Is There "Light At The End Of The Tunnel" In Jerusalem?
by Stan Griffin
Jerusalem is a holy city to three religions. Followers of Islam believe that Mohammed, their founder, rose to Heaven from Jerusalem. Jews consider it to be sacred because it was their political and religious center in Biblical times. Christians believe Jerusalem is holy because many events in the life of Jesus took place there, including His crucifixion. Sacred sites for all three religions are located in Jerusalem.
Since the Jewish nation of Israel was established in Palestine (1947), conflict between Arabs living there (called Palestinians) and Jews has been almost continual. Wars, destruction, terrorism, riots, and death have made the city an uncertain place to live.
For almost 20 years West Jerusalem was an important Israeli city, part of the time serving as its capital. However, the Judaic shrines were located in East Jerusalem (the "Old City") which was under Arab control during that time.
After the "Six-Day War" (1967), the Jews took over the entire city. They extended its boundaries; and all of Jerusalem, including the Old City, became an official part of Israel. Since 1980 they have considered it to be their capital. At the same time, Israel took control of the Gaza Strip (southwest of the city) and the West Bank (of the Jordan River), between Israel and Jordan.
Nearly a million Palestinians lived in those areas. They became Israeli citizens after the takeover, but they were not satisfied with the situation. They wanted to have self-government and eventually to have their own state.
Unrest continued. A peace agreement in 1978 temporarily eased conditions; but when no additional Israeli concessions were made by 1987, there was an "intifada" (uprising) by the Palestinians--six years of violence and death. In the forefront of this "terrorism," was the "Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.)", devoted to achieving the goal of a Palestinian state.
Israel and the P.L.O. signed peace agreements in 1993 in Oslo, Norway. Israel agreed to withdraw troops gradually from Gaza and from most of the West Bank. During the period of "adjustment," the two sides were to cooperate on security measures. Eventually the Palestinians would govern themselves, and Palestinian police would take over from Israeli troops. This process has been proceeding, sometimes not as fast as the Palestinians would like. By 1996, the only major Palestinian city in the West Bank still under complete Israeli control was Hebron.
Israeli archaeologists had been at work underground in the Old City for a number of years, digging and searching for remnants of the past. In 1984 they began construction of a tunnel that would enable tourists to take a "2,500-year tour" of history.
As they planned and built it, this tunnel ran for approximately 450-500 yards (about a quarter-mile). It started at the Western Wall's prayer plaza in the Jewish Quarter, ran under the Christian Quarter, and ended at the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter.
The Western Wall is the last remaining portion of the Second Temple, destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans. It is Judaism's most holy site. The Via Dolorosa is the route taken by Jesus before the Crucifixion.
The tunnel was narrow, in places about two feet wide. Its height varied from seven feet to 25 feet. It passed through subterranean vaults of the 14th century, past buried foundations of the Western Wall and a gateway to the Temple Mount (an ancient, man-made plateau which is sacred to both Moslems and Jews). A walk through the tunnel is like "time travel": viewing remains of civilizations like the early Greeks, Romans, Byzantine, Arabs, and Christians.
Tourists who made the walk had to retrace their steps when they reached the end since the only opening served both as entrance and exit. This kept the potential number of visitors to about 300 daily. The next step seemed to be a second opening to increase that number. However, because this tunnel passes very close to several Islamic shrines, this was a very sensitive subject. Those places are:
1. The Al Aqsa Mosque Compound is Islam's third most sacred site. The Moslems call it "Haram as-Sharif ("noble enclosure"). Its Jewish name is "Temple Mount" because it was the site of the Temple destroyed in 70 A.D.
2. The "Dome of the Rock" is also a mosque. Moslems believe it is the place where Mohammed ascended to Heaven. Jews believe that this was the spot where Abraham offered God his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice.
In 1988 an exit from the tunnel into the Moslem Quarter was opened. Protests from the Palestinians caused the Israelis to seal it up. Until September 24, 1996 there was only one way to enter the tunnel.
A New Exit
On that date, around midnight, under the personal orders of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, workers broke through and removed the last remaining stones to create a second opening. Yom Kippur (a Jewish holiday) had just ended. A number of armed guards were present when the mayor of Jerusalem and other city officials walked the full length of the tunnel, coming out at the Via Dolorosa.
