MIDEAST: New Call to Past Adds to Troubles

  • by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler (jerusalem)
  • Inter Press Service

When last week, Netanyahu took his entire government to Upper Galilee to hold his regular cabinet meeting at one such heritage site, a place with mythical resonance in Israeli nationalism, his vision turned out to be anything but inconsequential.

The cabinet duly approved the Netanyahu plan to 'preserve and rehabilitate' 150 sites around the country at a cost of over 100 million dollars.

That too could have been largely inconsequential. But the right-wing government insisted on including in the list of 'national heritage sites' two major shrines which are holy not only to Jews but also to Muslims, and, what's more, which are located in the occupied West Bank.

The two disputed West Bank sites are in Hebron (which Jews identify as the Biblical Cave of the Patriarchs and Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque), and in Bethlehem (which Jews call Rachel's Tomb and Muslims the mosque of Bilal).

Both have long sustained their own, more contemporary, heritage - as places of fierce battles and repeated shedding of blood between Israelis and Palestinians.

The inclusion of the two West Bank shrines enraged Palestinians and also brought a swift condemnation from the UN's special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry: 'These sites in occupied Palestinian territory are of historical and religious significance not only to Judaism, but also to Islam and to Christianity,' he said in a statement issued in Jerusalem.

'I urge Israel not to take any steps which undermine trust or could prejudice negotiations. I am concerned at the heightened tensions that have resulted,' Serry added.

Indeed, since the Israeli announcement, scores of Palestinian youths have been clashing daily with Israeli forces in Hebron.

Netanyahu's 'heritage' move drew the ire of the Palestinian leadership. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told IPS: 'This unilateral decision shows we have no genuine partner for peace. There is only an occupying power intent on consolidating its hold on Palestinian land.'

Control of archaeological and tourist sites is clearly a part of Israel's ongoing settlement policy in the West Bank, Erekat added.

On a visit to Belgium, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had an even gloomier prognosis. Denouncing Israel's 'provocation', he said the Netanyahu decision could unleash a 'religious war'.

Netanyahu remained adamant. A statement from his office accused Abbas of launching a 'hypocritical campaign' and maintained that the ancestors of Israelis had been buried in the two sites thousands of years ago, and the sites deserved to be preserved.

'People must be familiar with their homeland and its cultural and historical vistas,' the Prime Minister had declared at the extraordinary cabinet meeting. 'We will instill that in the coming generations for the glory of the Jewish people.'

Netanyahu critics at home, however, contend that the heritage project will alienate Israel's non-Jewish minorities. Geographer Oren Yiftachel of Ben- Gurion University noted that the symbolic step, though small, showed that Israel's Jewish majority is 'simply not capable of maturely including the minorities who live in this country.'

The decision demonstrated a lack of self-confidence of the right-wing Netanyahu government, Yiftachel asserted.

One of Israel's leading preservation experts, David Kroyanker, points out that the list of heritage sites would be very different if Jewish nationalist goals were not the primary intention.

'It is, of course, the government's right to determine the criteria for such a list. But if, for example, one would rank the contribution of Muslims, Jews and Christians to the architecture of Jerusalem, I would give the Muslims a rating of nine, the Christians a seven and the Jews only a six.'

More pertinently on the political plane, Netanyahu is being accused by his critics of himself suffering from a short heritage memory.

This decision, they charge, is reminiscent of when he was first prime minister 14 years ago and insisted on opening a Biblical-time archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem's Old City. The tunnel is adjacent to the holiest site for Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land - what the Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Haram el-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary.

That controversial decision then sparked a mini Palestinian armed uprising with extensive loss of life. Peace efforts at the time were also seriously jeopardised.

It's not yet clear whether this sudden latest need by Netanyahu to demonstrate ardent patriotism will again undercut the current U.S. efforts to bring Israeli and Palestinians back to the peace table precisely at a time when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says they are on the verge of being ready to do so.

Even though he lauds the Netanyahu heritage initiative, Ari Shavit, a leading columnist for Haaretz, notes that the Prime Minister is skating on thin political ice.

'Netanyahu is doing something important in trying to revive Zionism, but without confronting the occupation his effort will fail. If Israel is truly to be grounded in its seminal values, to really root Israelis in their heritage, and to move towards peace from a position of strength, then Netanyahu has to come to terms with the fact that we must gradually quit the (occupied) territories.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service