Tel Aviv — The weeklong Palestinian protests over Israel’s decision to designate two shrines in the West Bank as heritage sites subsided this week, but the controversy has not blown over.
If the government goes through with a plan to renovate religious sites like the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, there is a risk of an even worse upsurge in violence, claimed the leader of a prominent Palestinian clan in the city.
“We have a saying in Arabic: the fire is underneath the ashes,” said Sheik Abdel Khader Jaberi in a telephone interview with The Jewish Week. “If they touch the cave another time there will be a third intifada — all the way.”
Adding the Hebron burial location and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem to a list of heritage sites early last week sparked seven consecutive days of clashes in Hebron, along with two riots in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Palestinians regarded the move as an Israeli attempt to solidify control over contested shrines that lie in cities they envision as part of a future state.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned of a religious war, and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called on West Bank residents to initiate a new uprising.
As the controversy died down Monday, the Palestinian Authority cabinet held a meeting in Hebron in a show of solidarity with the city and its shrine. “We will not allow Israel to steal our history,” said one cabinet member.
The dispute over the tomb — which has a mosque and a synagogue in the complex — has inspired bloodshed for well over a century. For centuries, Jews and Christians were banned from visiting at all.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and supporters in the government explained that the move is simply aimed at giving the holy sites a facelift. They argued that Israel has always allowed all religions free access to religious sites, and accused the Palestinians of exploiting the decision to stir up trouble.
“Ma’arat Hamachpela is the second most holy site in Judaism. If it is not part of Jewish heritage, then what is?” asked David Wilder, a spokesperson for the Jewish community in Hebron, referring to the tomb by its Hebrew name.
Referring to the battle of historic claims that lies at the root of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Wilder added that Palestinians deny Jewish historical ties to all of the burial sites in the West Bank as well as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
“The only violence stems from our Arab neighbors who throw rocks and burning tires, which they do whenever they don’t like something,” he said. “We’re not dealing with rational people.”
Netanyahu’s critics say the decision recalls Israel’s controversial actions at holy sites a decade ago that helped spark waves of violence. Among the most notable were the violent demonstrations in 2000 after Ariel Sharon toured the Temple Mount (which deteriorated into the second Palestinian uprising), and the 1996 opening of a tourist tunnel underneath the Western Wall that sparked rioting in which 80 people were killed. (The latest round of violence has seen no fatalities and few injuries.)
Trade Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer, a member of the left-of- center Labor Party, told Israel Army Radio that he believed the decision was a mistake.
Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of BitterLemons.org, said the move was made at the last second in response to pressure from Netanyahu’s right-wing political allies to include the controversial holy sites.
“What Netanyahu did had nothing to do with Israeli heritage — it was politics,” he said.
Where is the dispute over the heritage sites headed? Most analysts believe that the controversy by itself isn’t enough to spark a serious outbreak of violence. Indeed, the clashes have been contained to Hebron and Jerusalem. In Bethlehem, merchants held a solidarity strike.
On the other hand, both Palestinians and Israeli experts say that flare-ups are difficult to predict and almost always defy expectations.
“The events of ‘96 or 2000 took people by surprise. No one thought the circumstances were ripe. And ostensibly they’re not ripe now,” Alpher said.
That said, many have pointed to the lack of peace negotiations as a critical risk factor that undermine stability. The 2000 riots followed the collapse of a summit at Camp David, Md., while today talks haven’t been held in a year. A Palestinian politician said that even if the current violence doesn’t stir up a mass protest, it could be one step closer to a flare-up.
“A vacuum won’t endure with no negotiations and nothing else,” said Kadoura Fares, a Fatah member and former cabinet member. “No one can tell when the explosion will come, but it will come.”
Despite rhetoric on the Palestinian side about the need to protect the shrines against Israeli encroachment, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza aren’t being whipped up into a religious fervor.
“People here don’t believe that this is a religious issue. They realize that this a political issue,” said Mohammed Dajani, a professor of political science at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.
Abbas continues to favor negotiations over mass demonstrations and violence, a contrast to his predecessor Yasir Arafat, the expert said.
“Abbas doesn’t think like Arafat,” Dajani said. “Arafat could not move from being a revolutionary to being a diplomat, while Abbas’ background is that he is a diplomat.”
Alpher said that Netanyahu exercised bad judgment in the decision, but noted that the Palestinians are also exploiting the crisis to score political points. But it threatens stability.
In Hebron, Palestinian residents are frustrated, said Sheik Al Jaberi. For eight years, security measures by Israel’s army have banned motor vehicles in a region of the city with 30,000 residents. Hundreds of businesses have been shuttered in Hebron’s Old City. Renovating the Tomb could ignite those frustrations.
“If Israel shows softness in face of the pressure, the Palestinians would be out of their mind not to intensify the pressure,” said Yoram Ettinger, a former aide to Likud prime ministers. “Nations that don’t stick by their history don’t have a future.