IT was a disaster waiting to happen. The opening of a "tourist site", an 800 m tunnel that connects the Wailing Wall in the southern part of the Old City of Jerusalem with Via Dolorosa in the north, threw East Jerusalem and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) territories into religious turmoil. And as the violence, which left 83 dead, finally blew over, the scene of damage control endeavours shifted to Washington DC as US President Bill Clinton invited the leaders of Israel, the PNA and Jordan to the White House. But observers are sceptical about their ability to pacify angry Palestinians.
That clashes would ensue became clear on the day Jerusalems hardline mayor, Ehud Olmert, broke down the wall at the northern entrance of the tunnel. In fact, a Fatah (the militant wing of the PNA) leader, Bassam a-Sayeh, had then predicted to Outlook that this would provoke a fresh, uprising which would be very violenta Hot Intifada, as it were. Sayeh was proven right last fortnight when dozens of Palestinians and Israelis were killed in an exchange of fire between the Palestinian Police and the Israeli Army. And as the Israelis fought to bring things under control, Defence Minister Itzhak Mordechai gave an unprecedented order to his forces to be ready to again invade Gaza, the location of the PNAs headquarters.
Why did Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu decide to open the tunnel at this point, given the likely consequences? Actually, Netanyahu found himself increasingly hard pressed to please his right-wing supporters. He was about to redeploy Israeli forces from the West Bank city of Hebron and could not fulfill their demand for large-scale settlements. He probably figured that opening the tunnel in Jerusalem would win favour among the right wingers without breaking his promise to Washington and Cairo on settlements. But things did not go according to plan and at the White House, Netanyahu came under immense pressure to withdraw from Hebron.
As for the tunnel itself, excavations date back 2,000 years, but things took a new turn on September 4 when the hardline municipality sent inspectors into the Haram (the yard of the Al-Aqsa mosque, to which the tunnel leads) to deliver a notice to the Waqf (the Muslim administrative board of the holy site) that renovations were being carried out without legal permit. This was the first time that Israeli authorities had sought to intervene in renovation inside the Haram. The Waqf informally notified the Israeli government that the work was necessary as in coming years Ramadan would occur in winter and devotees would consequently have to be accommodated inside. The Israelis bought this argument, but informed the Waqf that they intended to open the tunnel soon.
Given the mild objection from the Palestinians, the Israeli government was caught off-guard when violence erupted. The Palestinian Police, which had been deployed with the blessing of the former Labor Party government, turned its rifles on the Israeli forces in the clashes that left more than 80 dead and 1,000 wounded.
The Commander of the Palestinian Police, General Nasr Yusef, told Outlook that the main damage was inflicted on the security cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian Police, which had joined hands against the Hamas. "All we have built during the last two-and-a-half years went down the drain," he said. Noting that while a degree of mutual consultation still takes place between the two forces, he felt a joint inquiry commission must be constituted to assess what happened in order to amend the damage and restore the spirit of cooperation.
Meanwhile, the two-day Washington summit ended in a deadlock and as Palestinian leaders headed home, they warned that Netanyahus refusal to state a date for Israeli withdrawal from Hebron could provoke a fresh wave of violence. The latter is seeking major concessions from the Palestinians in the Hebron pullout plan approved by the Labor government. Clinton also failed to push Israel into closing the new entrance to the tunnel, to the delight of Netanyahus right-wing supporters. And while another meeting was scheduled between Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for October 6, observers were sceptical about any headway. And so, the chequered peace process rolls along.