Oslo Fifteen Years On

Posted on Tue, Sep 16, 2008 @ 02:28 PM

Why the historic effort to close peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority foundered
Oslo Accord

After the accord was signed in 1993 various obstacles arose to render most of the agreement null. But it did have some positive effects as Israeli negotiator Uri Savir notes in this recent interview.

The bitterlemons Web site devotes its latest report (#36) to a four-way commentary on Oslo, including one from Savir.

Tags: arab-israeli conflict, bitterlemons, oslo accords, palestinian authority, peace process, savir, israel

Assessment of Peace Talks Regarding Jerusalem

Posted on Fri, Sep 12, 2008 @ 02:33 PM

Jerusalem continues at the center of Arab-Israeli conflict
Google News
Details: Assessment of Peace Talks Regarding Jerusalem
Peace Talks over Jerusalem

Four commentaries on the current state of play in discussions between the parties on the Jerusalem Question were published this week. 

My friend, Menachem Klein, who teaches political science in Israel, has contributed one of the pieces.

Jerusalem as an issue will not go away from any future discussions. See my recent article, "Triumph and Tragedy in the Middle East." 

Tags: jerusalem, arab-israeli conflict, peace, israel, Palestine

Massacre of Palestinians at Deir Yassin Named Black Stain by Jewish Thinkers

Posted on Wed, Feb 06, 2008 @ 04:43 PM
Martin Buber and one of the seminal events in the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948

Deir Yassin todayIt was Jewish philosopher Martin Buber who, with three other Jewish thinkers, wrote to Ben-Gurion that the massacre of over 100 men, women and children by Jewish forces at Deir Yassin is "a black stain on the honour of the Jewish nation" and "a warning to our people that no practical military needs may ever justify such acts of murder."

Ben-Gurion never replied despite being sent several copies of the letter.

Two Jewish underground groups are traditionally associated with the events at Deir Yassin: IZL (Irgun Z'vai Leumi) and LHI (Lehame Herut Israel [Stern Group]). But as Israeli historian Benny Morris has pointed out in Righteous Victims (1990, p.207), there was a third supporting group, comprised of Palmach and Haganah elements (there with the approval of the Haganah command in Jerusalem).

Jewish theologian Marc Ellis notes that Martin Buber also wrote in his letter to Ben-Gurion, "The time will come when it will be possible to conceive of some act in Deir Yassin, an act which will symbolize our people's desire for justice and brotherhood with the Arab people."

Speed the day.

Deir Yassin: From Both Sides

Tags: middle east, arab-israeli conflict, israeli-palestinian conflict, 1948, Ben-Gurion, Marc Ellis, Martin Buber, Benny Morris, Deir Yassin

Deir Yassin, the Black Stain at Israel's Founding

Posted on Mon, Feb 04, 2008 @ 04:05 PM

In Palestine 60 years ago: Operation Nachshon and the awful events at the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin—a turning point in the First Arab-Israeli War

Deir Yassin Remembered

During the Jewish campaign to open up the corridor between the coast and Jerusalem in April 1948 (Operation Nachshon), the most significant event was the massacre of 100-110 Palestinian villagers at Deir Yassin on the city's western edge on April 9. The attack on the village was carried out by two Jewish underground organizations, IZL (Irgun Z'vai Leumi) and LHI (Lehame Herut Israel [Stern Gang]), with the apparent agreement of the Haganah in Jerusalem. As the attack progressed, it was met with fierce and unexpected resistance. Though the villagers had been friendly toward the Jews, not allowing Palestinian resistance fighters to stay there, they had understandably armed themselves against possible attack.

Now they resisted. The fighting went so badly for the Jewish attackers that they resorted to dynamiting houses, killing men, women and children.

The details are found in many sources, including Benny Morris's 1999 book, Righteous Victims. The web site for Deir Yassin contains much helpful information as does the memorial documentary.

