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As Israelis and Palestinians negotiate separation and division of their land, Meron Benvenisti, former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, maintains that any expectations for "peaceful partition" are doomed.
In his brave and controversial new book, he raises the possibility of a confederation of Israel/Palestine, the only solution that he feels will bring lasting peace.
The seven million people in the territory between Jordan and the Mediterranean are mutually dependent regarding employment, water, land use, ecology, transportation, and all other spheres of human activity. Each side, Benvenisti says, must accept the reality that two national entities are living within one geopolitical entity—their conflict is intercommunal and will not be resolved by population transfers or land partition.
A geographer and historian by training, a man passionately rooted in his homeland, Benvenisti skillfully conveys the perspective of both Israeli and Palestinian communities. He recognizes the great political and ideological resistance to a confederation, but argues that there are Israeli Jews and Palestinians who can envision an undivided land, where attachment to a common homeland is stronger than militant tribalism and segregation in national ghettos. Acknowledging that equal coexistence between Israeli and Palestinian may yet be an impossible dream, he insists that such a dream deserves a place in the current negotiations.
"Meron Benvenisti is the Middle East expert to whom Middle East experts go for advice . . . the most oft-quoted and oft-damned analyst in Israel."—from the Foreword by Thomas L. Friedman
City of Strife
Only rarely does history so dramatically summon together the three elements of classical tragedy: time, place, and action. Time - The morning of Monday, October 8, 1990 two months short of the third anniversary of the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising and two months after the start of the Persian Gulf crisis. Place - God's mountain, the Temple Mount and Holy of Holies, the sublime Haram, the holy compound near al-Aqsa, the uttermost mosque. Action - a bloody brawl between the children of Israel and the children of Ishmael, violent confrontation between the young men of two tribes, encapsulating a century of struggle. Seventeen people, all Arabs, were killed in the clash, and two hundred were wounded, among them fifteen Jews. As in every great tragedy, compressed within a few hours were all the struggle's contradictions, antagonisms, sensitivities, hatreds, apologetics, and primal urges. Although ceremonies of peace and reconciliation were soon to shroud the tribal hatreds in a shining fabric of words, documents, and agreements, the old animosities and primal urges would resurge, threatening to drown mounting hopes of peace in a sea of blood.
As in every true tragedy, people acted in accordance with an internal logic that imposed actions on them as if by fate. As with every great historic event, it is impossible to piece together what happened in a way that all those involved will endorse; each side has a persuasive version, containing its own amalgamation of cause and effect, and only its rendering will be commemorated in the pages of its own partisan history. As in every great historicevent, too, there was that flash of light that illuminates the disturbing contours of the broader fabric. As in every great tragedy, too, the fundamental issue of survival shone brightly through the screen of evasions, ideology, and empty polemics that people attempted to stretch between them and their fears. People dared express their fears and hopes only through apocalyptic emotions and old myths. On October 12, 1990, the front page of the newspaper A-Sha'ab reported: "Palestinians who have in recent days returned from Saudi Arabia say that ababil birds are once again flying over the Holy Mosque in Mecca.... Simultaneously, the doves, descendants of those doves that were there during the days of the Prophet, have left Mecca and flown to Jordan. Palestinians who have come from there have said that the doves of Mecca have been seen in Ma'an and in Madaba [towns in Jordan]."
"I don't believe that story," a Palestinian teacher told the Israeli journalist Yehuda Litani, "but many people believe it. All those things come together into one picture, according to which Allah is preparing a great blow against all unbelievers, above all the Americans and Israelis." The almost mystical atmosphere that prevailed during the Intifada had metamorphosed, in the days before the incident, into a truly apocalyptic climate - not perhaps of the world's end but nonetheless one of portentous events, things greater than man: "Just as God sent the ababil [black birds with owls' beaks] to save Mecca from the unbelievers, so Allah will save the Muslims," the teacher added. "A rumor has run through the city that Gershon Solomon's men [Jewish fanatics] to lay the cornerstone of the Third Temple within the al Aqsa compound. There were preparations throughout the night. Our young people came in masses, ready for a real battle. They heard from religious leaders that it is a holy injunction to protect third most holy mosque in Islam. They told us that the other two mosques, of Mecca and Medina, were under American occupation, and that we could not allow the Jews to take the last unconquered mosque."
