Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Playing With Fire in Jerusalem: 2014 & 1929

Yesterday's attack by two Palestinians on a West Jerusalem synagogue is a stark reminder that those Israelis who would mess with the status quo on occupied Arab East Jerusalem's Haram ash-Sharif are playing with fire. This has been acknowledged by no less than the head of Israel's Shin Bet, Yoram Cohen:

"While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly points an accusing finger at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the head of Israel's top secret security service said Tuesday he did not believe Abbas was responsible for the current round of terror and violence... According to the Shin Bet head, the central factors behind the current violence were the murder of Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir... and attempts by Israeli legislators to change the status-quo on the Temple Mount. According to Cohen, visits by right-wing MKs and attempts to introduce legislation which would change the status quo on the flashpoint holy site were the main factors for rising tensions in East Jerusalem... 'The religious aspect which latches onto the (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict is very dangerous and volatile because it has implications on the Palestinians and Muslims around the world. We must do everything we can to defuse the current tensions,' Cohen said." (Shin Bet chief: Abbas is not inciting terror, Attila Somfalvi,, 18/11/14)

Those possessing more than a nodding acquaintance with modern Palestinian history may recall the events in Jerusalem and Hebron of August 1929 and see a parallel with the situation today. The following vivid account of those events is by American journalist Vincent Sheean:

"The disorders of Friday resulted in many deaths among both Jews and Arabs (the Arabs including Christians as well as Moslems), and the impulse of murder continued for a week. At the end of the terror the official roll for Jerusalem was: 29 Jews and 38 Arabs killed, 43 Jews and 51 Arabs wounded...

"The horrors of Friday in Jerusalem were followed by something much worse: the ghastly outbreak at Hebron, where 64 Jews of the old-fashioned religious community were slaughtered and 54 of them wounded. Hebron was one of the four holy cities of Judaism, and had a small, constant Jewish population since medieval days. These were not Zionists at all; a more innocent and harmless group of people could not have been found in Palestine; many of them were Oriental Jews, and all were religious. They had had nothing to do with the Zionist excesses [in Jerusalem], and had lived in amity with their Arab neighbours up to that day. But when the Arabs of Hebron - an unruly lot, at best - heard that Arabs were being killed by Jews in Jerusalem, and that the Mosque of Omar was in danger, they went mad... the Jewish houses were rushed by the mob, and there was an hour of slashing, killing, stabbing, burning and looting...

"I cannot, at this late date, go through all the story of that week; it has been told over and over again... At the end of the disturbances the official British casualty lists showed 207 dead and 379 wounded among the population of Palestine, of which the dead included 87 Arabs (Christian and Moslem) and 120 Jews, the wounded 181 Arabs and 198 Jews...

"The effort to be an efficient, unemotional newspaper correspondent was difficult to the point of impossibility. Living as I did without sleep and without rest, eating little, and that at the weirdest hours, I should probably have collapsed in time simply from physical exhaustion. But there was a great deal more in it than that. I was bitterly indignant with the Zionists for having, as I believed, brought on this disaster*; I was shocked into hysteria by the ferocity of the Arab anger; and I was aghast at the inadequacy of the British government. I knew that the Moslem authorities were trying to quell the storm, and that the British officials were doing their best against appalling difficulties; I also assumed that the responsible Zionist leaders (none of whom were in Palestine then) had done what they could. But all around me were the visible evidences of their failure. Although I had spent a good part of my life amid scenes of violence and was no stranger to the sight of blood and dying men, I had never overcome my loathing for the spectacle even when it seemed, as in some of the conflicts I had witnessed, compelled by historical necessity. But here, in this miserable little country, no bigger, in relation to the rest of the world, than the tip of your finger in relation to your body, I could see no historical necessity whatever. The country was tiny and already inhabited: why couldn't the Zionists leave it alone? It would never hold enough Jews to make even a beginning towards the solution of the Jewish problem; it would always be a prey to such ghastly horrors as those I saw every day and every night: religion, the eternal intransigence of religion, ensured that the problem could never be solved. The Holy Land seemed as near an approximation of hell on earth as I had ever seen." (Personal History, 1935; quoted in From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism & the Palestine Problem Until 1948, Edited by Walid Khalidi, 1971, pp 298-300)

Britain's 1930 Shaw Commission, charged with the task of investigating these events, concluded that their immediate cause was: "The long series of incidents connected with the Wailing Wall... but the incident among them which in our view contributed most to the outbreak was the Jewish demonstration at the Wailing Wall on 15 August 1929."

"The fundamental cause, without which in our opinion disturbances either would not have occurred or would not have been little more than a local riot," the Commission concluded, "is the Arab feeling of animosity and hostility towards the Jews consequent upon the disappointment of their political and national aspirations and fear for their economic future... The feeling as it exists today is based on the twofold fear of the Arabs that by Jewish immigration and land purchases they may be deprived of their livelihood and in time pass under the political domination of the Jews."

If, for Sheehan, Palestine in 1929 was "as near an approximation of hell on earth as I had ever seen," one can only wonder what he'd make of it today.

[*These were the 'Maccabees', armed followers of Vladimir Jabotinsky, godfather of Revisionist Zionism, the movement which, in its current Likud incarnation, now governs Israel. Netanyahu's fire-eating father, Benzion, was Jabotinsky's secretary. See my 24/9/11 post Benzion, My Father.]

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