The immediate result of the massacre was to galvanize Arab hatred, but also to create fear to such a degree that a Palestinian refugee exodus was set in motion. It was indeed a turning point that made the Jewish successes in the days ahead much easier. But it also set the pattern for reprisal. On April 13, the Palestinians launched a six hour attack on a ten-vehicle convoy bound for the Hadassah Hospital-Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus. In a brutal end to the confrontation, two armored buses were torched and more than 70 mostly unarmed Jewish doctors, nurses and lecturers lost their lives.

Tags: arab-israeli conflict, 1948 war, Benny Morris, Deir Yassin, operation nachshon

When Archeology is Made Political

Posted on Mon, Feb 26, 2007 @ 04:06 PM
Are the Israelis Undermining Al-Aqsa Mosque and other Haram/Temple Mount Structures?
Al-Aqsa Mosque and excavations at southwest corner of Temple  Mount

The latest actor to weigh in on the need to check the safety of the Israeli Mughrabi Gate project is UNESCO. Rightly so. The Old City of Jerusalem is a World Heritage site and falls under the auspices of the UN body. The Israelis have welcomed the proposed visit to ascertain whether the ongoing archeological project just outside the gate in the western wall of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount endangers the mosque within the compound.  

It seems highly unlikely. 

A greater potential danger was surely present in 1968 when Hebrew University archeology professor Benjamin Mazar began to excavate around the south-western corner of the Temple Mount/Haram. Part of the site was much closer to the mosque than the present dig. In fact, Al-Aqsa Mosque was towering above us when I worked there as a student during the summer of 1970.  

The Herodian masonry blocks supporting the mosque’s southern wall are massive. It is still not clear how such giant ashlars were moved into place with such precision. But they have been there, solidly in place, for the past 2000 years. Suffice it to say, there was no damage to the mosque from the archeological project, which continued under Mazar for 10 years. But there were significant finds from Muslim, Christian and Jewish perspectives.  

Today, Mazar’s work is evident in a vast archeological park that contains, among other important discoveries, a giant stairway that led into the temple of Jesus’ time, underground cisterns, a first century Herodian street complete with shops, evidence of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, when stones from the Temple Mount walls were thrown down to the pavement below, and the remains of an Umayyad palace.

In 1970, I was digging alongside Palestinians, Israelis and a large number of international students. East Jerusalem was in Israeli hands after the 1967 war and some of us lived in a hotel owned and operated by the Palestinian notable family, the Husaynis. Their New Orient House Hotel eventually closed and became Orient House, the center for the Palestinian political presence in Jerusalem under the late Faysal al-Husayni. 

It was possible then to work together to discover artifacts of interest to all sides. What has happened in the years since? More ideological division and despair over threats to identity (see Identity, Ideology and the Future of Jerusalem). Is the Mughrabi project not worthy of the support of all for the benefit of all?  


Tags: jerusalem, arab-israeli conflict, identity, ideology, mughrabi gate, the old city, world heritage site

Arab-Israeli Conflict over the Mughrabi Gate

Posted on Fri, Feb 16, 2007 @ 04:08 PM
Identity and ideology come to the fore again in another element of the Middle East conflict. This time it's over a ramp leading to the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif. But why conflict over what seems a necessary project for all concerned?
Muhgrabi gate excavation jerusalem

One of the latest flare-ups in the Middle East conflict concerns the Israeli reconstruction of a ramp leading to the Mughrabi Gate, adjacent to the Jewish holy site, the Western Wall. Destabilized in a 2004 winter storm and a small earthquake, the ramp has allowed visitors access to the Wall and the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif with its Dome of the Rock shrine and al-Aqsa mosque.

Now it is undergoing archeological excavation and reconstruction work. It seems that no one would object to making the area physically safer for all concerned or the discovery of artifacts from the area's Muslim, Christian and Jewish past. But passions are easily inflamed when identity and ideology are involved and here they certainly are. It doesn't help that there's a long history of provocation on all sides when it comes to the Wall and the Haram (see more details in my recent book, Identity, Ideology and the Future of Jerusalem).

