Peace yields to war over the Mount

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The Independent Online

The posters that the Palestinians were pasting up all over Jerusalem's Old City yesterday made no bones about it: war has been declared over the Temple Mount. The image showed the face of a young man shot dead nearby on the Mount of Olives in the latest bout of unrest. "Comrade, field leader, martyr in the battle to defend Jerusalem," said the slogan.

The posters that the Palestinians were pasting up all over Jerusalem's Old City yesterday made no bones about it: war has been declared over the Temple Mount. The image showed the face of a young man shot dead nearby on the Mount of Olives in the latest bout of unrest. "Comrade, field leader, martyr in the battle to defend Jerusalem," said the slogan.

Judging by the frequent and loud bangs of stun grenades and puffs of black smoke that were floating across the holy city yesterday afternoon - interrupting the hush not only of the Jewish Sabbath, but of Judaism's New Year's Day - it is a war that will be waged in earnest, at least for a day or two.

Fed up with Israel's failure to fulfil pledges in the peace accords, and also with seeing their own leadership cave in over what they perceive to be their internationally legitimised rights - particularly UN Resolution 242 - the Palestinians appear determined to send a message.

The "street" - as it is known in the Middle East - was asserting itself: it will not accept any concessions over the Mount itself, Islam's third holiest site, known as the Haram al-Sharif. It is their line in the sand. The latest round of violence was triggered by an astoundingly reckless visit to the site on Thursday by Israel's hardline Likud leader, Ariel Sharon.

But tension over the 35-acre plaza had been rising, as the peace negotiations increasingly focused on the Mount, which religious Jews believe is the site of the Second Temple, and the heart of Judaism.

On Friday, six people died; yesterday, the death toll was swiftly rising into double figures, placing it in the same league as the calamities of 1990 - when 17 Palestinians were shot by Israeli troops on the Mount, and 1996, when more than 60 died in a week of violence. The prospect of any peace agreement on the sovereignty of the Mount has now disappeared.

Emotions could scarcely be running any higher. "We're going to teach them not to touch our holy place," said Khalil Natash, 21, a stonethrower in the West Bank town of Hebron, who carried a black flag of mourning for those killed. "We will burn the ground underneath the Israelis to stop them from touching our holy place." Bassem Naim, a Palestinian activist, said: "The battle for Jerusalem has begun."

Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops exchanged fire in two areas, near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in Gaza and south of the West Bank town of Nablus. "I saw people killed at al-Aqsa yesterday," said Abdel Mutabid, 17, with a rock in both hands, "This is because of Ariel Sharon, because he entered al-Aqsa."

There were prolonged and fatal clashes in Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank, underscoring suspicions that neither Israel nor Yasser Arafat has a grip on the situation, or can now be sure of swiftly reining in emotions on the streets.

The posters were being plastered around the Old City yesterday as thousands of Palestinians gathered there for the funeral of Osama Mohammed Jadi, 23, to honour what they see as yet another martyr.

Twenty people were injured by Israeli steel-coated rubber bullets and stun grenades during trouble that broke out as the ceremony unfolded, though this was small fry compared to the wave of violence that swept through the rest of the occupied territories.

Observers will say that these were, to some extent, choreographed, a protest in which the Palestinians throw stones and Molotov cocktails and Israelis fire "rubber" bullets as a way to keep the dispute on television. But they get out of hand, and "rubber" bullets can quickly be replaced by real ones.

The worry that this unrest will not be easy to contain was explicitly outlined by Faisel Husseini, who holds the Jerusalem portfolio for the Palestinian Authority. "They [Israelis] are pushing us, the Palestinian leadership, out of the picture", he said. "They will be forced to deal with other people than us ... people who know the language of violence."

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