Cutthroats of the Holy Land

Cliff May
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Posted: Oct 21, 2015 10:10 AM
Cutthroats of the Holy Land

Over the years, Israelis have had to defend themselves from foreign armies, suicide bombers and missiles. Over recent weeks, they’ve been confronting a new threat: young Palestinians wielding butcher knives.

Unlike the cutthroats of the Islamic State and al Qaeda, these fanatics aren’t able to bind their victims and behead them. But videos on social media teach would-be assassins how to use sharp instruments to inflict maximum damage on unsuspecting Israelis. An imam in Gaza has been recorded on the pulpit brandishing a six-inch knife, urging his “brothers” to go out in the streets, find a Jew and “Stab!”

Attacks have been occurring almost daily since the beginning of the month, claiming – at last count – eight Israeli lives, with more than 70 injured. Also last week, some 100 Palestinian youths set fire to Joseph’s Tomb in the West Bank. Add that to the growing list of religious sites – from Afghanistan to Syria to Mali – targeted by self-proclaimed jihadis.

Lies and libels spread via social media have incited the current spate of bloodletting. The three most responsible parties: The Islamic Movement in Israel, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate; Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood branch that rules Gaza; and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority.

The most far-fetched lie: that Israelis plan to destroy the al Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, which was built atop the more ancient Temple Mount, Judaism’s most sacred ground. Also baseless: Mr. Abbas’ charge that Israel intends to change the “religious status quo.”

What that means in plain English: Currently, Israelis protect the right of Muslims to pray at al Aqsa; non-Muslims may not, though they are permitted to visit the site. Over the past year, according to Israeli figures, nearly 4 million Muslims came to worship. By comparison, 200,000 Christians and 12,000 Jews visited the Temple Mount.

Mr. Abbas has decided that’s unacceptable. “Al Aqsa Mosque is ours,” he recently said. “They [Jews] have no right to defile it with their filthy feet.” He encouraged aspiring terrorists, saying: “We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. Every shahid [martyr] will be in heaven and every wounded person will be rewarded by Allah’s will.”

In the past, Mr. Abbas has at least appeared to believe that terrorism does not serve Palestinian interests. But it has been years since he has been willing to conduct direct negotiations with Israelis. And, at the UN recently, he said he’d no longer abide by the Oslo Accords, agreements reached in the 1990s aimed at providing a roadmap toward a two-state solution.

You may wonder how it came about that the Jewish state grants more religious freedom to Muslims than to Jews. The story is told vividly in “Jerusalem: The Biography,” a brilliant history by the British writer Simon Sebag Montefiore.

In 1967, Arab states went to war with Israel. Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nassar proclaimed the war’s objective: “the destruction of Israel.” Iraq’s leader said, the “goal is to wipe Israel off the face of the map.”

At the time, Jordan ruled east Jerusalem, as well as Judea and Samaria, territories it had renamed “the West Bank.” For centuries, these had been possessions of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul. Following World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, they passed to British control under a mandate from the League of Nations.

After World War II, Britain granted eastern Palestine independence under a monarch from the royal Hashemite clan which had been displaced from Arabia by its Saudi rivals. In 1948, as Jews were fighting the armies of five Arab nations to establish a state of their own in their ancient homeland, the Kingdom of Jordan occupied east Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria.

Jews who had been living in these places were either killed or driven out. Jewish worship was forbidden and Jewish holy sites were desecrated or destroyed.

Nevertheless, Israel very much wanted Jordan to sit out what would become known as the Six-Day War. Mr. Montefiore recounts: “Three times, Israel warned King Hussein, through the U.S. State Department, the UN in Jerusalem and the British Foreign Office, that ‘Israel will not, repeat not, attack Jordan if Jordan maintains the quiet. But if Jordan opens hostilities, Israel will respond with all its might.’”

In the end, the king did order an attack and Israel did respond with all its might, expelling Jordanian forces. Mr. Montefiore describes Israeli Gen. Moshe Dayan approaching the Temple Mount and spotting an Israeli flag atop the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine adjacent to al Aqsa. “I ordered it removed immediately,” the general said.

He then issued a statement guaranteeing Muslims “full freedom of worship. We’ve not come to conquer the holy place of others but to live with others in harmony.” Ten days later, he returned to the site, sat down with Muslim religious leaders, and “explained that Jerusalem now belonged to Israel but the Waqf [a Jordanian-based authority] would control the Temple Mount.” And, considering Islamic sensitivities, he decided that Jews should not pray there.

It was a major concession – one that has never been reciprocated. Israelis officials have been adamant: They have no intention of revoking it now. But ask yourself: While it may be inadvisable to open this sacred site to non-Muslim worshipers, should it really be unthinkable?

How can there be progress toward peaceful coexistence if Palestinian leaders believe the very idea of Jews and Muslims praying side by side justifies the slaughter of innocent women and children? More broadly: If tolerance becomes a one-way street, is it still tolerance? Is there not a point at which it becomes more akin to submission?