The gate takes its name from the Mughrabi Quarter that once stood next to the Wall. The gift of the son of Jerusalem's 12th century Kurdish-Muslim conqueror, Salah al-Din, the site was designated a waqf or religious charitable trust, subsequently protected by Moroccan or Mughrabi shaykhs for 600 years. It happened to become the home of the Muslim clerics who performed religious duties at al-Aqsa mosque. As a child, Yasir Arafat lived there for a time with his mother's family following her premature death (see previous post) and heard Friday sermons from his uncle.

In 1967, the Israelis demolished the quarter in the aftermath of their capture of the Old City. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered the clearing of the area to accommodate a wide plaza in front of the Wall to allow Jewish worshipers open access to their most sacred site. He would have liked to do more, as he said at the time, by bulldozing a road through the hills, wide enough to allow "every Jew in the world to reach the Western Wall." His actions caused the Jordanian government to complain to the UN about the danger they believed the demolition posed to the Haram and its Muslim holy sites.

Today, the situation is very different, but the complaints are similar. Perhaps the offer by the Turkish prime minister to send a technical team to assess the danger, if any, to al-Aqsa, will help. Perhaps the Israeli installation of web cams at the site will also set some minds at ease. Israeli authorities and the notable archeologist, Eilat Mazar, have said there is no risk (see Mazar's response to questions about the situation).

All sides stand to gain by the construction work and the potential archeological finds, which may include artifacts from the Umayyad, Byzantine and Herodian periods--representative of Jewish, Christian and Muslim attachment to the area.

Tags: arab-israeli conflict, Middle East Conflict, Temple Mount, mughrabi gate, al-aqsa mosque, haram al-sharif, western wall

Six Day War Anniversary in June

Posted on Wed, Feb 07, 2007 @ 04:11 PM
From the perspective of Jerusalem, nothing was more significant in the war than the Israeli capture of the Old City

jerusalem western wallThe 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War is coming up in June. It will be a time for reflection on all that happened during those critical days in 1967 when the balance shifted measurably in the Middle East.

There’s no question that it was a watershed event.

From the perspective of Jerusalem, nothing was more significant in the war than the Israeli capture of the Old City.

That story will be told and retold in the months leading up to the anniversary. The familiar black and white images of emotional battle-weary soldiers looking at the Wailing Wall or Western Wall of the Temple enclosure or Haram, will be on display.

Two events that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the capture of the city illustrate the parallel and continuing attachment of Israelis and Palestinians to the Old City’s religious heart. They concern David Ben-Gurion and Yasir Arafat.

Ben-Gurion visited the Western Wall the day after its capture, accompanied by his protégé, Shimon Peres. He noticed a tile sign in front of the Wall, which read “Al-Burak Road” in English and Arabic but not in Hebrew. It was a reminder of the Prophet Muhammad’s legendary horse. According to the Qur’an, the angel Gabriel initiated Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem on the mystical winged horse al-Burak.  On arrival, the horse was tethered in the southwest corner of the Haram or Temple enclosure.

Ben-Gurion looked at the sign with disapproval and asked if anyone had a hammer. A soldier tried to pry off the tile with a bayonet, but Ben-Gurion was concerned about damage to the stone. An axe was produced and the name on the tile carefully removed. The symbolism of expunging Arabic from the redeemed Jewish holy site was not lost on the surrounding crowd, or on Ben-Gurion. They cheered, and Ben-Gurion exclaimed, “This is the greatest moment of my life since I came to Israel.”

It’s curious remark for a man who had seen many “great moments” in his long career, one of which was his direct involvement in the founding of the State of Israel. Yet this was the greatest moment as he stood before the captured Western Wall. In his early life, he had stood at the Wall once before.

His biographer, Shabtai Teveth, tells of that visit. He says, “Before the end of February [1909] he paid his first visit to Jerusalem, where the sight of the Western Wall brought on such extreme emotional agitation that he remained in the city for a week.” When I asked Teveth in 2002 what this meant, he wrote, “Think of it as a son meeting a father after a very long separation.” In other words, the Wall was a deep-seated aspect of Ben-Gurion’s identity, though he was not outwardly a religious man.