On the other side, no less caught up in a mystical frenzy, were those sought to do exactly what the Arabs sought to prevent. At this earlier trial for, among other things, planning to blow up the Dome of the Rock, Yehuda Etzion had declared: "I indeed believed it necessary for me to prepare an operation that I would call an operation to cleanse the Temple Mount of the building standing on its peak, on the site of the Holy of Holies ... a building that has become a symbol and banner of the Islamic hold on the Temple Mount, and through it, on the entire country.... Not only must the Temple Mount be under our control as the focal point of our sovereignty over this land, but it is also forbidden for gentiles to set foot on it - in its central area - and all the more so them to rule it." The Western Wall, Etzion added, "is the outer shell of the Temple Mount ... and the possession of the Mount, as befits it, radiates its holiness and power over the entire land the entire nation."
Ever since 1968 there have been extreme Jewish groups trying to upset the status quo on the Temple Mount. Some were arrested while preparing to blow up the mosques; others harassed the Muslim authorities, gave speeches in the Knesset defending the actions of the "Temple Mount Faithful," and handed out photomontages showing the Temple on a mosqueless mount. Yeshivot - Jewish religious seminaries - and other bodies publicly engaged in the preparation of ritual objects for use in the Temple. On the eve of the incident, the Temple Mount Faithful announced that they intended to stage a festive ceremony at which they would lay the cornerstone of the Third Temple.
"I don't believe that story," any sane Jew could recite in echo of his Palestinian counterpart, "but a lot of people believe it" - Jews and, mostly, Arabs. A few days before the Temple Mount incident, the authorities began handing out chemical warfare safety kits to the country's citizens. Fears of physical extermination, of a new Holocaust, fears that always gnaw away at the Jewish psyche, began to surface. Naturally, fear and the need to attribute events to supernatural powers were even stronger among the Palestinians. They have not done well in this world; naked reality has beaten them down mercilessly. They had all enlisted in a heroic effort to transform the reality of the Israeli occupation. They had bled, buried hundreds of their brave youths, and it had come to nothing. They had not been able to throw off the yoke of their Jewish taskmasters.
The sense of failure, the humiliation, the sorrow, and their powerlessness against forces stronger than they led the Palestinians to take refuge in faith in a superhuman savior. Attempts to explain reality in terms of an imminent redeemer and to see in their suffering the agony that heralds a magnificent future had never been foreign to them. The concept that the present is nothing but a dark antechamber leading to a shining future - the rebirth of the glorious Islamic past - is a pillar of Arab culture. Personal and collective fate coalesce in the figure of the shaheed, the person who gives his life for Allah. The shaheed does not die - he lives with God, as it is written: "Count not those who have been killed in the way of Allah as dead, nay, alive with their Lord, provided for, delighting in what Allah gave them" (Qur'an, sura Al-Imran 169). Death is not terrible, because it leads man to paradise, where he will win all the pleasures he did not know in this world. Neither are failure and defeat horrible, since they are but metaphors. Faith and rhetoric make every defeat a victory and every martyr a victorious hero. The sublime Haram is "the last remaining mosque." The battle for it will determine whether Palestine is lost or saved.
