Whose Jerusalem ?
Whose Land ?
An Analysis by DEBKAfile's Intelligence and Palestinian experts
11 Aug 2001
I t took the Palestinians a few hours to grasp to the full the dimensions of Sharon's bloodless coup in Jerusalem in retaliation for one of their most horrendous terrorist outrages since the onset of the Intifada last October.
Before even the 15 victims of the Sbarro pizza parlor suicide bombing were buried Friday, among them seven children, Orient House and nine other Palestinian administration offices in Jerusalem and the outlying village of Abu Dis were lost, the symbols of the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem erased. Saturday night found 15 terror victims still in hospital - one, Hannah Nahenberg, in grave danger from a nail from the bomb that pierced her heart. Saturday morning, a small knot of political figures formed up for a protest march on Orient House led by the Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi and Israeli Arab Knesset member, Mohamed Barake.
Israeli police blocked their path. In the ensuing scuffles, nine demonstrators were injured including Abdul Kader Husseini, son of the late Palestinian leader, Faisal Husseini, who made Orient House PLO headquarters. Another 12 were arrested, including leftist sympathizers from overseas.
While the Sharon government's move in Jerusalem drew a flood of censure from various world capitals, most of it was tagged onto and tempered by sharp words of condemnation of the pizzeria bombing. The American reaction was particularly mild.
Yasser Arafat launched a diplomatic campaign to recover his lost Jerusalem assets, and the Initifada Leadership has called a general strike in Jerusalem for next Monday.
These moves are but opening shots, while the Palestinians decide how to rally for the crunch ahead: the battle for Jerusalem.
Part I: The Strategic AspectsJerusalem, Temple Mount and the Al Aqsa Mosque were the combined keystone of the ideological arch Arafat built over his political and military uprising against Israel. From day one, those shrines were the fodder of his tireless efforts to transform the confrontation into the quintessential religious war between Islam and Judaism.
This objective ran up against six stumbling blocks:1. The Saudi throne is jealous of its role as Guardian of the Holy Places of Islam. It is recognized as such by most of the Moslem world and has no intention of sharing the honor with Arafat. The most senior religious establishment in the Moslem world therefore objects to Arafat's pretensions to fight for and control of the mosques of Jerusalem.Even President Clinton, who went further towards Arafat than any previous American president, argued that Temple Mount had belonged to the Jews centuries before Islam and that two Jewish Temples had stood there, a fact that Arafat and his tame Mufti of Jerusalem consistently gainsay.
2. The majority of Palestinians sought a national uprising, not the religious war Arafat imposed on them. His only real allies who are fighting his fight are the Israel Arab Islamic movement and the ten Israeli Arab Knesset members. Many Gaza Strip, West Bank and outside Palestinians remain aloof from the Intifada, helpless to stop Arafat radicalize the religious content of the Intifada, import militant Shiite Hizballah cells from Lebanon into the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and fortify the Hamas and Jihad Islami fighting strength with the help of his terrorist machinery, especially the Gazan "Preventive Security" service led by Muhamed Dahlan.
This process is still in full flight and will continue to yield terrorist attacks against Jews, as an integral part of the jihadic rationale.
3. The men leading the Arab and Moslem world do not as a rule trust Arafat.
4. The Palestinian population of Jerusalem does not believe or like Arafat. It has therefore never rallied to his Intifada flag alongside brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By and large, they prefer not to see Arafat or his Palestinian Authority regime ruling Jerusalem.
Even the late Feisal Hussein, whom Israeli left-wing politicians sought to present a symbol of the Jerusalem Palestinians struggle, never wanted to see Arafat in control of the city or of Temple Mount.
Arafat situation in Jerusalem is such that when he wants a riot on Temple Mount, he has to raise heavies in Ramallah and Bethlehem. For terrorist actions in Jerusalem, he goes outside to recruit Tanzim militia gangs in the refugee camps of Ramallah and Hamas and Jihad Islami suicide bombers in the Jenin and Tulkarem districts of the northern West Bank.
5. Arafat speaks often of defending the Moslem and Christian holy sites of Jerusalem against the Jews. However, no Christian leader or spokesman has ever taken him up on his assumed guardianship. Indeed Arafat's protection is the last thing most of them want.
