He's Jewish or he's Muslim - and the border runs through his grave

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The Independent Online

A holy place sacred to Muslims and Jews, a place of political and religious conflict in which heavily armed Israeli soldiers stand opposite Muslim Arabs who scream abuse and pelt them with stones. Sound familiar? Not so; for in the Middle East, everything has its ghostly parallel, its crisis-in-miniature, and the tomb of old Sheikh Abbad - or is it Rabbi Ashi - is Lebanon's version of the Dome of the Rock, set high on a wind-blasted frontier hill.

A holy place sacred to Muslims and Jews, a place of political and religious conflict in which heavily armed Israeli soldiers stand opposite Muslim Arabs who scream abuse and pelt them with stones. Sound familiar? Not so; for in the Middle East, everything has its ghostly parallel, its crisis-in-miniature, and the tomb of old Sheikh Abbad - or is it Rabbi Ashi - is Lebanon's version of the Dome of the Rock, set high on a wind-blasted frontier hill.

Every day, the Lebanese gather at the tomb, standing on their bit of the stone sarcophagus, telling the Israelis - just three feet away behind a steel grille fence - that they will be driven from "Palestine", they they are killers, murderers of 12-year-old boys, "Jews who must be driven out". I watched an Israeli soldier last week - a young conscript whose father came from Romania - look at a Lebanese girl who shrieked at him: "F*** off." He didn't blink an eye.

In the middle stand soldiers of the Ghanaian army, a company of men from the United Nations peacekeeping force who - through the grotesque decision of a Norwegian diplomat called Terje Roede-Larsen who decided to turn the UN here into a frontier force - have to argue, Kofi Annan-like, with the demonstrators. "Really," one of them gently remonstrated with a boy who threw a stone over the wire last week, "you shouldn't do that - it's wrong."

For the UN, it is. And for the Israelis. But for the Lebanese, it's a new ritual, courtesy of the UN's "blue line" - drawn up by Mr Roede-Larsen after Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Even after their official "withdrawal", the Israelis were suddenly forced to pull back from thousands of square metres of Lebanese territory which they had quietly appropriated over the past 22 years.

Needless to say, the Muslims of southern Lebanon claim that the plain white tomb contains the earthly remains of Sheikh Abbad, a Shia cleric whose name means the "Saint of all Worshippers", a 16th-century hermit who retreated to this bald, dusty hill for prayer and devotion. Equally inevitable is Israel's claim that the cleric - far from being an Arab Muslim - is none other than Rabbi Ashi, a leading Talmudic commentator who lived around the same time as Sheikh Abbad.

Alas, Mr Roede-Larsen's blue line bisected - longways - the 16th century tomb, leaving the right two-thirds of the ancient cleric's body in Lebanon, the left third in Israel. And a thick steel mesh screen has now been erected along the top - exactly two-thirds of the way along the top, of course - giving the Lebanese protesters enough room to stand on the tomb and throw stones and abuse at the Israeli soldiers on the other side. Just over a week ago, a Hizbollah member, trying to fix a poster on the Israeli side, was stopped by a UN soldier who found a pistol pointed at his head.

What has enraged many of the visitors, of course, is that Israel is just now killing an average of 10 Palestinians a day. They want to show their anger, to express their outrage.

UN officials are fearful this anger will burst into something far more serious. "If that Hizbollah man had pointed his gun at an Israeli soldier, he would have been shot dead and we'd have had our first major crisis on the border," a very senior UN man said. But the Hizbollah have thought of that; which is why a bearded young man in a green combat jacket sits on the wall beside the tomb, talking into a two-way radio.

His job - in full view of his Israeli enemies - is to make sure that war doesn't break out on Sheikh Abbad hill. The UN soldiers know who he is and so do the Israelis who scarcely bother to glance at him any more. Which is why the young guerrilla likes to bang his fist against the fence from time to time and run the aerial of his radio along the grille - just to keep the Israelis on their toes. Not much of a place to hang around - for hermits or Talmudic scholars.

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