The Palestinians have always believed that the goal of Zionism is, as its name implies, control of the Temple Mount and the construction of the Third Temple. "The weeping of the Jews by the Wailing [Western] Wall and their kisses do not come of their love for the wall itself, but from their secret desire to win control of the Haram a-Sharif, as everyone knows," an Arab newspaper editorial declared in I9~5. The Temple Mount and the Western Wall were the focus of the nationalist agitation and political struggle led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who led his people to defeat. Now that the Jews had gained control of its entire area, young Palestinians had enlisted to defend their last outpost. In doing so, they were not only fighting the war for Palestine, but also joining the eternal struggle of believers against unbelievers on holy Arab land, under the command of the modern Saladin, Saddam Hussein.
This emotional time bomb did not occupy the thoughts of those who were to encounter it directly. From the end of the 1980S onward, the members of the Israeli security forces were the only Jews who had unmediated contact with the Arabs. Gone were the days of sympathetic middlemen who expressed understanding of, even empathy with, Palestinian frustration, who knew how to decipher the Arabs' cultural codes and convey them to the Jews. Twenty years before the Temple Mount incident, when al-Aqsa went up in flames, several Jews had stood in the company of Arab leaders and wept with them at the sight of fire destroying a Muslim holy place. Military personnel were removed from the Mount, and young Muslims circled the compound, carrying charred remnants, throwing stones, and shouting for revenge. No one tried to end the "agitation." In the end, Arab leaders asked that the Mount be sealed off, and that a temporary curfew be imposed; "Otherwise we won't be able to control the mob," they explained.
In October 1990, it was police officers who conducted the contacts with the Arab leaders. Being responsible for law enforcement, they expressed themselves in terms like "law and order" and "public safety." In the law, and especially the "Ordinance for the Prevention of Terrorism," the Arabs' expressions of frustration were defined as ~agitation" and a direct threat to the existing regime. They were to be extirpated with all available force. The police were not looking for a violent confrontation. On the contrary, the rule they acted by was "a display of force is better than the use of force." Displaying force included, unavoidably, the humiliation of Arabs during searches, restrictions on movement, and the massive presence of armed policemen. It also required warnings like: "If a single small stone is thrown at us, we will fire live ammunition." But police officers also tried to dispel fears. They knew that the Arabs were organizing to thwart the plan of the Temple Mount Faithful to lay the Third Temple's cornerstone, and feared a violent clash. So they forbade Jews to demonstrate on the Mount and were pleased when the Supreme Court rejected the Faithful's suit to allow them access to the holy site.
The activity of Jewish provocateurs was considered "within the bounds of the law," a legitimate expression of pluralism in a democratic society. The police thus allowed the Faithful to demonstrate near the Temple Mount - but not on the Mount itself - and stood guard over them. The police took care to inform Arab leaders of the ban on the Temple Mount demonstration, hoping that the rejection of the Faithful's challenge by the High Court of Justice, the country's highest constitutional authority, would mollify the Palestinians. The level of the dialogue between the police and the Muslim leaders is epitomized in a segment of testimony from the officer responsible for the Temple Mount: "I spoke with the Mufti there ... in a completely friendly way, we spoke with the Little Mufti and the Red Mufti, that's what we call them. I hope I'm not offending anyone. We really spoke in a friendly way, and the Red Mufti (I don't know his name, actually) told me: If Gershon Solomon comes up to the Mount there'll be a lot of blood and death here. I went to the Mufti and I told him, dir balkum, watch your step, you're making trouble. I don't like that. If a disturbance starts here, if they throw one stone over the Western Wall, we'll use gas, we'll shoot at you with gas." The police officer in charge thus did not even know the names of the spiritua] leaders of a million Palestinians.
The Arabs accord the Jewish regime no legitimacy and see all its branches - judicial, legislative, and executive - as instruments of oppression and control directed against them. People who deny a government's legitimacy do not seek justice from it and have no faith in agents of the law. The "Little Mufti" and the "Red Mufti" therefore reacted with skepticism and disdain to the attempts of the police to reassure them. But the forces responsible for public safety could neither allow this nor understand it. From their point of view, the authority of law-enforcement agents is not open to challenge, and everyone must obey them. Anyone who dares rebel against their authority and that of the government that appointed them is no more than a common criminal, or, worse, a terrorist. People like that are to be treated in accordance with the Emergency Regulations, which are meant to foil all threats to the regime by means unamenable to normal law-enforcement procedures.
