Most wars and many continual near-war conflicts revolve around a different interpretation of history. But usually those are relatively minor interpretations of great past events.
The current outbreak of stabbings in Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank are very much symptoms of the continuing struggle over the presence of two peoples and three of the world’s religions on one small piece of land. Claims and counter-claims are asserted; some with some authentic historical evidence, others political slogans but enshrined in long held conflict.
The Israeli-Palestinian argument over Jerusalem is, of course, an important part of the conflict. The modern Palestinian Arab nationalists call for Eastern Jerusalem, the older part of the ancient city, traditionally home to both Arabs and Jews, as their capital for an independent state. Jews, for hundreds of years called for their return to Jerusalem in prayer and in the modern Zionist movement to restore a Jewish state in which a unified Jerusalem plays an integral role.
The arguments take all sorts of form. But in this instance, the continued denial by the Arabs that the archaeological pile on which the Al Aqsa Mosque is built was also the site of the ancient Hebrew temples reaches a new level of distortion. Not only does it fly in the face of the historical record, but it adds one more barrier to any possible settlement.
When at the end of the 1967 Israeli-Arab War – the six-day event in which the Jews captured most of the former British Mandate of Palestine, East Jerusalem, the Sinai and the Golan Heights – the question of the holy sites became paramount.
The Israeli Defense Minister, the dashing, one-eyed hero, Moshe Dayan, made a deal: The Jordanian wagf [an ostensibly independent religious trust] would retain control over what the Jews called The Temple Mount and the Muslim Arabs called The Noble Sanctuary. A secular Jew, Dayan used the rabbinical prohibition forbidding prayer on the site [except at the so-called Wailing Wall or Western Wall at the foot of the area]. That was to prevent trampling on the unknown position of the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary where the Ark of the Covenant, the ancient sacred Jewish writings, allegedly resided. Dayan’s arrangement was despite violation during the Jordanian occupation of sacred Jewish places, e.g., Jewish tombstones used as road paving blocks. The Jordanian authorities also had denied Jews and Christians access to the sacred sites.
Jerusalem is not mentioned in the Koran, the word of God for Arab Muslims. Al Aqsa was built more than 800 years after the death of Mohammed. But contemporary Moslems have designated it the third most holy Islamic site after Mecca and Medina, the site of Mohammed’s preaching. It was here, according to Islamic lore, that Mohammed ascended to heaven.
The current squabble has broken out over rumors that the Israelis are changing the rules of the game, pushed by religious Israeli Jews to permit prayer on the Mount. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly affirmed that no such move is contemplated. And he has suggested installing cameras in order to show that Jews visiting the site are not conducting prayers.
But that hasn’t satisfied many Palestinian Muslims, including the grand mufti of Jerusalem, the highest Moslem cleric in the area. He has again disputed the existence of the Hebrew temples, recorded in Roman as well as Jewish literature.
In defiance of their pledge to protect the site, the waqf in the 1990s permitted excavation of the site for building another underground mosque. This week a 10-year-old apprentice Israeli archaeologist who with his adult colleagues has continued to sift the excavated debris found an engraved limestone about the size of a thimble from the time of King David, or 3,000 years ago. That, of course, is not likely to change any minds on either side, but it does add one more piece of evidence to the written and oral history of the Jewish holy places.