Robert Fisk: Jerusalem can do strange things to your sanity


Robert Fisk
Saturday 08 October 2011 00:00

So there was this chap, a bearded guy, spectacles, a settler, asking for a lift from Hebron to Kiryat Arba.

And Kiryat Arba is quite a settlement, home to Baruch Goldstein who killed about 50 Palestinians before he himself was killed by the survivors, and Don, our man in Jerusalem – who was driving – said "Are you sure?" and my companion and I, anxious to hear "another point of view", said "Why not?" and this chap climbed in to the back seat next to me. And as we left Hebron, he pointed to us and said: "Jew? Jew? Jew?"

And I was a bit taken aback and let Don do the talking, and he said: "No." That kept our mate quiet for a bit. He had a gun in his belt, which I didn't really like. But armed Palestinians had killed Jewish settlers, so I kept my mouth shut. Then we reached Kiryat Arba and an enormous chap – with an even bigger beard – came to the car window with an equally enormous gun and said we could enter. And this settler beside me said: "The Land of Israel – for Israelis. Arabs. In London." Well, I see, we murmured. A bit like the Balfour Declaration in reverse, I suppose. "His Majesty's Government views with favour the establishment in Britain of a national home for the Arab people ..." Well there you have it, I suppose.

So then I called up from the King David Hotel – the best hotel in Jerusalem, I may add, whose Jewish and Arab staff are the best advertisement for a one-state solution, albeit that they may not agree with me! – and asked if the Waqf would permit me and my companion to visit the Haram al-Sharif, the Dome of the Rock, the Esplanade. And they called back and said yes, 9am sharp, Monday morning, and I could touch the footprint of the Prophet. I did – if indeed, it is his footprint, but this I cannot, alas, vouchsafe – and sure enough, I entered the great mosque which looks so like the Omayad mosque in Damascus and wondered at its beauty.

Gold and green are the colours of paradise, so I was told – I can believe it – and then, across the Esplanade, I was shown the Carrara marble aisles which that old trickster, Mussolini, gave to the holiest mosque in Palestine, and I remembered, of course, the Grand Mufti and his trip to Nazi Germany, and his visit to Hitler, and I recalled my student days, researching his speeches and his appeals to send the Jews of Europe to the East... Did he know?

And then I walked across the carpets and there was a plastic casket in which the Palestinians had boxed the cartridge cases of the Israelis who had fired tear gas at them in the 1990 killings here. "Saltsburg, Pennsylvania," it said. "For outdoor use only." Well, I can imagine. Saltsburg? Nice little town?

But then another question. What on earth, in this holy of holies, are these cartridge cases doing? Is this really their place? Should they be here, so close to Mohamed's footprint? Well, yes, I suppose they should, in one way. But I wonder. And then to a brunch at the Hamam el-Ein – the Bathhouse of the Well – which is being carefully restored close to the Esplanade and I talked to a fine Palestinian woman who described Israeli occupation in the language of Conrad. "Israeli occupation," she said to me. "They search everything on you; they go into your soul." That really is an "ouch".

And then we left Israel and the West Bank. "Please don't stamp our passports. Please don't stamp our passports," we pleaded. And the Israelis did not stamp our passports. And then, on the Jordanian side of the river, "Please don't stamp our passports. Please don't stamp our passports," we pleaded, and the Jordanians did not, although the Jordanian emigration officer at Amman airport did stamp our passports, thus allowing the Lebanese to see we had left Jordan but never entered it – but the Lebanese ignored the Jordanian stamp.

All of which makes me think that the Holy Land, Jerusalem, "Al-Quds", "Yerushalayim" – the Israelis print the Hebrew name of the city in Arabic script on Arabic road signs, I notice – is all a bit mad. I don't think I've ever been to a city where people go insane the nearer they get to it.

I once entered the Seven Arches Hotel above the Mount of Olives (and above the grave of one R Maxwell) – and do not ever, ever stay there, O reader – to find a group of Christians linking hands and praying and not prepared to let me through the lobby until they had finished praying. When I told them I was in a hurry one of the Christian men threatened to punch me in the face.

Funny place, Jerusalem. Funny place, Hebron. What on earth did God do to them?

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