The Christian Century , Vol. 117, No. 30
Outside of Jerusalem's Old City walls, a group of Palestinian youths denied entrance to the site sat on the grass and concrete during noontime prayers and listened to a sermon that declared, "The Jews are our enemies, and we will beat them."
Meanwhile, at the Western Wall on the eve of Judaism's pilgrimage holiday of Sukkot, when Jews from around Israel typically stream to the city's Jewish sites, just one lone group of right-wing religious Jewish youths danced in a circle shouting, "The Temple Mount is ours; it belongs to the Jews."
With violence raging around them, holy sites have become an integral part of the battlefield in a region where religion is a force driving nationalist hatreds rather than sentiments of tolerance or understanding. "Holy space here is exploited in terms of political interests," said David Rosen, an Orthodox rabbi active in interreligious dialogue. "Spiritual attachment becomes a means of staking your claim."
For both Jews and Arabs, that has certainly been the case at the Al Aksa mosque and Western Wall sites, ever since the first Arab disturbances were triggered by a visit to the mosque compound by Israeli hardliner Ariel Sharon. Since then, each successive Friday noontime Muslim prayer encounter has been watched, recorded and analyzed for indications of where the broader dispute is heading.
On the weekend of October 6-7, Israel emptied the Western Wall of Jewish prayergoers and handed security of the area over to Palestinian security forces; Orthodox Jews accused the government of "abandoning" the holy site. But on October 13, Jews were allowed back in, while only 3,500 Muslims were granted access. "We are surrounded by Israel's occupation," declared Sheikh Ekrima al Sabri, the preacher at Al Aksa Mosque. "Never before in my memory have so few Muslims been permitted to pray here."
But the scrabble for religious space has not been limited to Jerusalem. A series of other religious sites--both Jewish and Arab--in Jericho, Jaffa, Tiberias and Nablus, also have been drawn into the vicious circle of mob attack, retaliation and counterattack.
At the very outset of the conflict, it was the Jewish-held Joseph's Tomb that claimed the limelight. Set inside the West Bank Palestinian city of Nablus, the 16th-century Islamic domed shrine is revered by Muslims as the burial place of a medieval Islamic sheikh named Youssef and in some Jewish circles as the burial place of the biblical patriarch Joseph.
Under the 1993 Oslo peace agreement, Israel withdrew from Nablus, and the graceful domed Joseph's Tomb became the center of a tiny Jewish enclave within an Arab city. Concrete block walls strung with barbed wire were built around the medieval shrine, transforming it into a fortified army camp. Arabs were barred altogether from the site, and Jews could gain access only with military permission.
On the first weekend in October, after sustaining nine days of Palestinian attacks on the compound, which claimed the life of one Israeli soldier, Israel finally abandoned the tomb under the cover of night, prompting immediate cries of protest from the Israeli religious right. …