U.S. News & World Report

October 1996




Follow the developments the Middle East

Six Israeli soldiers lay dead in the city of Nablus, their jeeps in flames. A dozen others were holed up inside the biblical Tomb of Joseph last Thursday as Palestinian rioters climbed over the high concrete walls, tearing away barbed wire with their bare hands. Then, in the midst of the fighting, Said Canaan, a Palestinian who had helped negotiate the peace agreements with Israel, stepped in; with the help of Palestinian security forces he held back the crowd while a wounded Israeli soldier was evacuated--in a Palestinian ambulance.

Canaan's was an act of extraordinary compassion; it was also a reminder that this was no ordinary war. Even as they exchanged gunfire, both sides knew that they were still negotiating partners. They want to pressure each other--but not to let the violence get completely out of hand. "No one wants a new intifada," the uprising that wracked the territories from 1987 to 1993, said Ziad Abuzayyad, who represents Jerusalem in the Palestinian legislature. "When the intifada started, it was only stones. Now both sides have guns."

The rioting, which by week's end had cost the lives of some 70 people, mostly Palestinians, was sparked by a symbolic act. On Monday night, after the close of Yom Kippur, Israeli stonemasons guarded by soldiers punched a hole through the end of an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem (box, Page 45). Calling the Israeli action "a crime against our holy places," Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat urged his people to protest.

Arafat did not explicitly call for violence, but violence did not take long to erupt. The most ominous aspect of last week's battles was uniformed Palestinian police officers armed with automatic rifles joining in the fighting against Israeli troops. In Ramallah, 1,500 Palestinians throwing stones and bottles confronted a handful of Israeli soldiers. It is unclear who fired live ammunition first, but as the Israelis began shooting, the protesters turned on their own police, who had been standing by. Yelling "cowards!" the crowd urged the police to open fire. They did.

Israel had helped Arafat build the 30,000-member police force to keep order in the West Bank and Gaza and prevent terrorism. "Until now the Israelis thought that the Palestinian police were here only to maintain their security. Now they know that the rules of the game have changed," said Marwan Bargouti, an Arafat lieutenant in the West Bank. Cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian forces was a key confidence-building measure of the peace agreement. Until last week, it had worked better than any had dared hope, with the two sides even conducting joint patrols.

Holy war. In the eyes of many Palestinians, the riots are the first shots in a long-awaited battle for Jerusalem. By opening the tunnel without permission from Islamic authorities, Binyamin Netanyahu's government was signaling that it alone controls the city--Israel's "eternal and undivided" capital.

But Palestinians have not given up their claim to the eastern half of Jerusalem, which they hope to turn into the capital of their future state. The rioting also vented Palestinians' frustrations with the slow pace of peace talks and what they see as Netanyahu's attempt to back away from promises of the previous Israeli government to pull troops out of the city of Hebron and freeze the expansion of West Bank Jewish settlements.

U.S. diplomats spoke every few hours to Arafat and Netanyahu throughout the crisis, urging restraint. Some diplomats suggested that the heavy death toll could shock Netanyahu into rethinking his negotiating stance. But there were also signs that the Israeli leader would hang tough. He told aides that he was being tested by Arab leaders, just as President Kennedy was tested by Nikita Khrushchev during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. And in an angry press conference, pounding his fist on the table, Netanyahu said the riots had resulted not from "spontaneous combustion" but from "a deliberate decision" by Arafat to manipulate the "nonissue" of the tunnel.

Just 100 days into his term, Netanyahu has had the tables turned by Arafat. For months, Netanyahu refused to meet with the PLO chairman, humiliating him in the process. Last week, as the Israeli leader rushed home from a European trip to deal with the rapidly escalating violence, he telephoned Arafat to ask for an immediate meeting--only to have Arafat demur. Some Israeli newspapers asserted that Arafat had lost control of the rioting. Netanyahu and his cabinet argued otherwise.

Publicly, Arafat bemoaned the "massacre" of Palestinians by Israeli troops. But from within his camp, there were reports that he was elated by the size of the protests. Ahmed Tibi, an Arafat adviser, also said the PLO chairman was "very delighted" by Netanyahu's phone call.

Many Israelis woke up for the first time last week to a hostile, uniformed army in the Palestinian territories. Palestinians were greeted by undiminished Israeli resolve. If those realities drive the two sides back to the bargaining table, some good might even result. But if violence becomes a negotiating tactic, both Israeli security and Palestinian statehood will drift further out of reach.



In a land torn by competing historical claims, archaeology is a weapon. Since its opening eight years ago, the Hasmonean Tunnel that parallels Jerusalem's Temple Mount offered tourists a dramatic glimpse of the literal foundations of Jewish Jerusalem--the base of the Western Wall, which is Judaism's holiest site. Neither the tunnel nor the new exit opened last week directly affects nearby Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount. But any alteration in Jerusalem's status quo touches nerves rubbed raw by decades of conflict.

Diggings. Israeli archaeologists began excavating along the Western Wall shortly after Israel captured the Old City in the 1967 Six-Day War. Following an ancient water tunnel, they slowly uncovered parts of the wall as well as later arches that supported an aqueduct to the Temple Mount.

Some Israeli officials insist that Palestinians should welcome the tunnel, which reveals both Muslim and Jewish artifacts; the new exit would also bring a steady stream of tourists from the Western Wall to the heart of the Muslim shopkeeping quarter. But the Islamic waqf, the religious organization that controls the Mount, is adamant that holy sites should not be touched without its consent.