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Tough Israel

The past six months in Jerusalem have been an eye-opener. This column will give you impressions both personal and political as your correspondent navigates the Holy Land, trying to understand the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Tough Israel
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It is a tough little place. This Israel. Unbound by rules, unshackled from diplomatic custom, this sliver of a country blazes its own unique trail. Almost unplugged from the world, operating on its own grid but exhausting the wonder we may feel about it as it goes along. It can test you hard and strain your beliefs even harder.

The past six months in Jerusalem have been an eye-opener and, gentle reader, living here isn’t easy. The backdrop is always how to wage war and escape peace. And whose religion is being insulted and how. This column will give you impressions both personal and political as your correspondent navigates the Holy Land, trying to understand the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or why priests from six different Christian denominations fight bitterly over space in a single church. Or why you can’t buy bread for eight days during Passover.

I begin with great trepidation because I now live in the world’s most contested and disputed city where every brick means a thousand-year claim and every corner hides a Biblical truth. Heavy doesn’t even begin to describe the feel of Jerusalem with those armies of faithful walking about briskly, so certain, so complete in their worldview. Doubt has little place here. But I have so many, it makes my head hurt.

I am constantly fascinated, impressed, angry, appalled and confused as I watch and learn the truths and untruths, the mythologies and mysteries of this historic city. The cradle of the world’s three major competing religions is not easy to rock. There is too much baggage and far too many memories. Archaeologists are used as political weapons to bolster shaky evidence and new discoveries often lead to new demolitions -- of Palestinian homes. The slow annexation of Jerusalem goes on casually and dreams of the holy city being a shared capital one day for Israel and Palestine grow more distant. Brave Israelis speak out continuously on the pages of a few newspapers but their voices are lost in the busy grunt of bulldozers.

You can only sigh after you are done being angry. Watch the swaggering and heavily armed Israeli soldiers as they stroll the compound of the Dome of the Rock from where Prophet Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven and the nearby Al-Aqsa mosque where he came during the Isra or night journey on the spirit horse. The mosque is the third holiest site in Islam.

But the Jews call the same area the Temple Mount where God supposedly laid the foundation stone of the world and Abraham prepared his son Issac for sacrifice. They also see it as their holiest site – the place where the first two temples were built but destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans in 586 BC and 70 AD. Today the Jews pray at the surviving Western Wall, which has become the most sacred spot in their national and religious consciousness.

But the Western Wall is a very short prayer away from Al-Aqsa and this causes eternal trouble. Even though the two sites are separated and guarded, militant Jews occasionally sneak in groups led by rabbis into the Al-Aqsa compound to try to hold prayers. It happened just last month, provoking a call by Palestinians to gather in greater numbers to defend the site.

The compulsion to claim sites and stones grips not only the utterly religious but also the utterly political. In 2000 Ariel Sharon, then chairman of the rightwing Likud Party, entered the Al-Aqsa compound "in peace" with a thousand armed police. The hugely provocative intrusion, which many say sparked the second intefada, was approved by the then prime minister, Ehud Barak, of the Labour Party. Sharon was throwing a political dare and asserting Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount with the full compliance of the ruling party.

Today, the Muslim faithful watch helplessly as Israeli soldiers show their heavy metal and sometimes even enter the mosque with shoes on. All the custodians of the sprawling mosque can do is point to the glass cabinet filled with shell and bullet casings allegedly fired at Palestinian protesters by their mortal enemy. Meanwhile, various Arab countries have to be content with filling the mosque with donations to mark their presence. But competition is fierce when it comes to registering your name in the logbook of eternal faith. The new plush red carpets of Al-Aqsa came from Jordan’s King Abdullah II who also wants to add a fifth minaret to the building. The carpets in the Dome of the Rock have traditionally come from the kings of Morocco.

In 1990 when cracks were discovered in the massive Dome, whose golden presence dominates the city landscape, the Saudis immediately offered a million dollars for repairs. But Jordan’s King Hussein was offended because he saw himself as the sole protector of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. The Saudis, not content being custodians of Mecca and Medina, were attempting to trespass his holy sphere. Although no match for the Saudi wealth, King Hussein immediately pledged a larger sum without checking with the royal treasury. His coffers were empty and he reportedly sold an estate he owned in Britain to finance the repairs.

The burden of religion is leavened somewhat by a falafel sandwich and the familiar presence of Indian and Chinese junk in the narrow lanes of the old city. And sometimes by a jolly taxi driver who thinks Mithun Chakravarty was the last word in dance or by an eager Arab who wants to be your "fixer" for meetings with Palestinian leaders.

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