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  Religion at Core of Mideast Strife

By Tanalee Smith
Associated Press Writer
Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2000; 10:44 a.m. EDT

JERUSALEM –– It all started with a contest over a holy shrine, and both sides have been fanning the flames with attacks on each other's religious symbols, from Palestinians tearing up Jewish prayer books to Israelis setting fire to a mosque.

The religious strife has cut deep wounds and will make it increasingly difficult for the two sides to find a way to live together, even though many have distanced themselves from the vandalism.

"It's a disgrace to Judaism," Yitzhak Rosenberg, 61, a resident of Kibbutz Hagoshrim, said of the attack on a mosque in the northern Israeli town of Tiberias.

"They should respect our mosques and we should respect their holy places," echoed Ibrahim Dwekat, who lives in the Palestinian town of Nablus.

The confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians – with more than 85 killed, most of them Palestinians – has been described as a religious war, although that is more an undercurrent in the real battle over land and borders. But in the last two weeks, the highly charged religious debate has been thrust to the forefront of the violence.

It began Sept. 28, when Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited a disputed holy site in Jerusalem to demonstrate Israeli control over what Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims refer to as the Haram as-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary.

The compound – site of bloody clashes in 1990 and 1996 – is the most sensitive spot in Israeli-Palestinian relations. The Palestinians insist on full control of the shrine, the third holiest site in Islam and home to two major mosques marking the spot where tradition says Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Israel has said it would consider less than full control, but would not accept Palestinian rule over the compound, former home of the biblical Jewish Temple, the most sacred shrine of Judaism. Jewish tradition says the site is also where Abraham was instructed to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

Mideast peace talks broke off over the dispute in July and never recovered.

The visit, seen by Palestinians as a provocation, triggered deadly clashes a day later. From there, violence spread across the Palestinian territories and parts of Israel.

In Nablus, a week of intense gunfights centered around Joseph's Tomb, where Israeli soldiers bunkered down against Palestinian gunmen. Six Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed.

Though some Jews believe the biblical patriarch Joseph is buried at the site and Muslims also consider it a holy shrine, the fighting was at first more tactical than religious.

But hours after the Israeli army withdrew Saturday, Palestinian rioters forced their way past Palestinian guards into the compound. They set fires, broke through the stone dome of the tomb, and tore pages from Jewish prayer books. The compound had been home to a Jewish seminary.

Israelis said the Palestinians had broken a promise to protect the tomb following the troop withdrawal. Hillel Lieberman, an American-born Jewish settler who taught at the seminary and lived nearby apparently tried to reach the area to stop the desecration, but en route was shot and killed by Palestinian militants.

Palestinian Ismail Jabbalah, 62, said he was upset by the destruction. "I tried to stop the demonstrators but they were very angry," said the Palestinian, who remembers the tomb being used as a mosque and school before Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war.

Nablus Mayor Ghassan Shakaa said Palestinian security forces were overrun by the demonstrators. "They saw Israeli soldiers and Jewish extremists, so they considered it a military position and wanted to strike," he said. Shakaa said they would rebuild the tomb as it was before 1967.

Later Saturday, it was the Muslims' turn to see a sacred place vandalized. The flashpoint was a mosque in the Jewish town of Tiberias. The mosque was abandoned during the 1948 Mideast war, but in recent months Muslim activists from nearby Arab communities had been holding Friday prayers there in an attempt to regain control.

After word spread Saturday that a Tiberias man was among three soldiers captured by Lebanese guerrillas, hundreds of residents converged on the 200-year-old building.

Demonstrators burned a tire inside, blackening the walls and floor, and one man pushed stones from the roof of the mosque onto the street, where a cheering crowd waved their fists in the air.

The religious rioting continued Monday night. A photo in Tuesday's Yediot Ahronot newspaper showed hundreds of demonstrators gathered around a bonfire of blazing tires outside the Tiberias mosque, the firelight revealing the chipped, broken walls of the holy building. In the daily Maariv, a front-page photo showed blackened walls and peeling plaster from a fire inside a Jaffa synagogue.

"This is becoming a war of survival," said Eli Journo, a Tiberias resident. But, he said, "after all of this settles, Arabs and Jews will have to figure out a way to live together."

© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press

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