When Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would say that he was born near al-Buraq, or the wall adjacent to the al-Aqsa mosque in the old city of Jerusalem, he was only emphasising the supreme importance the city had in the national consciousness of Palestinians. For, Arafat was born in Cairo, and yet felt compelled to establish links with a shrine that is holy to both the Muslims and the Jews.
Indeed, in a land where histories overlap, it's perhaps not surprising to find votaries of two religions lay exclusive claims to a common shrine. But that it should scupper the peaceful resolution of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians only highlights the unwarranted mingling of religion and nationality to form a deadly cocktail.
Arafat's al-Buraq was the mythical animal Mohammad rode on his journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. The place where he hid the animal is called al-Buraq, which to the Jews is the Wailing Wall, or the remnants of the outer wall of the Temple Mount that was destroyed 2,000 years ago by the Romans. Indeed, when histories intertwine, different names are often assigned to the same religious shrine. Thus, the al-Buraq of Muslims is the Wailing Wall (or Western Wall) of Jews and their Temple Mount is in Arabic the Haram-al-Sharif of the Muslims.
The al-Aqsa mosque, the control over which has engendered much bloodshed in the last fortnight, is located in the Haram-al-sharif, and it is where the Quran says Prophet Mohammad ascended to the seven skies and met all the prophets who had preceded him. That this should precisely be the site of the Temple Mount has only complicated the issue.
The location of this controversial shrine-as well as the presence of places holy to Christians as well-in the older quarters of Jerusalem has raised the crucial issue of who should control the city-the Palestinians or the Israelis. Arafat would often talk of liberating Jerusalem through jehad (or holy war) and didn't eschew this expression even after he signed the Oslo agreement in 1993.
But Arafat's call for jehad never touched a chord among the Palestinians of Jerusalem. In fact, they distanced themselves from the Palestinian National Authority, which was reflected in the 1994 election to the Palestinian National Council, the first after the Oslo agreement. Only 20 per cent of the 200,000 Palestinians (one-third of the city's population) exercised their franchise. But they weren't pro-Israeli either; for less than 10 per cent of Palestinians participated in the elections to the Israeli municipality and the Israeli Knesset.
Over the years, two schools of thought have developed among both the Palestinians and Israelis. One school preferred the "status quo"-while the formal sovereignty over the Haram-al-Sharif and the al-Aqsa mosque was to be of the Israelis, it was not to challenge the actual rule of the Muslim Waqf administration there. The local Palestinian leadership of East Jerusalem preferred this solution. Ironically, this approximated to the orthodox opinion among the right-wing Jews who forbade entry to the Temple Mount because its religious purity had been compromised.
But this tacit understanding changed abruptly at the Camp David summit of July last. A new school of thought now advocated that not only the status quo could be changed but that the Israelis could persuade the Palestinians to agree to a synagogue near the al-Aqsa mosque.
The person who convinced Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak into believing this was minister of justice Yosi Beilin, a secular leader on the Israeli Left. As deputy foreign minister in the earlier Rabin government, Beilin had asked Israeli and Palestinian academicians to prepare papers on what ought to be the permanent settlement under the Oslo agreement. The academicians suggested that the Palestinian capital should be established in Abu Dis, a Palestinian village near the Old City, which could be connected to the holy site through a safe passage cutting across the Jewish area. The Jews were also to be accorded a site for praying at the lower level beneath the mosque.
Palestinian leader Abu Mazen, who is widely regarded as second to Arafat in authority, was prepared to give his blessing to the project-but never formally endorsed the suggestion. But Beilin claimed that there was a "non-paper" agreement with Mazen, a claim hotly disputed by the Palestinians.
At Camp David, Barak was sure the Palestinians would agree to the Jews having tacit control over the site located below al-Aqsa. He was surprised to find this was not the case. In the wake of this erosion of a tenuous consensus, the provocative decision of Likud leader Ariel Sharon to enter the Haram-al-Sharif, or the Temple Mount, sparked off a bloodbath last fortnight.
Indeed, it appears Barak and Sharon have unwittingly enabled Arafat to link the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the future of the holy places in Jerusalem. This was what Arafat wanted-a recognition that Jerusalem is the core of the conflict.
Says Rami Nasrallah, head of the Palestinian International Peace and Cooperation, Jerusalem: "The crisis erupted because a national dispute was converted into a religious one. The only way out is to split the city, share power and forge cooperation with Palestinians." This also entails returning to the status quo at the disputed site and putting the genie back in the bottle.