President Bush arrived in Jerusalem today to discuss plans for a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. According to news reports, this settlement may involve dividing Jerusalem — placing large segments of the city, including Christian holy sites, under the control of the Palestinian Authority. It is important that the president, and other current or aspiring leaders, consider the dangers that would arise from any such plan.
After centuries of strife, destruction, and oppression sown in Jerusalem by a cavalcade of conquering empires, the State of Israel alone has been able to preserve the peace and freedom of Jerusalem.
Within days of its liberation of Jerusalem in June 1967, Israel’s government enacted the Protection of Holy Places law, protecting all religions’ holy sites “from desecration and any other violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings with regard to those places.” Israel’s government promptly handed over custodianship of the mosques on the Temple Mount to the Islamic Waqf, which is maintained to this day; the administration of Christian holy sites continues to rest in the hands of representative churches. Thus, in the 40 years since Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem, all people of all religions have been able — for the first time in centuries — to freely access all of Jerusalem’s holy sites.
It is therefore ironic that negotiators, mindless or careless of Jerusalem’s turbulent history and Islamic fundamentalists’ record of degrading and destroying other religions’ practices and holy sites, would seek to wrest control of Jerusalem from the one government that has preserved those freedoms. World leaders should know better than to turn Jerusalem’s important Christian and Jewish holy sites over to Muslim control; it would be a sorry day for any non-Muslim who aspires to visit those holy sites.
As President Bush travels to Jerusalem, he should use his visit to familiarize himself with the historic precedents and territorial infirmities that exist in the city and to contemplate up close the dangers to millennia-old Christian and Jewish holy sites that would arise from a division of the city.
Furthermore, in stark contrast to Israel’s conscientious actions to preserve the holy sites, the Arab forces that stormed Jerusalem in 1948 wantonly blew up 58 synagogues, rabbinical schools, and other buildings in the Jewish Quarter. Remaining synagogues and other holy sites were used as stables and garbage dumps.
Despite a 1949 armistice agreement guaranteeing the Jewish population “free access to the Holy Places and cultural institutions and use of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives,” Arab soldiers prevented Jews from accessing those sites until June 1967.
During the period that it controlled Jerusalem, Jordan also sought to reduce the Christian presence in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City by passing laws forbidding Christians to buy property. The Jordanians ordered all schools closed on Muslim holidays and authorized mosques to be built near churches to restrict further Christian growth.
Palestinian efforts to eradicate signs of the Jewish legacy of Jerusalem continue unabated to this day. Fascinating archeological excavations that bring to life remnants of the First and Second Temple edifices have generated Palestinian riots to prevent Israel from opening such sites for the world to see. Excavations below the Dome of the Rock by the Islamic Waqf seek to eradicate other valuable Jewish archeological treasures.
Palestinians have pursued this modus operandi in other parts of the country as well. Although the 1993 Oslo Accords specifically provided that the Palestinian Authority would safeguard all holy sites in territory transferred to it under those accords, after Israel relinquished control of Nablus to the Palestinian Authority, Palestinians savagely destroyed Joseph’s Tomb under the watchful eyes of Palestinian police. Similar desecration occurred in Jericho, where Palestinians sacked the 1,500-year-old Shalom al Yisroel synagogue. At the site of Rachel’s Tomb, adjacent to the Palestinian-controlled territory of Bethlehem, Israel had to construct a virtual fortress around the shrine to protect Jewish worshippers from Palestinian sniper fire. And in Gaza, within hours of Israel’s disengagement in August 2005, Palestinian mobs triumphantly set ablaze or converted into mosques every synagogue that remained.
Christian holy sites and populations also continue to be endangered whenever Palestinians gain control. Christian towns and churches, including the sacred Church of the Nativity, have been used as bases for Palestinian snipers and launching-sites for terrorist attacks. Many historically Christian towns that came under Palestinian control through Oslo — Bethlehem being only the most famous example — quickly lost their Christian majority as those citizens steadily fled Muslim oppression designed to reduce the Christian presence. In the sole area of Jerusalem relinquished to Islamic administration, the Temple Mount, the Islamic Waqf grants Christians and, ironically, Jews only limited access and prohibits any form of non-Islamic prayer.
These attacks on the antiquities, holy sites, and populations of non-Islamic faiths build upon a campaign by radical Islamic groups across the Middle East and South Asia. This drive gained notoriety from the unprecedented barbaric destruction of the 2,000-year-old Buddhist statutes in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, and continued with attacks upon Christian churches in Pakistan and Iraq and violent attacks beginning in 1998 against Egypt’s Coptic Christians. In 2004, Islamic insurgents connected to Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda network bombed six Iraqi churches in one day.
Jerusalem itself is a small city, and the Holy Basin containing Christianity’s and Judaism’s holiest sites is even smaller, totaling less than one square mile. In Jerusalem, therefore, there is little margin for error.
Most of the desecrations of Jewish and Christian holy sites in the Palestinian territories have occurred under the rule of the Fatah party, to which many suggest that parts of Jerusalem should now be ceded. That prospect should be troubling enough for any Christian or Jew. Yet, as former Israeli ambassador Dore Gold demonstrates in his book, The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West and the Future of the Holy City, Hamas’s ascent to power in Gaza, and its threatened dominance of the West Bank, coupled with the increasing insurgence being attempted by al–Qaeda in the Palestinian territories, adds a growing, and thus troubling, Islamic component to any analysis of the likely fate of Jerusalem’s holy sites under Palestinian rule. It makes foretelling the future of Jerusalem under Palestinian control a frightening, yet easy, exercise.
In a December 15, 2007 speech to a rally of more than 200,000 Palestinians, Hamas prime minister Ismael Haniyeh vowed that we will not recognize even once inch for Jews in the land of Palestine.”
There is little doubt that ceding even a portion of Jerusalem to Palestinian control would strengthen the role of such radicals, much as Israel’s retreat from Lebanon and evacuation of Gaza brought Hezbollah and Hamas to prominence. In radical Islam’s battle for world domination, Jerusalem represents the grandest of prizes.
The fight for Jerusalem, therefore, would be quickly pursued by Islamic fundamentalist regimes. A secular Palestinian Authority would be quickly swept aside, faster even than Fatah was overpowered by Hamas in Gaza. The next step in their ascendance would be the strengthening of the Islamic presence in the city at the expense of all other religions, as Islamic regimes have routinely done whenever and wherever they have seized power.
Israel, like no ruling authority before it, has proven its commitment and ability to ensure peace and religious pluralism in the holy city for all mankind. The community of peace-loving nations cannot afford to undermine that state of affairs and establish a base from which a repressive Islamic regime would assume control in this holy city.
The Buddhist statues of the Bamiyan Valley were reduced to rubble with only the Islamic fundamentalists to blame. Western leaders must do all in their power to avoid being enshrined in history as the ones responsible for bringing to Jerusalem the Islamic regime that destroyed Judaism’s and Christianity’s holiest sites.
— Aron U. Raskas, a Baltimore attorney and former resident of Jerusalem, is a national vice-president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and a director of www.onejerusalem.org.