Palestinians try to deny Jewish ties to sites in West Bank...
The Palestinians continue to deny Jewish ties to many sites in the West Bank...
Speeches and comments made by Binyamin Netanyahu of late have been rather heavy on their biblical and historical references. In his speech at Bar-Ilan University last June, he declared: "The connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel has lasted for more than 3,500 years ... This is the land of our forefathers." And in an interview with talkshow host Charlie Rose in September, he mentioned a signet ring found by the western wall in Jerusalem, dating back 2,700 years and bearing the name "Netanyahu Ben-Yoash" inscribed on it in ancient Hebrew.
The context of these comments and the motivation for Netanyahu's recent announcement of a plan for the refurbishment of national heritage sites are one and the same: Israelis view those elements that seek to erase the historical ties of the Jewish people to the land as part of larger strategy aimed at delegitimising the state of Israel. Senior politicians and Israeli thinktanks have identified this phenomenon as a serious threat to the country, and the heritage restoration project is an example of the Israeli reaction to this challenge.
Unfortunately, the inclusion in the restoration plan of two of the most sacred Jewish sites, the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb, has sparked riots in the West Bank and Jerusalem over the past few days and led supposedly moderate Palestinian leaders to burst forth with disturbingly inflammatory rhetoric. Mahmoud Abbas even raised the spectre of "religious war" in light of the inclusion of these two sites. The international community weighed in too, with the US State Department and the UN secretary general, both reprimanding Israel for the decision.
Why has the seemingly innocuous announcement to upgrade these sites prompted such a caustic response? Muslims have full access to the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Islamic waqf's role in administering it remains unchanged. Rachel's Tomb is currently only accessible via Israel, but this has been the case since the late 1990s, owing to the high number of Palestinian attacks against the site in recent years.
Regrettably, it seems that this latest uproar, just like the unrest last autumn regarding the Temple Mount, is yet another example of the general Palestinian unwillingness to accept and acknowledge the deep-seated historical roots of the Jewish people in the region.
This is evidenced by numerous statements made by Palestinian political and religious leaders in recent days, such as that of Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and highest Islamic authority in the Holy Land. He said that Israel has "devoted all of its efforts to steal Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Palestinian cities to change their Arab and Islamic character to prove the country is Jewish". The theme of Israel "stealing" Islamic sites for its own cultural and political purposes was also explicitly mentioned by Abbas, as well as by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (who called for a new intifada as well).
The implication is that the Cave of the Patriarchs has nothing to do with the Jewish people and the Israeli government is fabricating history for political ends. But the shrine is mentioned in the Bible and has been a focus of Jewish pilgrimage for more than 3,000 years. It is Judaism's second holiest site and is central to Jewish national identity as the burial place of the people's three forefathers.
The riots and denunciations spawned by the heritage sites plan, as well as those over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and numerous others, illustrate the ongoing battle being waged by the Palestinian political and religious leadership to disconnect national Jewish symbols from the state of Israel. And this tactic is just part of a wider strategy to delegitimise the very notion of a nation state for the Jewish people, a campaign that is being orchestrated both by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as by their sympathisers in the west.