Visions collide in Old City

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Residents worship, battle side by side

By Gregory Katz / The Dallas Morning News

JERUSALEM – On good days, and there are many, there is no place on earth quite like the Old City of Jerusalem.

Muslims walk to prayers at the splendid Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, where the Prophet Mohammed, according to Islamic tradition, began his ascent to heaven.

Next to the mosque, Jews in black coats and hats pray in front of the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, believed to be the last remnant of the Second Temple of Jerusalem that was destroyed by the Romans in the year A.D. 70.

A few blocks away, hundreds of Christian pilgrims walk in Christ's footsteps along the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where, the Bible says, he was crucified and resurrected.

The Old City is one of the world's best-preserved Islamic medieval towns, with unique architectural gems dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. The great religious sites are so close together that the Jews praying in front of the Western Wall can easily hear the Muslim call to prayer coming from the loudspeakers of the mosque.

Intermingled with this devotional fervor are the secular sights, the bustle of Arab markets set in the winding, cobbled streets; the smell of herbs and spices; the fresh melons and eggplants and olives in the food stalls; the donkeys and the pushcarts that provide transportation on ancient roads far too narrow for automobiles.

But on bad days, and there have been many in the last few weeks, the Old City becomes – as so often throughout the centuries – a dark maze of terror, with blood staining the holy sites and rescue crews struggling to reach the wounded.

In tranquil times, the Old City validates the notion that the faithful of the world's three great monotheistic religions can coexist. But far too frequently, the Old City is torn by strife, particularly as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians intensifies and both sides resist calls for compromise on the future of the holy sites.

The focal point of the conflict is the Temple Mount, known to Arabs as the Haram al-Sharif, site of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, and – farther in the past – site of the First Temple and the Second Temple, both sacred to Jews.

It is from here that Palestinian youths seeking to redress 52 years of grievances since the founding of Israel pelt Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall below with stones, awaking in Jews a sense of persecution that dates back to the Holocaust of World War II and beyond.

Halawani Ali, a Palestinian businessman, said the current uprising – which many Palestinians are calling the "al-Aqsa intifada" – is an attempt to protect the Muslim claim to the Old City mosques from an Israeli takeover.

Referring to Israeli architectural excavations taking place beneath the Old City, he said the Israelis may be planning to undermine the mosque so they can build a Third Temple. He also said Israel may seize the site by force.

"We won't allow them to take the mosques," he said. "They have already taken too much of our land. ... Every Muslim is ready to give his life for the mosques. I tell my sons, and I tell my sons to tell their sons, that this is a place they should never leave, and that their life is a small price to pay for it."

Mr. Ali, 41, said that Christians and Muslims share the Old City holy sites "like one family" but that the Jews are not welcome because they are trying to confiscate Arab homes in the Old City as Jewish outposts.

"They can pray at the Wall, but to give them a piece of Jerusalem – no," he said. It was disagreement over the control of these sacred spots that scuttled the possibility of a vital peace agreement when Israeli and Palestinian leaders met with President Clinton at Camp David in July. Finding a compromise on the emotionally charged issue of Jerusalem proved impossible.

The battle over the Old City's treasures is nothing new. In its long history, the city has been conquered and re-conquered time and time again, coming under the control of the Romans, the Ottoman Turks, the British, the Jordanians, the Israelis and others.

The fresh round of bloodletting in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza was ignited after Ariel Sharon, the combative leader of Israeli's Likud Party, made a provocative visit to the Muslim mosque in the Old City some three weeks ago.

To outsiders, the visit may have seemed inconsequential. But to Muslims, the visit of an expansion-minded Jewish leader to a mosque that figures prominently in the Koran was seen as a call to arms.

The resulting conflagration has fed the pervasive paranoia on both sides. Palestinians are convinced the Israelis want to seize the mosque, perhaps to destroy it and then build a Jewish temple on the sacred spot.

There is some basis for fears that an outsider will try to destroy the mosques. An Australian Christian set fire to the al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969, damaging parts of the building, and in 1981, Israelis arrested outside Jerusalem with explosives were found to be planning to destroy the mosque to clear the way for a Third Temple. Fatal riots broke out in 1990 after Jewish extremists tried to lay a foundation stone for a new temple.

Many Israeli Jews, however, believe that militant Palestinians are determined to seize control of the Temple Mount and block their access to the Western Wall, where a large esplanade was built after the Israeli government gained control of the Old City during the 1967 war.

After praying at the Western Wall and kissing its surface, Phillip Weiss, 74, said he dreams of the day when a Third Temple can be built where the Dome of the Rock mosque now stands. But for now, he said, he is content to be able to worship at the Western Wall and know it is secure under the Israeli flag.

"To me, when I see it, I cry," he said. "At last it's under the sovereignty of the Jews.''

Mr. Weiss, using events that happened more than 2,000 years ago to provide the definitive answers to today's conflict, said the Jewish claim to the Temple Mount predates the Muslim claim.

The recent desecration of Joseph's Tomb, a controversial site in the West Bank city of Hebron that was taken over by Palestinians two weeks ago, shows what will happen to Jewish sites in the Old City if Palestinians get control, Mr. Weiss said.

"I don't think they want to share these sites with us," he said. "They were offered that, but they said no. They just want to get us out." He said the Palestinian leadership had rejected all Israeli offers to compromise and share the sacred spots in the Old City.

The Rev. Samir Habiby, an Anglican chaplain with deep family roots in Jerusalem, said that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat could not make a deal with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak concerning the future of the Old City mosques because his own people would have seen him as a traitor.

"Arafat felt he was being asked to give up – forever – sovereignty of the al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques," Mr. Habiby said. "No Muslim can do that. It goes to the heart of the Koran and the Prophet Mohammed's presence there. For Muslims, it is critically important to visit the holy sites."

He said Jews feel equally strongly about retaining access to the Western Wall, which was closed to them from 1948 until 1967 when the Old City was part of Jordan. And Christians also view Jerusalem as central to their faith, he said.

"Clearly the city where our Lord died and rose again is our holiest place," he said. "So every part of the Old City becomes holy to the Christians, just as it is to Muslims and Jews. So there has to be a mechanism in place that assures access of all religions at all times, so it cannot be closed down. This has not been easy."