The second event immediately following the capture of the city meant something profound to the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat. Within twenty-four hours, Palestinian houses adjacent to the Western Wall were torn down to create a vast open plaza for Jewish worshippers. This was accomplished on the orders of the Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan.

Among the demolished houses was a centuries old religious compound belonging to the Abu Sa‘ud family of Arafat’s mother. After her premature death and as young children, Yasir Arafat and his brother lived with these influential Jerusalemite relatives. They afforded him protection and solace in their home adjacent to the primary site of Islamic identity in the city, the Haram. They told and retold stories of their bravery and political fervor in the face of the Zionist threat to the city and particularly to the Western Wall.

Not surprisingly, Arafat participated as a child in the 1936 Arab Revolt in the city. One can only imagine that for Yasir Arafat this part of the city was as much a potent personal identity symbol as it was for Ben-Gurion. It may explain in part why his oft-repeated chant was “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem” and why he requested to be buried at the Haram.

Though these two leaders are gone, identity and ideology continue to be at the forefront of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the future of Jerusalem.

Tags: jerusalem, arab-israeli conflict, Six-Day War, Old City, Wailing Wall, western wall

Israeli and Palestinian intransigence over the Jerusalem Question

Posted on Mon, Jan 22, 2007 @ 04:15 PM
Four authorities on the Jerusalem Question concede the answer lies beyond economic, security and legal issues

east jerusalem securityEconomic issues, security considerations and legal concerns all remain unconvincing alternatives in the search for an explanation for Israeli and Palestinian intransigence over the Jerusalem Question (I’ll explain why in detail next time).

Consideration of the cumulative effect of these alternative explanations does not appear warranted either. While there may be a case for Israeli reluctance to negotiate because of security concerns—especially, for example, when there is an increase in suicide attacks focused on Jerusalem—and for Palestinian refusal to negotiate because of military and economic oppression, security issues do not explain the longevity of the Arab-Israeli impasse.

After all, there have been many periods when security concerns have not been so evident. A more convincing explanation must lie elsewhere. Indeed, four authorities on the Jerusalem Question concede as much.

Arguing for contextualization of legal issues within the broader history of the conflict, law professor Ruth Lapidoth told me:

As far as I know, neither economic nor strategic questions are important in the case of Jerusalem.

What is important is the symbolic value of Jerusalem. It is a symbol for many people, and it has strong religious aspects. Historian Bernard Wasserstein, commenting on resolution of the Jerusalem Question and its centrality to settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, said:

It is not primarily a security issue, it is not primarily an issue other than one of symbols, and the symbolic issue, like most symbolic issues, is one that is even more difficult to solve than some of the other issues.

Oslo Accords negotiator, Uri Savir, having already dismissed legal considerations as a fruitful way forward, summarized the possibility of alternative explanations as follows:

I don’t think it is economics. [And] security with the Palestinians is a function of the quality of relations. There will be two states, and these two states need to cooperate on security. . . . We need to prevent an Arab army west of the Jordan River. But by and large, it is not that much of a territorial issue. Jerusalem has its importance mainly as an identity issue, a religious issue, an issue that is really related to our very being.

Savir’s counterpart, Ahmad Quray‘ told me that there are many aspects of the Jerusalem Question that can be successfully negotiated, but there is one that cannot be: sovereignty. Significantly, Quray‘ ties sovereignty to issues of ideology and identity and emphasizes that negotiators must give attention to this matter if a solution is to be found:

The nonnegotiable issue in the conflict over Jerusalem is sovereignty. Sovereignty is not negotiable. Modalities can be negotiated: what kind of security, how to reach the religious places, transportation, taxes—even municipal wards can be negotiated. But the matter of sovereignty is nonnegotiable. We have an ideological solution for that: When I, as a Palestinian, take my car and can go all over Jerusalem—East and West—and feel that it is my city, and the Israeli can take his car and go wherever—East and West—and feel it is his city, and you come from Europe, the United States or any other place and feel that there is a special status to this city and that you are at home—I think then we can have a permanent solution to Jerusalem. Otherwise it will be a time bomb. It can be quiet today, but nobody can guarantee that after some days or some years it will remain that way. This is what the negotiators and the decision makers should take into consideration if they want to find a real solution.

