Violence erupts in the Holy Land

Desperation fuels an ominous round of fighting in the Holy Land. Has the Mideast peace process finally blown apart?

By Flore de Preneuf

Published October 3, 2000 9:00PM (EDT)

For six days now, stones, bullets, rockets and firebombs have been pummeling senseless a shocked Holy Land. As in a slowly unfolding natural catastrophe, each day produces its crop of corpses and wounded bodies, while people wonder out loud whether this quake could be the much-awaited "big one."

"Everybody just wants it to blow to hell," said Muna Muhaisen, a Palestinian journalist, expressing the kind of suicidal desperation that is fueling the uprising. "People are so fed up."

Relief came and went Tuesday in the form of a tentative morning cease-fire -- the third in so many days -- broken by new afternoon exchanges of gunfire. With the mediation of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have agreed to meet in Paris on Wednesday to reach a more lasting truce. But even then, the quiet could be only temporary.

Over the long bloody weekend, which coincided with the Jewish New Year, more than 50 people were killed -- the overwhelming majority of them Palestinians under the age of 30 -- and thousands were injured. The weaponry graduated from slingshots and police batons to live ammunition, gunship helicopters and anti-tank missiles. And, for the first time, the clashes spread beyond the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza to the heart of Israeli towns.

The stakes of this latest outbreak of violence -- the most deadly since 1996 -- seemed higher than ever as the clashes threatened not only the long-suffering peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians but the survival of Israel itself.

Analysts had long predicted that Palestinian disappointment with the slow pace and limited benefits of the peace talks, begun seven years ago, would eventually wear the patience of Palestinians down and bring back the violence of the intifada, the popular uprising that raged between 1987 and 1993. The failure of the Camp David summit last July gave rise to a fresh round of doomsday prophecies: Experts warned anything could set the streets on fire. And burn they did.

The explosion was triggered by the visit last Thursday of the right-wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon to a site held sacred and vehemently claimed by both Muslims and Jews. The Al-Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock -- the splendid golden dome of Jerusalem postcards -- are built on what Jews consider the remnants of their first and second Temple.

Who will have sovereignty over the esplanade known by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount is one of the most sensitive issues being discussed in the current peace negotiations. In this context, Sharon's theatrical appearance on the esplanade used for Muslim prayers, accompanied by television crews and hundreds of Israeli riot police, was meant to reaffirm Israeli claims to the Temple Mount and Jerusalem as a whole. Not surprisingly, Sharon's cowboy approach to diplomacy was seen as an outrageous act of provocation by Palestinians and Muslims at large.

The visit was enough to set the familiar cycle of Palestinian rock-throwing, deadly Israeli fire and mass funeral fury into high gear.

The Israeli establishment put the blame at Arafat's door, claiming his security services orchestrated the riots, busing people to sites of confrontation and, on several occasions, opening fire on Israeli troops.

Palestinian officials, in turn, blamed Israel's use of excessive force in dealing with the public protest: In addition to using potent tear gas, rubber-coated bullets (that blind and occasionally kill) and live ammunition, the Israeli security forces fired rockets from helicopter gunships and deployed army tanks around volatile West Bank towns. The disproportionate show of force shocked many Palestinians into joining the protests and triggered an escalation of violence throughout the occupied territories.

But the blame game is in some ways irrelevant. "How it started is not important," said Muhaisen. "People are looking for any chance to let off steam. People are not fighting for violence's sake. They're fighting for a decent life and for an honorable peace. They are doing this for their freedom."

The riots showed again how little stock people put in the peace process begun at Oslo, Norway, in 1993. "We know we're not gaining anything," said Muhaisen, speaking from an overcrowded camp from which Palestinian refugees have little hope of escaping, deal or no deal. "The situation is getting worse economically, politically and in terms of human rights."

The riots "can't affect negatively the peace process because it is already a failure," noted Ghassan Khatib, a political analyst here. "It's not like the peace process was moving on smoothly," said Khatib, who sees an abyss between the Israeli and the Palestinian approach to negotiations. He describes the first as "based on the balance of powers," in which Israel, the stronger party, gets to dictate its terms; the second is "based on international legality and legitimacy," namely implementing United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. "The riots took place because of the failure of the peace process," he said. "We shouldn't mix up the cause and the effect."