What followed was three days of rioting and gun battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. There were 79 lives lost before peace returned to the area. It was the worst violence since the 1967 war. Besides incidents in Jerusalem, there were reports of fatalities and injuries in Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem, and Nablus (cities on the West Bank).
Why Open It Now?
Israeli officials listed the following as their reasons for opening the tunnel:
(1) It increases the capability for handling large number of tourists yearly--from 70,000 to as many as 400,000 each year. This would be a plus for both Jewish and Arab businessmen.
(2) This was a way that Israel could reinforce pride in their history.
Israeli archaeologists said that the tunnel is a "pearl in the crown of Jerusalem's archaeology" and that it has revealed much about Moslem accomplishments as well. They expressed the opinion that the tunnel does not obstruct any Islamic structures.
Some observers believed another reason (not stated) was that Israel wanted to emphasize their sovereignty in the entire city. In other words, they did it because they had the right to do it. The new exit opens into the Muslim Quarter, a place where they claim equal rights. This tunnel would give them a toehold there.
Prime Minister Netenyahu called the tunnel opening a "non-issue" but admitted that the " ... timing was bad." He reinforced the opinion that it was an " ... expression of our history ..." and said he was " ... proud it was done."
Palestinian outrage came from an expressed fear that the stability of the buildings above the tunnel, some very important shrines, would be endangered. Moslem officials have said that the tunnel has caused cracks in half a dozen buildings. They also fear that Israel plans to tear down the mosques and rebuild the Temple.
Other observers saw an expression of impatience toward Israel and how quickly they were complying with treaty provisions. They believe that Netenyahu was "dragging his feet" in carrying out those changes, especially in Hebron.
Yasir Arafat, long-time head of the P.L.O., expressed the official view of Israel's actions. He called it a " ... crime against our religion and our holy places ..." and a " ... deliberate act of incitement ..."
Working for Peace
As attempts were made to stop the violence, King Hussein of Jordan advanced the suggestion that Israel should close the new entrance. This idea was rejected outright by Prime Minister Netenyahu.
There was world-wide criticism of Israel's actions. Besides Arab countries several European nations, including Great Britain and France, expressed their displeasure and urged Israel to rethink their actions.
The United States exerted pressure on the two sides, and a summit meeting was held in Washington on October 2 and 3, 1996. Participating were Benjamin Netenyahu, Yasir Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan, and U. S. President Clinton. Several sessions were held, but the only agreement reached was that the P.L.O. and Israel would hold more meetings later.
So far those meetings have not produced any results. Arafat was quoted as saying that his people " ... will not be forced to kneel for peace ..."
The status of Hebron is a major roadblock to negotiations. Israeli troops were scheduled to withdraw from 80 percent of the city. Some were to stay as protection for 52 Jewish families living in six small enclaves. They would also be there to guard the "Tomb of the Patriarchs" which is holy to Jews and Moslems. Tradition says that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are buried there.
After there were four suicide bombings in February and March (1996), however, the pullback was delayed. Arafat and his negotiators are urging Israel to complete this phase.
Underground Islamic Prayers
Moslem authorities have announced a plan which seems to be a counter to Israel's tunnel. They have said a new, permanent, underground prayer hall will be opened at the Al Aqsa Mosque. It is located in a 2,000-year-old chamber known as "Solomon's Stable" and built in the time of King Herod as part of an underground support structure for an expansion of the Temple. Islam tradition says that Mohammad once visited the site.
Israeli authorities have previously given permission for this to be done on a temporary basis. They have said Palestinian renovation damage has made it too dangerous for everyday use.
When Will It End?
As a surface issue, this latest point of contention between the Jews and Palestinians brings to mind an old expression: "We can see a light at the end of the tunnel." This phrase signifies optimism, that the solution to a problem is near. However, applying it to the current situation in the Middle East means that you have to admit the light is very, very dim--in fact, you can hardly see it at all!
The events that are effecting our world today had their origins in the middle east thousands of years ago.
Both the Jews and the Moslems are descendants of Abraham. Jews are descendants of Abraham and his wife, Sarah. Moslems are descendants of Abraham and Sarah's Egyptian handmaid, Hagar.
The story of Abraham and his descendants starts in Genesis, chapter 14 in the Bible.)
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