Sharon steps in to keep national shrine open

It would be the equivalent of closing down the Tower of London. Every year, Israeli soldiers go to Masada to swear an oath that the desert mountaintop will never fall to their foes again. The ruins of the fortress, high on a stark, sun-blistered crag overlooking the Dead Sea, are seen by Israelis as a symbol of national resolve. Since many of them are convinced that the Palestinian intifada is not about Israel's illegal occupation of Arab land but the determination of Arab and Islamic fanatics to destroy Israel, Masada is more significant to them now than ever.

And yet, after remaining open through the Israel-Arab wars of 1967 and 1973, the Gulf War and the first Palestinian intifada, the tourist site is now fighting closure. A recent decision by the Nature and National Parks Protection Authority to shut it down (along with 56 other nature areas and historical sites) was reversed only by the personal intervention of Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister.

The problem is money: Israel's economy has been hit hard by the 21-month conflict. Tourism and hotel occupancy for the first five months of the year have fallen by more than 40 per cent on the same period last year. The shekel has been struggling to stay below the psychologically important level of five to the dollar, and a big budget squeeze is under way.

Before the intifada erupted in September 2000, Masada was expecting a record-breaking millennium year, with a projected 800,000 visitors, according to its director, Eitan Campbell. This year it will be lucky if 180,000 arrive to travel up the hillside by cable-car to see the ruins. "Closing Masada is just unthinkable," Mr Campbell said. "It is a major part of our national heritage."

Masada's importance to Israelis lies in its history. The fact that it is separated from the present by more than 2,000 years does not diminish the passions it arouses – as is so often the case in this conflict-ridden landscape.

It is a story with many echoes of today's crisis, though Palestinians might argue that the role played by the Jews in Roman times resembles their own in the current conflict. It, too, is about occupation, an intifada, a siege, and the refusal to give in.

The fortress – then a fabulous citadel and garrison built by Herod – was captured by a band of Jewish rebels at the start of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans. As the Romans gradually crushed the revolt in Jerusalem, Masada became the refuge of the Jewish resistance, particularly a cult called the Zealots.

For five months, 967 men, women and children lived under siege by thousands of Roman legionnaires. When it became clear that the Romans would breach their defences (by building a giant ramp, using Jewish slaves), the Jews killed themselves.

As Israel's government departments compete for diminishing funds – the coffers drained by the cost of the army's operations against the Palestinians – negotiations are under way to carve out enough budget money to pay for the Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, thus allowing it to keep its sites open. Given Masada's history, it is hardly surprising that it is an issue about which Mr Sharon, a former general, feels strongly.

"This is not a political issue, but at a time when the country is at war you want to keep life normal," said Ra'anan Gissin, spokesman for Mr Sharon. "If you start closing things down, and explain it away as part of the difficult security situation, then that defeats the purpose of trying to restore life to normal."