Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Holy Sites Are the Conflict in Microcosm: Jews Are Willing to Share, Arabs Aren’t

As Jonathan noted yesterday, the Palestinian Authority has embarked on a campaign to expunge Jewish history by relabeling Jewish holy sites as Muslim ones. But this battle over the religious identity of holy sites deserves more Western attention than it has gotten, because it’s a perfect example of why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has remained unsolvable for decades: The Jews are willing to share, but the Arabs aren’t.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron– one of the sites that UNESCO, at the PA’s request, recently declared exclusively Islamic – is a prime example. Under Israeli control, the tomb has been simultaneously an active synagogue and an active mosque for 44 years, a situation unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Most days of the year, it’s open to worshippers of both faiths; on a handful of Jewish and Muslim holy days, it’s open only to worshippers of the celebrating faith. At no point has Israel ever sought to make the site exclusively Jewish; it has willingly shared it with Palestinian Muslims.

Contrast that with the view of the Tomb expressed last year by one of Hebron’s most prominent Muslim clerics: “It is a pure Muslim holy place and there is no right for non-Muslims to be here or to pray here, and I’m against the presence of the Jews, even in the old city,” Haj Zeid al Ja’bari, general director of Islamic Religious Authorities in Hebron, told reporters. No willingness to share there.

That attitude can be seen in action on the Temple Mount, where Israel, in a misguided burst of generosity, ceded de facto control to the Islamic waqf (religious trust) immediately after capturing the site in 1967: Jews and Christians are barred from praying there; they are not even allowed to read the Bible or move their lips in silent prayer. The Mount is Judaism’s holiest site, to which Jews have prayed thrice daily for millennia. But the Arabs aren’t willing to share there, either.

What’s true of the holy sites is equally true of the land as a whole. Israel has repeatedly offered to share the land with the Palestinians, from its acceptance of the UN partition plan in 1947 to Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of a state in 2000 and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s even more generous offer in 2008. And every time, the Palestinians said no.

But because a comprehensive peace deal is so complex, involving so many different and contentious issues, it’s easy for Westerners to focus on the trees rather than the forest: to delude themselves that a deal could be reached if only Israel offered a little more here or demanded a little less there, rather than grasping the overall pattern of Palestinian rejectionism.

That’s why it’s worth zooming in on a single, small issue, like the Tomb of the Patriarchs. There’s no welter of competing interests here, no multiplicity of
possible trade-offs such as borders versus security, Jerusalem versus the refugees. Just proven Israeli willingness to share the site, and proven Palestinian refusal to do so.

And until that Palestinian refusal changes, peace will never be possible.