Israel's legal representatives were not only unaware of the deep feelings that pulsed through the Arabs that bitter morning, but also demanded loyalty and obedience, things the Arabs were unable to grant them. In the Arabs' eyes, the situation resembled the start of a boxing match in which one of the contestants also served as referee. For their part, the Jews saw a police patrol in a danger zone applying the principle that "a show of force is better than the use of force," rather than the principle of dialogue, to specific lawbreakers.
As with every great historic event, opinions were divided as to the causes of the first outbreak of violence. Yet from the moment the first bullet was fired, or from the moment the first stone was thrown, the incident took on the cast of a real battle. True, the battle was unequal: on one side were unarmed men fighting with stones, sticks, and iron bars; on the other were regular detachments with firearms, troops that at short notice could call down the full power of a sovereign state. But during the critical moments, the Arabs' numerical superiority compensated for their limited weaponry: they won the first act of the engagement. One of the policemen recounted: "And there we were alone, 45 men facing 3,000 .... it's terrifying ... to face the shabab [Arab youth], thousands throwing rocks and iron pipes at you.... They come closer and closer, and the whole time they never stop throwing all those things at you ... and you see such great fervor in their eyes, as if they were in the midst of prayer or something.... Here, yesterday we had to retreat from the Temple Mount to regroup and ask for reinforcements, and that's never happened to our men." An Arab youth put it this way: "When the policemen began to shoot, we began to throw stones at the police. Afterwards we charged them and drove them out of the Haram."
Both sides stripped themselves of their ideological and religious garb - the police abandoning their "law-enforcing" role - and launched into a primeval contest, a shepherds' war, in which the motivating force was hatred of the other, classic tribal strife in no need of subtle exegesis. The fact that on one side civilians fought with sticks and stones while on the other uniformed men wielded lethal weapons was of no importance to either. Each side saw itself facing an enemy that had to be eliminated. Each side identified the life-or-death element in the clash. It was neither an attempt to restore public order nor a defense of Islamic holy places. They entered our territory, and we ejected them. They humiliated us and drove us out in disgrace.
The curtain then rose on the second act of the tragedy. The Jews wished, at any price, to take revenge on the "mob" and recapture the holy mountain. They did this by exploiting their relative advantage - firearms. After the incident, there were explanations of and excuses for the savage counterattack of the uniformed forces. It was said that the supply of rubber and plastic bullets had run out; it was argued that the Arabs did not retreat despite gunshots in the air, that there were strategic points that had to be defended at any cost - the Western Wall, the police station on the Mount, and the policemen inside it - and that these were in danger. Critics said the police panicked.
Apparently all these explanations are correct. It would seem, however, that an uncontrollable motivating force was the primal need to deal a blow to the enemy and be rid of him, so restoring personal and collective pride. Seventeen Palestinians were killed by Israeli bullets. The police sprayed automatic fire indiscriminately into the crowd, running down those who fled, and not giving quarter until they fell in pools of their own blood. The minutes of the judicial inquiry record:
QUESTIONS: What did he do, the "minority person"? [In Israeli legalese, non-Jews are "minority persons."] Did he try to flee? Did he throw stones?
ANSWER: He tried to flee, he was kind of in shock and tried to flee. He didn't know.
QUESTION: Why was it necessary to shoot him?
ANSWER: ... I don't know ... when I turned around he, the policeman, was talking to him.
QUESTION: Spoke with the minority person? Before the gunfire? And then he shot him?
Mohammed Shaloud told the magistrate: "They told us to kneel down on the floor and we put our hands on the backs of our necks. After that they began shooting us." A policeman vaguely confirmed the Arab version.
