Wednesday, 24 February 2010

A Holy Row

And now suddenly, disrupting the tentative steps of the past few weeks leading towards a resumption of peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel – even if at one stage removed – a new row blows up. A holy row because, like so much in the Holy Land, it's all bound up with events that took place three, four thousand years ago. And it has the potential to undermine the very best intentions of all the parties involved in trying to get negotiations back on track.

What's it all about?

The story starts formally at Israel's 4-day Herzliya Conference, which began this year on 31 January. The Herzliya Conference has been held annually for the past ten years, and has become something of an institution – the annual "summit meeting" of the most influential Israeli and international leaders. The conference is, of course, always addressed by Israel's prime minister.

This year, Benjamin Netanyahu devoted his speech to announcing a major new project that is estimated to take some five years to complete and to absorb some two hundred million dollars. It builds on the idea of the existing Israel National Trail – a hiking path that crosses the entire country from the Lebanese border, in the far north of the country, to Eilat at the southernmost tip on the Red Sea, a length of approximately 940 km (580 miles). The Trail was officially launched in 1991 with the aim of giving Israelis a way to experience the entire breadth of the land firsthand.

The government's latest idea is to construct two new "heritage trails" running the length and breath of Israel. Netanyahu told the conference that he intends to present the cabinet, on this coming Thursday, with a working programme which would include the inauguration of two trails to be added the existing Israel Trail: an historical trail that would connect a whole variety of archeological sites, and an "Israeli Experience" trail linking dozens of Israel's landmarks, museums and memorials.

Nearly 40 archeological sites might form part of the "historical trail" programme, including the Caesarea National Park, Mount Massada, Qumran, Tiberias, and the City of David in Jerusalem. The programme would create a documentation centre in Israel to oversee the sites' archives, and to coordinate the work. A course is also proposed to train staff in document preservation, as well as help gather information on the different heritage sites.

The heritage sites themselves, forming the "Israeli Experience" trail, are spread throughout Israel, and include places such as Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, the historic Jezreel Valley railway, and the Dead Sea town of Ein Gedi.

All this sounded very fine and relatively uncontroversial, even though one declared objective was to strengthen the emotional connection and knowledge of Israel bestowed upon children by their parents and the educational system.

Then came Netanyahu's announcement last Sunday. There would be two additions to the list of national heritage sites that the government plans to promote – The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem – both sites located in the West Bank.

The result could have been foreseen, and perhaps was. Yesterday Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, addressing the Belgian parliament, said that Israel's decision to add two West Bank sites to the national heritage list was a dangerous provocation that could bring about a religious war. It was an attempt to steal the Palestinian heritage, he alleged, and part of a larger scheme to take over religious Muslim sites.

This reaction was too milk-and-water for Hamas's prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh. During a session of the Gaza Legislative Council yesterday he declared that the Palestinian Authority should respond to the Israeli government's move not by renewing negotiations, but by inciting a new intifada.

"The decision requires a real response in the West Bank," Haniyeh told reporters, "and for the people to rise up in the face of the Israeli occupation and to break every shackle in confronting it."

What is the significance of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's tomb?

The Cave of the Patriarchs - which Muslims call the al-Ibrahimi mosque - is where the Bible says Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried, along with the "foremothers" of Judaism: Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. It has been a flashpoint for decades, with 500 Jewish settlers living in enclaves near the disputed site, surrounded by 170,000 Palestinians.

The Tomb of Rachel - a shrine to the Biblical matriarch holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims - has also been a source of controversy. Israel's West Bank fence/barrier juts into Bethlehem, so that the tomb is located on the Israeli side. Palestinians say it represents an illegal land grab.

Responding to the Palestinian outcry, an Israel government spokesman said yesterday that Israel was committed to the freedom of worship of all religions in all holy sites, and was currently undertaking maintainentance work on the entrance plaza and the way leading to the Muslim's prayer hall in the Cave of the Patriarchs. He clearly envisaged that, whatever the outcome of peace negotiations, the religious significance attached to these holy sites for all the Abrahamic religions would mean that visitors would continue to be attracted to them in large numbers. So the effect, in practice, of their being added to Israel's "heritage trail" is uncertain.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, dozens of Palestinians held a demonstration near the Jewish enclave in Hebron in protest at Netanyahu’s announcement. The protesters burned tyres and hurled rocks at IDF troops, who retorted by using stun grenades.

Is this a storm in a teacup? Could an emollient word of explanation take the sting out of the situation in an instant? Difficult to assess. But in any case, this is not the most favourable atmosphere in which to open discussions aimed at a permanent settlement of the Israel-Palestine situation.

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