Even dovish Israelis were disheartened by the crowds' visible despair and thirst for violence. "There is not much meaning to an aspiration toward a comprehensive [peace] agreement when beneath the thin membrane of an agreement lies such heated, infectious hatred," wrote Nahum Barnea, a senior columnist in Yedioth Ahronoth.

But after years of rocks, bullets, terrorist attacks and land expropriations, bad blood between Israelis and Palestinians can hardly pass as news. "Arab Israelis taking up armed intifada is really the shock here," said Yossi Klein-Halevi, an Israeli journalist and an active promoter of coexistence between Israel's Jewish majority and 18 percent Arab minority.

Indeed, during the popular uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in the late 1980s, Arabs in Israel proper stayed put. This time, from the hilltop town of Nazareth, the place of Jesus' boyhood, to the coastal town of Acco, Arabs blocked traffic, tore down signs with Hebrew lettering and threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the police in solidarity with their Palestinian brothers. Even the seaport of Jaffa, ordinarily a peaceful haven of fish restaurants and nightclubs just south of Tel Aviv, was littered with burned tires and projectiles on Sunday night.

"This has a whiff of insurrection," said Klein-Halevi. "It's no longer inconceivable to see these scenes happening in wartime." According to analysts, the recent riots have seriously damaged Israeli Jews' perception of Israeli Arabs. Even among Jews most sympathetic to Arab quests for equal rights, Israeli Arabs are now viewed as a sort of "fifth column," capable of sinking Israel for the benefit of neighboring Arab states. "Israeli Arabs are becoming a security threat," said Klein-Halevi.

Azmi Bishara, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, defends Arab Israelis' expression of solidarity with the Palestinians, both as Israeli citizens and as members of the same Arab people. "Instead of a dual identity, we have here a dual responsibility," he wrote Tuesday on the front page of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

"We cannot remain indifferent to the many killings and injuries our brothers are suffering in the territories and the damage to the holy Islamic places in ancient Jerusalem," said Hanna Sweid, a member of the Monitoring Committee on the Arab Population in Israel.

Among the images that jolted Israeli Arabs into taking to the streets was the widely broadcast footage of a helpless 12-year-old Palestinian boy and his father, caught behind a small concrete wall in Gaza under a rain of bullets. The boy was shot in the abdomen and died on the spot in front of rolling TV cameras while his father, severely injured, passed out.

Sharon's perceived desecration of Al-Aksa mosque also helped bridge the distance that separates Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. The Islamic Movement, a radical political movement that has been steadily gaining support among unemployed, disenfranchised Israeli Arabs, had whipped up a crowd of thousands just two weeks before the current rioting under the banner "Al-Aksa is in danger."

The specter of Israeli Arab sedition is a terrifying one for a country built on the tension between a Jewish state and a democratic state, where Arab and Jewish citizens are supposed to have equal rights. Eager to patch up the damage, Barak's cabinet issued a statement on Monday announcing a program to redress the grievances of Israeli Arabs, often treated as second-class citizens.

"The government believes that the vast majority of the Israeli Arab population strives for integration and involvement in Israeli society and peaceful coexistence, and that it is unfortunate that extreme elements within this sector are attempting to incite towards extremism," read the statement.

While the riots have raised the question of Israel's viability as a bi-national country, it seems, however, to have firmed up Barak's political standing among the Jewish home crowd.

Last week, the press was discussing early elections and the battle for the country's leadership as Barak slumped in the polls. This week, pundits are lauding Barak's calm and determination in his dual role as defense minister.

And the same Israeli public that was deeply upset during the intifada when Israeli soldiers used bullets to disperse stone-wielding Palestinian teenagers has been applauding the use of heavy combat gear this time round.

"It's not helicopters against rock throwers. The situation has radically changed. You have Palestinian policemen shooting with guns we gave them," said Klein-Halevi. "Palestinians are not the victims anymore. We gave them a great deal that they refused," he said, referring to the far-reaching concessions Barak was allegedly willing to make at Camp David this summer. "My answer is bring out the big guns."

Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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