Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
To spend the past few days in the crowded, narrow streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, among the multilingual throngs marking Passover or Easter, was to get an unforgettable sense of the power this place has over the minds of millions. It also gives an insight into some of the ways Jerusalem, and control of access to its holy sites, plays into global power politics.
For the majority of Palestinians who are Muslim, as well as for the Islamic world beyond, the Jewish state of Israel’s hold on the city since its capture from Jordan in the 1967 war is a deep grievance. Sporadic violence around the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque has flared again this year.
But with the confluence this year of the Easter calendars of both Western and Eastern churches, as well as the Jewish Passover celebrations, it was the issue of Christian access and the competing claims of different Christian denominations to the holy sites of Jerusalem, that was particularly in focus this past week. And if it was American-accented English that dominated among the visiting Jewish families crowding towards prayers at the Western Wall and which served as a reminder of the powerful alliance Israel enjoys, despite current turbulence, with the United States, it was the Russian spoken by many of the Christian pilgrims which indicated one of the main trends changing the balance of power within that fractured religious community.
The Israeli state insists on its commitment to free access to the Old City for all religion. Complaints over Easter from the Palestinian Christian minority have been met by Israeli assurances that permission to enter Jerusalem is granted where possible and by pleas for understanding of security concerns in a city blighted by violence. There are also concerns about crowd control. Some Israelis also point out that, under Jordanian control from 1948 to 1967, Jews had virtually no access. Local Christians in the, predominantly Greek Orthodox, Christian Quarter and in the Armenian Quarter now complain however, like their neighbours in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, of encroachment on territory by Jewish groups seeking property. Israel says its laws are fair to all. Some among the Old City’s Christian minority, notably clergy, complain of intimidation by Jewish radicals, including spitting on them in the street.
Pope Benedict spent Thursday in Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up in what is now the northern part of Israel. With no pressing political issues there, his sermon and speeches had a more religious focus than some recent ones.
MARRIAGE: "All of us need... to return to Nazareth, to contemplate ever anew the silence and love of the Holy Family, the model of all Christian family life. Here, in the example of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, we come to appreciate even more fully the sacredness of the family, which in God’s plan is based on the lifelong fidelity of a man and a woman consecrated by the marriage covenant and accepting of God’s gift of new life. How much the men and women of our time need to reappropriate this fundamental truth, which stands at the foundation of society, and how important is the witness of married couples for the formation of sound consciences and the building of a civilization of love!"
It's not often you hear the Palestinians and Israelis compared to Jesus or the international community likened to Christ's closest disciples. But the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, did just that in his address at Pope Benedict's Mass in the Valley of Josephat today. This is the valley just east of the old city of Jerusalem, close to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed in agony before he was arrested by the Romans led by Judas. The Apostles Peter, James and John had accompanied him but they stayed a short distance away and fell asleep while Jesus prayed. Twal used this image to make a link between that Gospel episode and current day Middle East politics:
"Just a few yards from here, Jesus said to his most favored disciples "Remain here, and watch with me" (Mt. 26:39). But these same disciples closed their eyes, not losing sleep over Jesus' agony, only a short distance away in the Garden of Gethsemane."
…and for those who prefer their pictures moving – here’s a couple of videos of the Pope’s visit to Jerusalem’s holy sites. In the first video we see the Pope on his way to the Dome of the Rock, the first Pope ever to make such a visit, before visiting the Western Wall.
(For an explanation of the significance of Jerusalem’s holy sites to Christians, Jews and Muslims – click here for an informative factbox)
There’s an old joke that goes “If Moses had turned right instead of left when he led his people out of the Sinai desert - the Jews would have had the oil and the Arabs would have ended up with the oranges.”
The Land of Milk and Honey it might be – but over the years one major problem for Israel, a tiny strip of land on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, has been energy security.
Not so long ago, as war raged in Iraq, there was much talk about a suggestion that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians deserved less attention from the United States and other world powers than it had enjoyed over the past 60-odd years, that the intractable dispute was distracting policymakers and that the plight of the stateless Palestinians was much less central to the problems in relations between the Arab world and the West than had long been supposed. It is a debate that continues, though as journalists who have chosen to work in Jerusalem perhaps we may be forgiven for occasionally pointing out that many thinkers continue to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as central to the problems of the region and so to the world at large.
A survey last year by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution, Does the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict Still Matter?, found that 86 percent of non-Palestinian Arabs, from Morocco to the Emirates, placed the fate of Palestinians among their top three concerns. That was an increase from 69 percent in 2005, when a larval sectarian civil war in Iraq seemed to be dragging Sunni and Shiite Muslims into a broader regional conflict. And it was still higher than the 73 percent who thought the Palestinian question mattered in 2002: “Despite the Iraq war and the increasing focus on a Sunni-Shiite divide, the Palestinian question remains a central prism through which Arabs view the world,” Telhami concluded.