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Ha'aretz, August 23, 1998

Who's Desecrating the Holy Sites?

By Gideon Levy

The resolution of the mini-confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis over the Jewish right to prayer at Joseph's Tomb in Nablus did not undo the damage. Moshe Ya'alon, the new head of the Central Command, again proved to Palestinians that their fury toward him - left over from his days as chief of Military Intelligence - is justified. And anyone harboring suspicions that Ya'alon adapts himself to the government of the day found new evidence.In a superfluous move intended to pacify extremist settlers and ministers, Ya'alon permitted worshippers to remain at Joseph's Tomb overnight in the wake of the killing of two Yitzhar settlers. But any connection between the mourning period and lodging at the tomb site remains to be identified.

Ya'alon managed to obtain the agreement of the Palestinians - who are responsible, according to Article V of the Interim Agreement, for the security of worshippers in areas under their control - but he did not prevent the settlers from prolonging their stay at the tomb past the seven-day mourning period.

While this is not explicitly contrary to the agreements, it violates both the status quo, and agreements reached by joint military committees, which specify that settlers may not remain at the tomb site after the hour 23:00.

Seven days of mourning and lodging at the tomb became 30 days at the end of last week. The worshippers, some of the most extreme and dangerous of the settlers (one has called for revenge against Palestinians, and Palestinian sources say that others last week kidnapped Burin resident Muhaned Abed Al-Kader, threatening to kill him), have thus strengthened their hold on the center of Palestinian sovereignty. The Palestinians have yielded to yet another Israeli dictate - despite the absence of guarantees that they will not face a permanent Jewish presence in the heart of their city when the 30 days are up. So a political struggle, which began with a provocation unrelated to religious faith, has been won by the settlers.

But Israel is not satisfied with these crude demonstrations of power. The Government Press Office published an official and arcane announcement from the desk of David Bar-Illan, attacking the Palestinian Authority's "violation of the Oslo agreements," and its "failure to respect the holy places." It must be seen to be believed: Israel is accusing the Palestinian Authority of violating freedom of religion and freedom of access to holy sites. Glass-house dwellers do not hesitate to throw stones.

The majority of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation are not allowed to visit the Dome of the Rock, third-holiest Muslim site in the world. Tens of thousands of Palestinians who want to pray in Jerusalem are not allowed access. Israel is also doing its utmost to keep Palestinian residents at a minimum in the city holy not only to Jews - by confiscating identity cards and otherwise making Palestinians' lives there miserable.

The freedom of worship of tens of thousands of Muslims and Christians is crudely violated by Israel as a matter of course, despite its pious statements favoring religious freedom. Christians from Bethlehem and Muslims from Deheishe, not to mention from Gaza, cannot pray at their holy sites.

Israel's blatant violation of non-Jewish religious values began with the establishment of the state. The 400-odd Palestinian villages razed in 1948 contained at least 400 mosques and 400 cemeteries.

Israel preserved not a trace of either. Cemeteries were overturned; mosques were destroyed or desecrated. And Israel does not now allow freedom of worship in the handful of surviving mosques. Only a few days ago, authorities sealed off Al Tabaya Mosque in Jaffa, that dates from Crusader times.

The local paper Tel Aviv reported that Muslims from Jaffa who recently began using the mosque made "hell" of the lives of sensitive Jewish artists who could not bear the noise of prayer. The municipality accordingly sealed off the mosque. A few weeks ago in the western Galilee, at Moshav Ben Ami, which was built on the ruins of the village of Umm Farge, authorities destroyed a mosque - the only remnant of the leveled village - when descendents of original inhabitants dared to come back to pray there.

In such cases, the authorities cite political provocation and the ever-threatening danger of "return." It seems that only the extremist settlement in Joseph's tomb is not political.

The destruction and desecration of non-Jewish holy sites did not end in 1948. After 1967, Israel razed a few dozen villages in the Golan, leaving barely a vestige of their holy sites. The skeletons of the remaining mosques were dirtied and desecrated. Other mosques in Israel have been made into synagogues, resort villages or left to ruin.

If the remains of a synagogue or Jewish cemetery were treated this way anywhere in the world, Israel and international Jewish organizations would move heaven and earth in protest.

Israel, with hands unclean, is daring to complain that the Palestinians are not honoring Jewish holy sites and the freedom of Jews to worship at Joseph's Tomb. Can there be a more blatant example of hypocrisy, double standards and a complete disregard for the needs of others.


(c) copyright 1998 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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