Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Other Middle Eastern Conflict

Hard to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when two suicide car-bombs, literally minutes apart, killed at least 147 Iraqis and injured 700 more – the highest casualty toll in two years from such attacks – just outside the high-security “green zone” in Baghdad on Sunday. Insurgents “blew up by the justice ministry and a Baghdad provincial office, sites separated by one broad city block. The attacks, the bloodiest in Iraq this year, hit the nerve center of Baghdad's national and local governments, shattering windows, sending debris flying and tearing down parts of buildings.” Los Angeles Times, October 25th. With elections looming in January, the blasts clearly undermined the credibility in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ability to secure the country as U.S. forces withdraw. On October 28th, as Pakistani forces attacked Taliban strongholds nearby, a car bomb exploded in a Peshawar (Pakistan) marketplace that catered mostly to women, killing at least 100 and wounding another 200 plus – punctuating the arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region.

With such emphasis in the conflicts in central Asia – Pakistan and Afghanistan – and such devastating news from Iraq, sometimes the “other Middle Eastern conflict” seems distant and not as important. Make no mistake; while new hot spots have joined the simmering cauldrons of discontent bubbling throughout the Islamic world, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always an issue that could erupt in violent extreme at any moment. It is the conflict that gives many Islamists the justification to attack the United States and its Western partners.

And the status of Jerusalem itself, the continued development of new Jewish settlements on the Palestinian West Bank, threaten to undermine “progress” at any level in the region. Indeed, a new hardliner Israeli government, surrounded by hostile forces at every turn, seems to favor a return to conflict as more productive than negotiation, which has been less than stellar at calming Islamist attacks against the Jewish state. It is worthwhile to take a look at one particular “irreconcilable difference” between the Jewish and the Islamic worlds: Jerusalem’s holiest sites for each faith.

Al-Aqsa Mosque is the second oldest mosque in Islam after the Ka'ba in Mecca, and the third in holiness and importance after the mosques in Mecca. describes the spiritual importance attached to this house of worship under Muslim tradition: “Ten years after the Prophet Mohammad received his first revelation, he made a miraculous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and to the Seven Heavens on a white flying horse called Al-Buraq El-Sharif. During his interval in Jerusalem, the Prophet stopped to pray at the rock (now covered by the golden Dome [“The Dome of the Rock,” which is within the mosque]), and was given the commandment to pray five times a day.”

But then, Jews have a stake in this very land as well; they just have another name for it. “The Temple Mount contains the holiest site in Judaism. Jewish Midrash holds that it was from here that the world expanded into its present form, and that this was where God gathered the dust he used to create the first man, Adam. The Torah records that it was here that God chose to rest His Name and Divine Presence, and consequently two Jewish Temples were built at the site. According to Jewish tradition, the Third Temple will also be located here, and will be the final one. In recent times, due to difficulties in ascertaining the precise location of the Mount's holiest spot, many Jews will not set foot on the Mount itself.” Wikipedia. The Temple Mount is also known as the “Noble Sanctuary” to Muslims, since the Al-Aqsa Mosque sits in this revered place.

Needless to say that no good can come from the same place being of exceptional importance – critical actually – to two religions whose political manifestations appear to be at war with each other. And since Israel captured this land during the 1967 war, each side feels particularly strongly about who should control this site. I won’t even go into the significance of these sites to Christians, because at this moment, they are not a part of the fundamental struggle that embraces the Arab-Israeli hostilities over possession of this holy area.

So what just slipped past us in the Sunday news, while we were paying so much attention to the “main conflicts” in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the battle over whether or not Iran has nuclear weapons? The October 25th New York Times: “The [Israeli] police said that their forces had entered the Temple Mount compound twice after Palestinians hurled rocks at officers patrolling there, and that they dispersed rioters with stun grenades… Palestinian medics at the scene said at least 17 Muslims were wounded. Nine police officers were slightly hurt by rocks, a police spokesman said… The Israeli police chief, David Cohen, said the disturbances were precipitated by calls from right-wing Jewish activists and an Islamist group, the Islamic Movement, for their supporters to ascend the mount on Sunday… Anticipating violence, hundreds of riot police officers took up positions in and around the Old City, prompting Muslims to accuse Israel of provocation.”

The Arab press supported Palestinian claims that they were protecting this holy Islamic site from “Jewish settlers” bent on further encroachment into Arab lands; right wing Jews wondered why the government even tolerated Muslim worshipers in their sacred site. As new Jewish settlements are permitted, perhaps even encouraged, within the mostly-Arab West Bank by the Israeli government, it is difficult to see how President Obama’s efforts at untangling the West Bank as a Palestinian “state” could find a path to implementation. But even if those concessions could be worked out, would Muslims and Jews ever accept that the Temple Mount/Nobel Sanctuary could ever be shared on any basis, even if controlled by a thoroughly neutral party? And without resolution in this volatile area, is peaceful co-existence between Western nations and the Muslim world remotely possible?

I’m Peter Dekom, and yes, I do lose sleep over these issues.

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