Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
The rare sense of space and calm that marks out the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City is both its blessing and its curse. The acquisition of the land, and construction of the beautiful St. James Cathedral at its heart, speaks volumes for the abilities of this small ethnic diaspora from the Caucasus to secure favour from the Ottoman sultans who partitioned the walled holy city in the hope of a bit of peace from religious rivalries.
But the limited, and shrinking population of the Armenians has made their Quarter an object of envy and desire for other groups, not least the fast-expanding Jewish Quarter next door, which has been massively rebuilt during 43 years of Israeli control after being ravaged during the period of Jordanian rule from 1948 to 1967.
The Church itself, proud of a tradition that it was an Armenian king in 301 who first adopted Christianity as a state religion (some years before the Roman Empire), is a solid fixture of Christian Jerusalem. The small ethnic Armenian lay community around it feels less sure of its future.
Having broken with authorities in Constantinople and Rome as early as the 6th century (in a complex dispute over the human and divine nature of Jesus), the Church later secured under the Ottoman-era status quo which still governs such matters a share of the tripartite governance of Jerusalem’s Christian holy sites, notably the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with the very much larger Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic denominations. The latter churches and a small community of their Arab Christian adherents dominate the Christian Quarter, leaving the Armenians in splendid, if potentially precarious, isolation in their own Armenian Quarter, following their distinctive traditions in their unfamiliar Indo-European tongue with its unique script.
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip may just feel a little less isolated today. Israel is bowing to international pressure and rejigging its embargo on the enclave in the wake of the bloodshed 3 weeks ago when it enforced a longstanding maritime blockade.
But earlier this month, taking my leave at the end of a 3-year assignment, I reflected while walking the half-mile (700-metre) cage (picture, right) that separates Gaza from Israel on how the barriers that surround and divide this region have, if anything, grown higher, deepening the isolation of the rival parties. That may make any kind of reconciliation more difficult as time goes on. I wrote about this earlier today.
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.
Next week is the time of year when millions of people around the world look to Jerusalem as the source of inspiration for the Christian festival of Easter and Jewish Passover celebrations. But this week the city is also the recurrent focus of bitter dispute. The United States has directed rare strong criticism at Israel over its plans to expand Jewish settlements there, saying the building undermines U.S. efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Want to know more? Following are links to a sampling of recent Reuters stories about Jerusalem and a Reuters graphic on new Israeli construction in East Jerusalems:
There have been a series of significant and highly publicised events recently in Vatican-Jewish relations.
In recent months, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem have taken to the streets in protest over businesses operating on Saturday – the Jewish Sabbath when ritual law bans Jews from working. At times, the demonstrations have even turned violent, like a conflagration in July over a parking lot near the Old City. Most of the ultra-Orthodox ire has been directed at the Jerusalem municipality.
Last week, the Shabbat Strife took a surprising turn with some ultra-Orthodox taking aim at the world’s biggest electronic chip maker for keeping their new Jerusalem plant open on the Jewish day of rest. Though the building is located in an industrial park on the outskirts of the city, it is nearby a religious neighborhood that strictly observes the Sabbath laws.
The Reuters news desk, along with many foreign journalists in Israel, received a peculiarly worded beeper message in English from the Israel Defence Forces Spokesman’s Office on Israel’s seizure of a ship carrying hundreds of tons of Iranian-supplied arms on Wednesday.
It read as follows (the strangely worded part is in bold letters):
IDF Spokesperson Update: ‘FRANCOP’, the weapons laden ship intercepted by the Israel navy, left the Ashdod naval port yesterday evening, after all of the arms and munitions had been unloaded. The ‘FRANCOP’ has continued on its way, sailing towards its original port of destination after the incidents of yesterday. Israel Navy personnel released the ship without complications and with best wishes for their continued safe journey. (This is a retarded sentence for foreign press, comes across as obsequious) the arms unloaded were transported overnight, under the supervision of sappers, to an IDF ammunition base in central Israel, where the weaponry will be properly and safely stored.
Ordinary women and men, wearing plastic bags on their feet, pulling pants up to knee level, clutch their children to their chests and roam along a 110-metre dark tunnel of sewage to cross from the Israeli-occupied West Bank to East Jerusalem.
Erected under a barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank in defiance of a World Court ruling, the tunnel serves as a gateway connecting Palestinians from the West Bank to East Jerusalem, a centre for medical, social, religious and other services for the Palestinians.
Hundreds of visitors to Jerusalem’s old walled city got more than the tour of religious holy sites they had bargained for on Sunday, as violence between Israeli police and Muslims at al-Aqsa Mosque spilled over into some of the otherwise charming cobblestone alleys that frame the compound.
Eighteen Palestinians and three Israeli policemen were injured in the latest of a series of recent confrontations at the mosque, situated on al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), which Muslims regard as their third holiest site. Jews revere the area as the Temple Mount, a site where two ancient temples once stood. The Western Wall remnant to a Roman-era temple, one of Judaim’s holiest sites, is right next door.
Last week: Sunday – clashes in the Old City of Jerusalem which to some resemble the events that led to the outbreak of the Second Intifada nine years ago; Tuesday – shooting by Palestinians wounds an Israeli motorist in the West Bank; Wednesday – an Israeli Army jeep hitting and killing a 17-year-old Palestinian. (Read more about the September 27th, 2009 clashes here.)
This week: Sunday again – hundreds of Arabs clash again with police in the Old City of Jerusalem. Police briefly block all access to the al-Aqsa mosque compound.