Image: Flickr  Seth Frantz

Tags: jerusalem, arab-israeli conflict, conflict, Middle East Conflict, Israeli, Palestinian

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Passion Generated by Identity and Ideology

Posted on Sun, Dec 31, 2006 @ 04:19 PM
People’s identities and ideologies explain their actions in respect of the Arab-Israeli conflict

The daily news reports of terror, the televised sound bites from devastated Palestinian towns and villages, Israeli shopping malls, markets, and buses, are about people and the conflict and passion generated by identity and ideology. Thinking about how people’s identities and ideologies explain their actions in respect of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Jerusalem Question yields some important conclusions.

One of my goals in “Identity, Ideology and the Future of Jerusalem” was to look again at individuals in leadership and follower roles in the context of their identities and ideologies.

What do the Palestinians desire in respect of the city? Why have successive Israeli leaders failed to come to agreement with them over the city’s sovereignty? Despite different stated policy positions, why is there so little apparent distinction between Israel’s Kadima, Likud and Labor parties when it comes down to the resolution of the problem?

Erik Erikson, the “father of identity studies,” has much to offer by way of explanation of the dynamics involved. His conceptualization of identity and ideology as essentially two sides of the same coin helps. But more importantly, he shows that identity is more malleable than we think and modification occurs across the entire human life span. Everyone can change and it is never too late to change.

There is hope for what seems the world’s most intractable problem.

Tags: arab-israeli conflict, israeli-palestinian conflict, identity, Middle East Conflict, ideology, Jerusalem question

Jerusalem is the head, the heart of the Palestinian state—the heart of the Palestinian identity.

Posted on Fri, Dec 22, 2006 @ 04:21 PM
Nothing in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been so contentious as the issue of Jerusalem

“The problem of Jerusalem is one of the most emotional and explosive issues in the world,” wrote Palestinian international jurist Henry Cattan in 1981.

In the same year, prominent Israeli novelist and commentator “Aleph Bet” Yehoshua noted that “in a period of violent religious renaissance [Jerusalem] is a dangerous political explosive which could give rise to an uncontrollable conflagration.”

Fourteen years later, Palestinian scholar Ghada Karmi commented that “nothing in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been so contentious as the issue of Jerusalem.”

And in 1999 the Israeli negotiator of the Oslo Agreements, Uri Savir, told me, “The issue of Jerusalem . . . can easily become a public explosion . . . not just between Palestinians and Israelis, but between the Arab world and Israel, between the Islamic world and the Jewish world.”

Explosive, contentious, capable of drawing in much of the world community—this is the pervasive nature of the problem. Illustrating this point, in 1999 two of the foremost actors in the Oslo peace process commented on Jerusalem as a final-settlement issue.

The Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council at the time, Ahmad Quray‘ (also known as Abu Ala’), explained that Jerusalem . . . is the head, the heart of the Palestinian state—the heart of the Palestinian identity. Without Jerusalem, I don’t think peace will be achieved. Therefore, this is the most important element of the peace process.

At the same time the then Speaker of the Knesset, Shimon Peres, said: Jerusalem may be the only issue on the Israeli position which escapes strategy and politics. This is the only place that has the aura of holiness. And the difference between politics and holiness is that when holiness begins, compromise stops.

Both statements reflect the language and underlying strength of identity and ideology as a nexus and invite consideration of the dynamic that seems to bring either stasis or momentum over the Jerusalem Question.

Tags: jerusalem, arab-israeli conflict, identity, Israeli, Palestinian, ideology, Jerusalem question