When the Israeli cabinet announced the other day that the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, would be included in a list of Israeli “heritage” sites, it touched off a wave of Palestinian violence and threats—along with diplomatic protests that were all too concordant with the Palestinian bullying.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has launched the “heritage” program as a way of strengthening Israelis’ connection with their Jewish and Zionist roots, initially left the two West Bank sites (though other West Bank sites were included) off the list, apparently fearing various kinds of fallout. Netanyahu was only persuaded to include them at the last minute by Shas, a religious party that is part of his coalition.
Sure enough, the West Bank heated up with an increase in rocks and Molotov cocktails thrown at Israeli vehicles, and, particularly, daily disturbances in Hebron, where crowds of Palestinians burned tires and threw rocks and bottles at Israeli soldiers. By Sunday the disturbances had spread to Jerusalem.
On the verbal plane a spokesman for the Gaza-based Islamic Jihad terror organization declared that “If the Israelis continue to damage our mosques and holy places, we will respond within the Zionist territory”—alluding to the fact that the Cave of the Patriarchs is a compound with a mosque as well as a synagogue, while Rachel’s Tomb has recently been claimed to be a mosque as well.
Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas prime minister in Gaza, piped up with “Jerusalem is ours, the land is ours, and God is with us. We will not accept these decisions….” And Mahmoud Abbas, president of the official, West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and considered secular and a moderate, was hardly more moderate in his reaction, calling the decision to add the two sites to the heritage list “a serious provocation which may lead to a religious war.”
The U.S., too, voiced its objection as “State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the administration viewed the move as ‘provocative’ and unhelpful to the goal of getting the two sides back to the table,” and that “U.S. displeasure with the designations of the Cave of the Patriarchs in the flashpoint town of Hebron and the traditional tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem had been conveyed to senior Israeli officials by American diplomats.”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also complained, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said “the European Union calls on Israel to refrain from provocative acts.”
On the Israeli side, a particularly indignant rejoinder came from Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, who called Abbas’s statement:
“insolent and outrageous and another attempt to rewrite history. The Cave of the Patriarchs, like Rachel’s Tomb, are Jewish heritage sites pointing to the deep 3,700-year affiliation of the people of Israel to their land.
“The people of Israel’s affiliation to the land did not begin—as the Palestinians are trying to claim—in the past 100 years, but when the Cave of the Patriarchs was bought by Abraham from Ephron the Hittite for 400 silver shekels and Rachel’s Tomb was purchased for a full price in the Binyamin region.
“They are both still mentioned in the Torah in the Book of Genesis, and no one can take that away from the people of Israel. The wild Palestinian attack is aimed at…rewriting history. This is a continuation of their ideological objection to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.”
Netanyahu, for his part, was more conciliatory, stressing Israel’s commitment to religious freedom and that “this policy is implemented in the Cave of the Patriarchs as well, where the State is working constantly to guarantee appropriate prayer conditions for Jews and Muslims.”
A few observations are in order. First, Israel did not announce that it was annexing the two sites, only that they had been added to a list designated for renovations and for encouraging visits by Israelis. Treating these two sites as major foci of the Jewish heritage is not a political statement; it is simply, as Shalom emphasized, a recognition of reality. But whoever envisions the purported “two-state solution” as one in which even minimal Jewish rights would be upheld within the Palestinian state should take note of the contempt toward Jewish history and values that was, once again, displayed by Palestinians this week.
Second, as alluded to by Netanyahu, Israel’s record in terms of honoring non-Jewish religious rights in the West Bank and Jerusalem is indeed exemplary—or even goes too far. On the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Israel grants administrative control to the Muslim Waqf, which allows non-Muslims to visit there only at restricted hours. In Hebron and elsewhere, Muslims have had full freedom of worship; while other Jewish sites in Nablus and Jericho have been damaged and desecrated. That the Palestinian behavior this week stems from an Islamic supremacism that Israel, with its democratic norms, is unable to appease—is a bit more reality than Israel’s diplomatic critics want to contemplate.
And so, while the U.S., UN, and EU rebukes come as no great surprise, they are of a piece with a long-held axiom that when such “Israeli-Palestinian tensions” emerge, the side that bullies and threatens war gets the nod while the side capable of upholding pluralism gets censured.