALITY OR PRIORITY OF RELIGIONS?
Israel has exploited the existence in biblical times of Solomon’s Temple at Jerusalem for political purposes and for usurpation of the Holy City. It now seeks, after its occupation of Jerusalem, to establish pre-eminence for Judaism over the other two religions in Jerusalem. Abba Eban, at one time Israel’s Foreign Minister, and presently Chief of the Knesset’s Foreign Relations Committee, writes:
It is true that many outside Israel and the Jewish people have an interest in Jerusalem. But it is an offence against scholarship and historical truth to speak of ‘equality’ between the Jewish connection and anything else. Israel should not claim exclusiveness of concern but it has an immaculate claim of priority. Jerusalem is a theme of reverence in Christianity and Islam as a reflection and consequence of its Jewish sanctity.
Despite his boast of ‘scholarship and historical truth’, Abba Eban’s attempt to belittle and play down the religious significance of Jerusalem to Christians and Moslems for the purpose of justifying Israel’s usurpation of the Holy City is hollow and misconceived. This is all the more so because – unlike the Christians who have almost all their Holy Places relating to the life and crucifixion of Christ in Jerusalem and unlike the Moslems who have two of their most sacred historic mosques in that city – the Jews do not actually own or possess any Holy Places in Jerusalem. This was expressly stated by Chaim Weizmarm, the author of the Balfour Declaration and the first President of Israel. In his autobiography he wondered at the reason for opposition to Zionism by the Vatican and also why the issue of the Holy Places should arouse so much interest. To soothe fears, he wrote:
There were no Holy Places in Palestine to which the Jews laid actual physical claims – except perhaps, Rachel’s tomb, which was at no time a matter of controversy. The Wailing Wall we did not own, and never had owned since the destruction of the Temple.
Following the bloody riots in 1929 over an incident at the Wailing Wall, an international commission was appointed in 1931 by the British Mandatory, with the approval of the League of Nations, to inquire into the rights over the Wailing Wall. The commission found that ‘the ownership of the Wall accrues to the Moslems … and that the pavement in front of the Wall, where the Jews perform their devotions, is also Moslem property’.
The problem of Jerusalem and its Holy Places transcends the Middle East in its importance and dimensions. The issues which it involves are emotional and explosive and could well lead to a conflict of unpredictable consequences. Already twice in history these issues have given rise to bloody wars: the Crusades (for the control of the Holy Sepulchre and Jerusalem) which lasted for several generations and the Crimean War (over the disappearance of the silver star at the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem). Since 1969, after the arson committed at the Mosque of Al-Aqsa, there have been rumblings of a jihad (sacred war) in world Islamic conferences over Israel’s occupation and actions in Jerusalem.
Israel’s usurpation and its continued occupation of the Holy City constitute a danger to Islamic and Christian Holy Places. They put in peril the religious heritage of Christianity and Islam, and create a great risk to world peace. The future of Jerusalem will be discussed in Chapter 34.