• Richard Murff

And Yet, Another Pothole

While wrapping up my last book, a ripping yarn about my Murff of Arabia phase, called Pothole of the Gods the Middle East and its demons had seemed to lighten up, if just a bit. Iraq was shrugging off Iran’s meddling, Libya had landed on a national government and the wider Arab world was admitting that the existence of Israel was, in fact, a fact. So, on cue, the road to peace in the region developed another king-hell of a pothole.

Of course, our metaphorical road is littered with them, so much so that how the Old City of Jerusalem is still standing is God’s own private mystery. And strictly speaking, it’s not. Jerusalem is not an ancient city, not by local standards. It’s medieval city, not biblical; complete with claustrophobic proportions and Ottoman era smells. It’s been sacked or completely razed no fewer than 70 times throughout its strange history, a queer honor for a place that has never had much strategic value. What worth it has, and has had since damn near the beginning of civilization, is a singularly intense exercise in meaning.

For modern Jews it is the old capital of historic Israel. For Christians it is where the Passion of Christ played out. It is also the third Holiest place in Islam. Iran’s elite expeditionary force – tasked with “exporting revolution” (read: reeking havoc) – is called the Quds Force – the Farsi word for Jerusalem.

This week’s explosion of indignation is over one small patch of land – just a sunken plaza near the old walled city’s Damascus Gate of the al-Aksa mosque. The al-Aksa may be a holy site, but the plaza isn’t. It’s just a place where Palestinians have gathered for generations.

It helps too understand that some of the ancient grievances around here aren’t all that ancient: After Israel ejected Palestinian residents from West Jerusalem in 1948, they were resettled in East Jerusalem by Jordan. After 55 years of occupation, since the 1967 Six Day War where Israel occupied the city, they are facing another eviction. Israel’s Supreme Court is set to rule on lawsuits filed by far-right groups evicting the Palestinians from the site of their forced relocation in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, in favor of the heirs to the Jewish former owners. The law already bars the Palestinian evictees of reclaiming the property that they were moved out of in 1948.

The Holy Land traditionally produces a lot of prophecies, and most of them seem to be the self-fulfilling kind. In light of the tension, Israel’s police chief fenced of the sunken plaza for “security reasons” at the kick off of Ramadan. The move produced the predictable clashes between Palestinian youths (without work or a country, they haven’t got much else to do) and jittery Israeli forces. The fences were removed, and Israel’s limping prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, changed the course of the 10 May Jerusalem Day parade – commemorating the 1967 takeover of the city – so that it didn’t run by the Damascus Gate.

Grievances, however, outpaced actual events on the ground with street battles escalating quickly. Israeli forces added sacrilege to injury when they entered the al-Aqsa mosque with rubber bullets and stun grenades. Sure, the Muslims find this galling, but Israeli’s are entitled to their shrines as well.

The outer wall of the Harem esh-Sherif – the “Noble Sanctuary” enclosing the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aksa Mosque – is also the outer wall the old Temple complex destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD before turning the Jews out of their homeland. Now Jew and Christian alike call it the “Wailing Wall.” The irony is that, on either side, pilgrims come to moan about their past and current grudges. Which is a lot of historical grievance to hang on one ancient piece of masonry.

You’d be forgiven for asking why the Arabs think Jerusalem was so important. In Islamic tradition, the Prophet rode a flying tiger through the air to Jerusalem and then ascended bodily into Heaven from a certain hilltop in a strange land. Why he didn’t go up someplace familiar like Medina or Mecca, is unclear. The story doesn’t appear until about 50 years after the death of the Prophet in 632, when Muslim forces took the city.

Prior to that, the hilltop in question was the site of a lot of other implausible events heavily invested in cultural meaning. Both the Jews and the Christians reckoned it as the site where Abraham went to kill his son Isaac before God told him to knock it off. Later, David supposedly parked the Ark of the Covenant in the same spot.

A cynical reader might consider the real miracle to be how anyone could tell one hilltop from another around here. They might also entertain the possibility that, giving the meaning vested into the city by conquering and conquered people, that these stories are more political appropriation than strictly theological or even historical. Sometimes, though, it’s best not to argue.

And yet, argue they do. On 10 May, Jerusalem Day marchers showed up at the Damascus Gate any way, and Hamas, the Islamist Militia that more or less runs the territory of Gaza fired some 150 rockets into Israel as far north as Tel Aviv. Israel responded with airstrikes, razing an apartment building they reckoned to house Hamas offices. Despite international calls to de-escalate, both sides are keen to show force.

The same cynical reader might may well consider the possibility that the late unrest is more political than theological or historical as well. In Israel, Netanyahu is facing a challenge to his power, slipping even among his right-wing coalition, along with corruption charges he’d rather get dropped. Likewise, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party are also facing a slip in power. In the 17th year of a four year term, Abbas has indefinitely postponed an upcoming election (it would be the first in 15 years) that he and his party will likely lose to Hamas. For it’s part, Hamas – better at fighting than anything we’d call administrative – is sending barrages of rockets into Israel. As long as no one stops to think it through (and why break the habit of a millennia?) this is going to whip up voter support. In short, both Netanyahu and Abbas need something, anything, to rally the voters to their cause.

And war just really may be the oldest trick in the book.