QUESTION: Is there evidence that they shot and even killed people from the group of worshipers?
ANSWER: To say whether they killed any? I don't know. There were gunshots.
QUESTION: There were gunshots on that group?
ANSWER: There were shots in the direction of the group.
Gratuitous cruelty? Those who judge the security forces' actions according to the criteria of "public order" will condemn them for what they did, since the circumstances did not require the use of firearms. But the policemen considered themselves to be in battle. During one of the inquiries, a policeman referred to the detainees as "prisoners of war." The magistrate rebuked him and emphasized that they were not at war. One of those present summed it up: "It seems as if the Border Guard policemen thought that they really were at war, or at least that is how they behaved on the Mount."
The gunshots were not aimed at human beings, at individuals, but rather at a large and threatening horde, devoid of human features. Dehumanization is a precondition of shooting at the enemy. In war, soldiers shoot to kill and get medals for it. Yet a man does not have to be at the front to feel that he is at war. When he feels that his primary national and cultural values hang in the balance, and that he is ready to fight with all his strength to defend them, or when such a feeling is instilled into him, he feels he is at war. This is true whether he is dressed in civilian clothing or in the uniform of a police patrolman.
This was how the Palestinians felt: "A man with his face covered came within five meters of a Border Guard policeman with a block in his hands. The policeman fired into the air. The boy was not deterred, and then he was shot." "Our boys do not consider the facts. Everything was in an atmosphere that was about to explode, before a huge victory by Allah, and they felt they were Allah's soldiers," an Arab journalist said, adding, "Yesterday, when Dibhi reached ... the Temple Mount, he told those around him that he wanted to become a shaheed. He had a feeling that he was going to be killed. He told everyone that he was not frightened. And he really was killed .... the children are fighters, they sacrifice their lives for the homeland, for Allah."
The willingness to sacrifice one's life on the altar of nation and religion is a consequence of despair - despair at the chances of being freed from the occupation by other means - and also a reaction to humiliation, the constant wounding of Arab pride: "Your soldiers and policemen treat us with horrible crudity - blows, slaps, kicks, torture during interrogation." An Israeli journalist wrote: "A boy (a policeman) stood there with a lit cigarette, which he waved in the faces of dignitaries, shouting at them, `Ruhu, get out of here.' He didn't understand Arabic; he only heard the tone of anger, and it irritated him. `This is our place,' one of the members of the council shouted. `Allah hua akbar - Allah is supreme!' The finger was already on the trigger. A firecracker was thrown under the Mufti's feet.... `This is our place!' a lame elder leaning on a cane screamed hysterically. The Border Guard officer did not hesitate for a second - he grabbed him by the collar, pushed him forward, and sent him rolling over the stones.... The humiliation - it's a wonder that they still don't understand it - hurts much more than physical violence."
The abandoned battleground was covered with bloodstains and empty cartridges, and there were pockmarks on the marble walls of the mosques. "I've never seen so much blood in one place," a witness said. "On the floor, on the big flagstones, and on the large gates leading to the hall of the al-Aqsa mosque; there was a lot of blood on the main gate ... and from there a trail of blood all the way to the steps leading to the Dome of the Rock ... blood-covered hands left imprints on the walls and doors ... and a great desire for revenge remained; ... now they are preparing what they call a reprisal for the Temple Mount ... revenge, revenge, that's the word you hear everywhere." After each of the murders committed thereafter - the slaughter of Jewish women and the stabbing of passersby - the murderers declared that they were avenging their brothers' blood spilt on the holy site.