6. America's attitude toward Arafat's claim, or that of any Moslem leader, to Temple Mount, is not merely politically motivated, or even an predicated on its oil strategy, but influenced by the profound religious sentiments of many tens of millions of fervent American Christians. Many cherish what they regard as a bond of faith between Christendom and the Jewish people and regard the creation of the state of Israel in the land of its forefathers as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
President Bush who springs from far more conservative roots than his predecessor will certainly not ignore widely accepted American Christian precepts on Jerusalem. Sending observers to monitor a ceasefire between Moslems and Jews would be a politically loaded step for the Republican president.
All this explains Washington's pro formal reprimand for Sharon's measures in Jerusalem Thursday night, almost a tacit assent. Those measures represent a watershed in the Palestinian-Israel conflict, which the Bush administration will not seek to reverse.
Any outcry that Arafat succeeds in raising will come from Europe and the Moslem world, most of it reluctant. It will most probably be blown up by Israeli political factions who still believe that appeasing Arafat will revive the moribund Oslo Accords of 1993.
Part II: An Alternative Jerusalem LeadershipEven more damaging to the Palestinian leader's Jerusalem aspirations than the loss of Orient House, was Israel's seizure of Abu Dis, designated as sovereign corridor to Temple Mount and therefore a prized asset in a future Palestinian state.
Prime minister Sharon ventured to go after Palestinian state symbols in Jerusalem, but the plan was not his. According to DEBKAfile 's intelligence sources, it was thought up some time ago by a defense ministry team focusing on the Jerusalem question.
That team correctly predicted last year that Arafat would never succeed in rallying the 200,000 Palestinians of Jerusalem to the Intifada. It was this failure that led to the bombardment of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, a Palestinian offensive launched from outside the city, from Beit Jallah, El Khader and Bethlehem, failing the ability to raise an internal assault.
In placing their plan before the cabinet after the Sbarro pizzeria massacre, the Jerusalem team made the following observations:A. Israel's appropriation of Orient House and the Palestinian "Government Center" at Abu Dis would create a rift in the Jerusalem Palestinian leadership.This was the window of opportunity recommended to Sharon by the Jerusalem team, together with the warning that the Palestinian leader, on past form, will not take these challenges lying down. He will most probably decide to fight back by intensifying the violence and spreading it round the city. Arafat and his Fatah and Tanzim mililtias maintain sleeper cells in Jerusalem's northern districts of Shuafat, Beit Hanina and outlying villages, such as Beit Iksa. He is capable of rousing them to action - and not only against Israeli targets. There is a possibility too of violent student riots at Al Kuds and Bir Zeit universities - directed against his opponents, Nusseibeh and Al Khattab.
B. Only a minority in this leadership will follow Arafat; the majority will distance itself and seek to forge an independent line.
C. That line may well be based on the principle that instead of seeking a confrontation with Israel over Orient House, Abu Dis and Temple Mount, those issues could become the levers for accommodation.
D. Contrary to the conventional view held by moderate Palestinians and Israeli doves that the partition of Jerusalem between two capitals was inevitable, the majority of the Jerusalem Palestinian leadership understands that Israel under Sharon, meaning in the foreseeable future, will never forgo full sovereignty over an undivided city - certainly not after fighting a war for almost a year. It is far more realistic to seek ad-hoc arrangements on sensitive issues than a general showdown.
E. The most prominent Jerusalem politician today is Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Kuds University, which is located in Abu Dis.
As DEBKAfile reported after the death of Faisal Husseini some weeks ago, Nusseibeh stands foursquare against Yasser Arafat. He is backed by the same European circles from whom the Israeli pro-Oslo faction led by foreign minister Shimon Peres, and Yossi Beilin draw their support. Another point to note about Nusseibeh is his secret role as senior political adviser to Jibril Rajoub, head of the West Bank Palestinian Preventive Security Service.
Since Rajoub happens to be a close crony and protector of the fiery Tanzim militia chief of Ramallah, Marwan Barghouti, Nusseibeh is well-endowed with national credentials and a power base.
Other prominent members of the Jerusalem elite are Rassen al-Khattab, a lecturer at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, who has always shunned Palestinian politics out of antipathy for Arafat, and, surprisingly, Hanan Ashrawi, recently appointed Arab League spokesperson. Although she led the demonstration at Orient House Saturday, she leans towards support of the Nusseibeh line rather than that of Arafat.
Another undercover supporter of this group is Mahmoud Abbas, otherwise known as Abu Mazen, Arafat's deputy and rival.
F. IN the battle for Jerusalem, therefore, Arafat will have much more on his hands than Israel. He will have to wrest the city from its local leaders who want to keep him out.
Jerusalem is accordingly in for a stormier period than ever.