Ha'aretz: (Un)holy agreements

By By Israel Harel
Ha'aretz Thursday, December 21, 2000

    When Jericho was transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction, it was promised - in written agreements and in solemn declarations - that Jews would not be hampered from continuing to visit Jericho's ancient synagogue, which has a mosaic with the words "Peace for all Israel" (shalom al yisrael) and that they would also not be hampered from praying or studying there. "The fact that our neighbors have agreed to allow us to continue to pray at those sites which are holy to Judaism," said Shimon Peres at the time, "is cogent proof of their sincere desire for peace.".Two months ago, our neighbors, the ones with the sincere desire for peace, burned down the ancient synagogue in Jericho. As the synagogue burned, the army of the Jewish people, which was established, inter alia, to prevent such pogroms from taking place, just sat and watched, entrenched behind its fortifications and in a strictly defensive position. The soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces just sat and watched, little more than a stone's throw away from the flames, and did not prevent this act from being carried out. Ever since that incident, Israel has not demanded that the former status quo be restored nor has any Jew stepped foot on that site. The Palestinian Authority, if only for propaganda or tactical reasons, is not being accused of having set fire to a Jewish holy site or of showing a total inability - or a total lack of desire - to protect other Jewish holy sites.

    Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has again proven that, even though he is a serial violator of written agreements, he always comes out on top. The facts are undeniable: After every act of aggression, including the sinful and abominable terrorist attack on a bus transporting children from the settlement of Kfar Darom, the efforts to woo him grow more vigorous instead of abating. A vivid example is the recent pilgrimages of Public Security Minister and Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Tourism Minister and Transportation Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and a delegation of members of Israel's parliament for meetings with Arafat.

    For generations, but especially over the past 33 years, Jews have visited Joseph's Tomb. It could be argued that this is not where Joseph, the son of Jacob, was really buried, but it cannot be denied that the PA made a commitment in writing, as was the case in Jericho, that this site, which had been handed over to its jurisdiction, would remain open, that Jews would be able to study Torah there and that the PA, together with a small Israeli security contingent, would be responsible for the lives and well-being of all Jews present at that site.

    Since the outbreak of the Oslo War, Joseph's Tomb has been transformed from a holy site to a battlefield. Every Israeli television viewer can vividly recall the shots that were fired, from point-blank range, into this holy site. Nor will the senior commanders of the IDF be able to forget - even if they continue to claim complete innocence - the trauma that the Israeli army experienced after a Druze Border Guard, Madhet Yosef, was abandoned on that battlefield where he died of his wounds. Nonetheless, the most painful sights, from the standpoint of Israel's national conscience, were those of Joseph's Tomb being smashed to bits, rock by rock, and of the burning of holy Jewish books. Here again, the IDF stood by, idly watching (from its vantage point a few hundred meters away) and did nothing to prevent this sacrilege - just like the armies of the gentiles during pogroms in Eastern Europe.

    Rachel's Tomb has always occupied a special place, especially from the emotional standpoint, in the collective Jewish heart. "You can stop your sobbing and you can stop your tears," Jewish women would recite the Biblical verse, as they themselves cried bitterly, "because God will reward your efforts, because there is hope on the last leg of your journey, and because your children have come home."

For 19 years, before the Six Day War of June 1967, the enlightened, noble King Hussein of Jordan did not allow any Jew to step foot on this much-cherished site. It was only after this war that Jewish women returned to Rachel's Tomb to resume their tearful prayers. Then along came Oslo 2 and the Israeli government, which turned its back on the emotional, national and religious implications of those women's tears, handed over the site to the Palestinians. Angry demonstrations attended by tens of thousands of Jews, most of them ultra-Orthodox, were held without let-up at Rachel's Tomb and awakened the government's sensitivity - primarily political (Unlike the Temple Mount, Rachel's Tomb was daily visited by thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, mostly women). In the wake of the demonstrations, the evil decree was rescinded.

    However, even though Rachel's Tomb remains - ostensibly at least - in Israeli hands, the visits have stopped. The tomb's surroundings have become a battlefield and even those women who used to visit the site day in and day out are, in effect, prohibited from praying at the site. Another one of Arafat's conquests, another example of Israel's capitulation.

    Ever since the start of the Oslo War, no Jew has set foot on the Temple Mount. Very few Jews visit the Mount of Olives to pray at the tombs of important figures in Jewish tradition. Jewish visitors are also scarce at dozens of other Jewish holy sites, some of which are less known, but all of which have been captured by the Palestinians.

    It is logical to assume that many, if not most, Israeli Jews have no particular sentiments toward these holy Jewish sites and do not really care that other Jews, who long to pray at those sites, are no longer able to do so. (These same Israeli Jews who have no special feelings for Jewish holy sites, of course, feel very differently when the subject is the safeguarding of the right of Palestinians to freedom of worship at their holy sites, for example, on the Temple Mount.) This is probably another reason why Arafat can so easily seize control of those holy Jewish sites without eliciting any opposition from the Israeli public, which could pressure the Israeli government - if that government felt a real political threat - in order to try to block this Palestinian takeover.

    The fact that the government has made peace with the Palestinians' seizure of nearly all of the sites held sacred by Jews - in contravention of written agreements - should sound the alarm bells in the minds of all Israeli Jews, even those who have never set foot on such sites. If the government is willing to stand by and watch the Palestinians fail to honor written agreements, what possible reason is there for the passionate, obsequious, debasing wooing of Arafat so that he will deign to sign another series of agreements? Has he not proven to Israel (and the leaders of Lebanon and Jordan have a thing or two to say that can attest to this minor fact) that his signature is not worth the paper it is written on




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