The silence that descends after a battle permeated the Temple Mount. Shock, outrage, and grief spread quickly through the passageways of the Old City, and from there to Jerusalem's neighborhoods. Soon, snowballing all the while, they reached the refugee camps in Gaza, Hebron, and Nablus. The wildest demonstrations occurred, unexpectedly, in the Galilee - in Nazareth, and in Tamra, the hometown of one of the dead men, an Israeli Arab. Had the Israelis used the methods standard at that time, dozens would have died. But the stunned Israelis held their fire. They were in shock, too, and needed time to recover. While there were many victims among the Arabs and their rebellion had been suppressed, the sacrifice had not been in vain - they had succeeded in stripping the Israelis of their mantle of "preservers of public order" and in presenting them to the world (and, most of all, to the Israelis themselves) unadorned - as a dominating ethnic group with a monopoly on legal violence, which it used indiscriminately against a dominated and defenseless ethnic group.
Of course, this was not the first time that the bias of the Israeli law-enforcement system had been bared in public. The years of the Intifada had eliminated what was left of the myth of a "benign" occupation watching over the safety and prosperity of a "protected population" in accordance with international law. The Temple Mount incident, in the heart of "united Jerusalem," under the rule and law of a democratic, liberal Western state, forced Israelis to look long and hard at naked reality. The trauma was serious. They were reacting, not to the number of Arab victims, but rather to the damage to their self-image and their reputation in the world, to which they now seemed a disoriented, cruel regime. As such, their reaction to the trauma was not a painful confrontation with reality but an almost desperate attempt to reconstruct their web of evasions and excuses and, most of all, to believe in it again. This attempt began with a theory of geopolitical conspiracy - Saddam Hussein and his ally, Yassir Arafat, had plotted the disturbances in order to raise the Muslim world against the United States and its Zionist puppet.
The attempt to fit the incident into an international context and to deny its local, intercommunal character was spurious even in the eyes of those government ministers who floated the conspiracy theory. As a result, the Israelis soon began to make arguments that were mirror images of the Arab claims. In the Israeli version, there was no provocative attempt to take control of the Temple Mount and cause damage to Islamic holy places. On the contrary, there had been an organized Arab attack on defenseless Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall. Forty-eight hours after the incident, an Israeli judge could state categorically: "At 10:30 AM. blocks and stones began hurtling down on worshipers in the Western Wall compound.... It took the police a certain amount of time to organize themselves ... and halt the stone-throwing into the Western Wall compound. When the policemen found this unsuccessful, they used their weapons, at first rubber bullets and, in the end, live ammunition.... The attack turned the Sukkot holiday - the holiday of joy - into a holiday of sorrow and grief. The Western Wall compound is eternally holy, and it is clear that whoever plans and carries out a mass attack on this holy place on a holy day cannot afterwards expect that the attack will be ignored."
The police had done their job, intervening to prevent danger to human (Jewish) life, which could not have been done without the use of firearms. "The result of the use of firearms was most tragic, but necessary under the circumstances, given the mass disturbances," the judge found. The charge that Jewish provocation had roused the Arabs' reaction "seems totally unfounded and there is no doubt that the rioters and their leaders, who incited and organized them, are responsible for this grave event." The claim that "the Arabs started it" was given the official stamp of approval by an investigatory commission, the Zamir Committee, which determined that "the incident began to snowball when menacing and violent calls were suddenly made over the loud-speakers, and immediately thereafter huge quantities of stones, building materials, and metal were rained down on Israeli policemen."
The question of who started it - or, in other words, what the reason was and who was guilty - was more controversial than the incident itself. Context is a matter of ethnic affiliation. The attribution of cause and effect is not a matter of objective-logical derivation but rather of one-sided conceptions. The chain of intercommunal violence is nourished by opposing definitions of the relationship between challenge and response. What one group sees as a challenge looks like a response to another. It almost seems as if it were possible to order causes and effects into a chain agreed upon by both sides, the chain of violence would break. As in a children's fight, however, the shout "he started it" is a battle cry.
|I. City of Strife||I|
|2. Border or Frontier?||52|
|3. The Uprising||72|
|4. Deus ex Machina||II2|
|5. The Elusive Peace||I5I|
|Notes on Sources||235|