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Associated Press/Photo by Bernat Armangue

What do Palestinians want?

Already a new peace process has broken down over land disputes and a U.S.-Israeli 'crisis.' In America the evangelical community emphasizes what Israel wants. But what about day-to-day life for those on the other side? And for the Christians living on both sides?

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

JERUSALEM and the WEST BANK-Atop Mt. Zion sits the Cenacle, considered by historians the likely setting of the Last Supper. High tourist season in Jerusalem arrives a few weeks before Easter, so on a recent weekday the main floor (cena means dinner) was filled to capacity: Roman Catholics from the Philippines prayed and sang together in one corner; Italians listened to a tour guide in another; Russian Orthodox nearby studied the Armenian capitals that top columns in the Crusader-era vault; and a group of evangelicals from Alaska waited their turn outside in midday sun. From the Jewish school at the site came the sounds of male prayer chanting.

A synagogue was here long before the apostles reportedly established it as a place of worship following Jesus' death and resurrection. It was destroyed by Persians in 614, rebuilt, destroyed by Muslims in 1009, regained by Crusaders in 1099, who built the basilica that partially survives today. The Franciscans took it over until another Muslim invasion-when it was transformed into a mosque and closed to Christians until the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Since the Six Day War in 1967, the Diaspora Yeshiva has run the compound.

The Cenacle is hardly unique: Most sites in tourist brochures of "the Holy Land" are layered with competing religious significance and conflicting historiography. Holiday or no, it's tough for tourists to escape the political implications of these controversies-fallout that feeds the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wider conflict between the Arab world and the West.

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"Holy places have become the symbol of the conflict," said Yitzhak Reiter, professor of Middle East politics and Islamic studies at Hebrew University. "Every space where someone can find some holy connection becomes part of the conflict."

The phenomenon isn't new. A stone doorway leading into the Cenacle's basilica has a chink for the mezuzah, the Hebrew scripture traditionally tucked into doorposts. The mezuzah is gone, and next to it some long-dead graffiti artist has chiseled "Allah" in Arabic. For the last 10 years, Israel and the Vatican have been in negotiations over ceding control to Rome.

Age-old disputes morphed into what some called an international crisis during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Jerusalem last month.

The flashpoint was 1,600 new housing units that Israel announced March 10 it planned to build in East Jerusalem. But they are only part of a larger tableau. Arab residents are locked in legal and other battles with Israelis over contested sites around Jerusalem. City fathers are wrestling over approximately 88 Arab homes planned for demolition near excavations for the City of David. In Sheikh Jarrah, another contested area of mostly Arab housing, 3,000 Arab and Jewish residents turned out to protest planned evictions two days before Biden's arrival.

Israelis, for their part, say that illegal building in the Arab areas of Jerusalem has reached a crisis point: Unlicensed units now number 1,000 per year, according to Justus Reid Weiner of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The mostly Palestinian and Arab residents of East Jerusalem say they are discriminated against in the issuing of building permits, while 650 housing units in the city have been demolished since 2000 to make way for Israeli projects, according to the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem.

The backdrop-sparking almost daily confrontation between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli police-is the failure to resolve internal borders between Israeli and Palestinian areas. The 1993 Oslo Accords granted limited self-rule to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Gaza, but further talks have stalled. Controversial building projects by both sides threaten the ability to finalize the agreed-upon two-state solution. And whether Jerusalem is to remain a unified city under Israeli or international control, or a divided city that is capital to both Israel and the state of Palestine is a question both sides say is being determined by "creating facts on the ground"-staking claims via building and development.

Reiter calls the unrest a "cold intifada"-reminiscent of previous Palestinian uprisings that led to massive violence and Israeli counter­attacks. The "low-scale violence" of recent weeks, he said, isn't going away because Palestinians believe Israel wants to "Judaize" Arab portions of Jerusalem-and the West Bank-in the absence of a negotiated solution on who controls what.

Last month U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, head of Central Command, sounded a similar alarm. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he listed the conflict first in a list of "major drivers of instability" in the region, warning that it "foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel" and "limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples [in the region]."


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