And Darkness Covered the Land
A Walk on Temple Mount: The Trigger
Even today, nobody really knows why Prime Minister Barak allowed Sharon and his entourage to enter the Temple Mount compound in September 2000. The Israeli police and military intelligence had urged Sharon not to attend his pre-announced cavalcade there. For weeks, they had received reports that his presence would provoke a serious upheaval. Palestinian leaders also begged Barak to bar Sharon from entering the Muslim compound, declaring that it would trigger a religious war. Sharon--the man who "bears personal responsibility" for the 1982 massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila, according to an Israeli commission of inquiry--spent an hour walking around the compound. Military helicopters buzzed overhead. He was surrounded by hundreds of policemen. In the waiting crowd below, Sharon's supporters screamed "Death to the Arabs!" and "This is our land!" As predicted, Sharon's actions triggered a massive wave of violence borne of disillusionment with the failed peace talks and the ongoing settlement drive.
The Temple Mount is a stretch of flat, elevated ground just inside the Old City's walls where the Jewish temples of Solomon and Herod once stood, and where two Muslim mosques now stand. With its exquisite, blue-tile mosaics and golden dome, the larger of the two Muslim holy places, known as the Dome of the Rock, is the crown jewel of Jerusalem's skyline.
The compound, run by an Islamic trust set up after the Six-Day War in 1967, has long been a bitterly contested flash point between Arabs and Jews. In the 1980s a messianic Jewish underground, which staged bombing attacks on democratically elected Palestinian West Bank mayors and machine-gunned Palestinian students who were eating their lunch at Hebron University, was caught planning to blow up the Muslim holy sites and replace them with the Third Jewish Temple. There have been other, less serious attempts to defile the mosques since then.
Just as ominous, as far as Muslims are concerned, is a messianic Jewish group called Ateret Cohanim (the Priestly Crown). Using large sums of money donated by American Jews, the group has bought buildings near the Dome of the Rock, where young Jewish students who believe that the Messiah's coming is imminent study how to slaughter a red heifer, whose ashes must be mixed with incense and then used to purify the high priests before they enter the newly built Jewish temple. Ateret Cohanim even bought Sharon a large Arab stone house in the Muslim quarter, which he draped with a large Israeli flag.
The disposition of the mosques remains one of the most intractable problems. Palestinians insist that they will never give up East Jerusalem as their capital, and they demand exclusive sovereignty over the Muslim holy places. One top Israeli military intelligence analyst who specializes in Palestinian affairs understands why the Palestinians so desperately cling to their holy places. "What is the Palestinian state?" he says. "It is a miserable, poor dust bowl without any resources save its claim to the Muslim holy places. They are the only reason Palestine would have a voice among the Arab nations."
The cleric in charge of the holy places, Sheik Ikrima Sabri, is the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, one of the most influential religious leaders in Palestine. On the evening that I visited him, I was ushered into a room lined with brown velvet chairs and sofas adorned with gold lamé pillows. There were two chandeliers, and on one wall hung a photograph of the Mufti as a much younger man, when his bombastic speeches could send thousands into the streets for days of tumultuous riots. Now, no male under 40 is allowed to come to Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Mufti's speeches are carefully monitored by the Israelis, who have warned him not to incite from the pulpit.
The Mufti entered the room wearing a drab, gold-colored robe over a red shirt and slacks. With his gold-rimmed aviator glasses, gray hair, trim beard and friendly face, he almost looked like Santa Claus. Behind the kindly visage is a fiery religious zealot. The Mufti unabashedly justifies Palestinian suicide bombers, calling them "martyrs" who are "defending their country, their land." A suicide bomber, he explains, "is sacrificing his life to get rid of the occupation."
As far as Jewish rights over the Temple Mount are concerned, he bluntly says, "Jews were here in part of their history, but they themselves can't be sure where their temples were. We believe the Al-Aqsa Mosque is given to us by God." God would never take it away and give it to the Jews, he argues. The Mufti says that if Jews want peace, they should find someplace else to build their long-lost temples. As far as the peace process is concerned, he declares, "there won't be any peace with a person like Sharon because he is to us a terrorist, a criminal."