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.
A NATO air strike in Afghanistan that mistakenly killed 27 civilians has added a new dimensionto a divide between Israel and Western critics of its conduct in last year’s Gaza war.
Commentators in Israel’s biggest newspapers seized on Sunday’s carnage to argue that the West was quick to judge the Israeli military over Palestinian civilian casualties while ignoring the death of innocents in Afghanistan.
It’s a reality television show whose contestants are isolated from the outside world, but “Big Brother” in Israel has managed to set off yet another controversy over Palestine policies.
Cameras at the studio-cum-commune outside Jerusalem caught Edna Canetti, a 54-year-old liberal activist, telling fellow residents over the weekend she wanted to see a peaceful popular campaign against Israel’s West Bank occupation.
A group of Gazan women are beating high unemployment, achieving self-empowerment, and raising environmental awareness, all with a rather unconventional resource: garbage.
With funding from USAID, the Organisation for Supporters of Palestinian Environment launched a project that trains and assists 24 women in creating craft items for sale out of household garbage.
According to recent polls in both Israel and the West Bank, both Israeli and Palestinian populations are looking to see Hamas step up to the plate in negotiations. But that might not be enough to make Hamas willing to resurface in the West Bank just yet.
Shara’a Simsim, the Palestinian version of the popular television program Sesame Street, will air its fourth season on Palestine TV in January 2010. Funded through a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the new edition aims to teach Palestinian children that they can achieve their dream of an independent Palestinian state through tolerance, education and national pride, as opposed to anti-Israel violence.
Palestinian reconciliation efforts suffered another setback when President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree for presidential and parliamentary elections on Jan. 24, a move that was rejected by the Islamist group Hamas. Egypt has been mediating for over a year to heal the split between Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas but the two rivals have continuously failed to reach a unity agreement. (Read our Q&A to understand why the two Palestinian factions fail to reach an agreement on Cairo’s latest proposal.) Most Palestinians believe a unity deal is crucial to achieving Palestinian statehood but don’t think an agreement is likely. However, the rare case of successful Fatah-Hamas partnership in the West Bank village of Beita might convince them otherwise.
Elected leaders of this town come from different backgrounds and political affiliations but all serve on the same council, working in synergy to build a robust independently-funded infrastructure – a rarity in the Palestinian territories.
Want to know how it feels to be George Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East? Try getting from Jerusalem to Ramallah on a typical weekday at the rush hour. And experience stalemate, frustration, competitive selfishness, blind fury and an absence of movement that even the most stubborn and blinkered of West Bank bus drivers might see as a metaphor for the peace process that is going nowhere fast right now.
It took me 2 full hours to drive the 100 metres (yards) or so from the Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank barrier around Jerusalem to reach the relatively open main street through Qalandiya refugee camp, the gateway to Ramallah. The reason? Well, at its simplest it’s traffic chaos caused by anarchy, a vacuum of law and order. Look further, as with much else in the Middle East, and you get a conflicting and contrasting range of explanations.