Last week saw an upsurge in Palestinian riots and attacks against Israeli vehicles in Gaza and the West Bank. What crime did Israel commit to invite the wave of violence? Israel’s government simply announced that it intended to honor the country’s heritage by including the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem in a list of Israeli national “heritage” sites.
The violence-fueled Palestinian reaction may seem entirely disproportionate to Israel’s offense. But a look at the historical background shows that it is not without grim precedent.
For several decades, Palestinians have been attacking Jewish worshipers at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Tomb of Rachel near Bethlehem, and the Tomb of Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Machpelah, in Hebron. After the Oslo and Hebron Agreements in the 1990’s, attacks intensified.
To protect visitors to Rachel’s Tomb, a fortified building was built around the tiny, 19th century building that had been built over the tomb. That wasn’t enough, since getting to the building from the closest Israeli checkpoint, a few hundred meters away, exposed Jews to sniper fire and bombs from adjacent buildings along the road. A new road was built, therefore, surrounded by high cement walls.
Palestinian riots against the rights of Jews to visit holy and historic sites are nothing new. In Jericho and Gaza, ancient Jewish synagogues from the Talmudic period have been destroyed and are off limits to Jews.
In Shechem, Nablus , the site of Joseph’s Tomb, was attacked by Palestinian mobs in 2000, fire-bombed and destroyed. A wounded Israeli soldier inside bled to death while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, negotiated with the Palestinian Authority.
On the Temple Mount , the Palestinians have been systematically destroying Jewish artifacts and antiquities from the Second Temple period.
Why is attacking and destroying Jewish heritage sites so popular among Palestinians?
Arabs claim their own heritage sites. Their claims go back about 1,300 years, when the Al-Aksa mosque and golden Dome of the Rock were built on the Temple Mount. These buildings exist today under Muslim authority (Wakf); Jews are prohibited by Israeli police from praying, carrying holy books, or ritual objects on the Temple Mount, in deference to Muslim restrictions.
During the Muslim occupation of Israel, with the exception of about two centuries of Christian Crusader occupation, various public buildings, palaces, mosques and bridges were built. Remains of Crusader fortresses are popular tourist sites, along with Nabatean (pagan) sites in the Negev, many of which are UNESCO-designated.
All are part of the history and heritage of the Land of Israel. Except for their buildings on the Temple Mount, however, Muslims do not consider the Land of Israel, Judea and Samaria, Palestine, sacred in any way. During most of the Muslim occupation, these sites were neglected because they held little significance. The main focus, for Muslims, was Mecca and Medina, in Saudi Arabia. Muslims do not make aliyah to Palestine.
Christians and Muslims venerated holy sites in the Land of Israel, Palestine, but after visiting, or conquering, they went home. Their heritage was local, tribal, and familial. The Land of Israel was not part of their heritage. It was a heritage for Jews.
This explains why Palestinians are opposed to the designation of Jewish heritage sites. If it is important to Jews, what does that mean for Muslims? Indeed, what is their heritage?
Heritage is a legacy that connects generations; it’s not politics, but history. For Palestinians, however, the two are entangled – which chokes off rationality.
It’s not the Muslim significance of historical sites that inspires Palestinian riots; it’s that Jews claim it at all. Equal access to historical and holy sites is considered an affront by Muslims, as it questions their exclusivity and authenticity.
Under Muslim rule, for example, Jews were denied entrance to Machpelah, since, if Muslims don’t have exclusive control of the site, then no one else should, or will. Any attachment of Jews diminishes that of Muslims.
This deadly Arab zero-sum game is exacerbated by President Obama, whose opposition to the right of Jews to live beyond the 1949 Armistice Lines fueled Palestinian riots in eastern Jerusalem. Recently, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said “the administration viewed Israel ’s move as provocative and unhelpful.“ He did not deplore Palestinian riots.
If you agree with President Obama and Mark Toner, no need to do anything. If you disagree, however, let your voices be heard. Silence is acquiescence.
The author is a writer and journalist living in Israel.