It all started with a typically flamboyant gesture by Ariel Sharon, a man whose name has been synonymous with some of the bloodiest events of the past few decades in the Middle East. Anyone with any knowledge of the situation could have predicted what would happen next. The killings by Israeli troops of more than 50 Palestinians, and the wounding of more than 1,000 others, dozens of them children, as a direct consequence of Thursday's provocative visit by Sharon to the precincts of the Al Aqsa mosque shows once again that the status quo of Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem is completely unsustainable, and is an open invitation to instability.
Sharon, the hero of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the attendant Sabra and Shatila massacres, is rightly considered a war criminal by the Palestinians. His visit was cynically calculated to cement his hard-line credentials and undermine both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and his potential rival for leadership of the Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu. It also was calculated to make concessions over Jerusalem by the current minority Labor government impossible. It succeeded fully on all these counts, unleashing a wave of bloodshed that has spread throughout Palestine/Israel.
The consequent copious shedding of Palestinian blood at the third-holiest site in Islam--the third such massacre since 1990--and the strong Palestinian reaction all over the country that followed, only underscore the fact that Israel has proved an appallingly poor keeper of order in East Jerusalem. Indeed, Israeli troops and police have once again sparked disorder, insecurity and mayhem for the Palestinian Arab population of Jerusalem, as they have done in the days since then all over the West Bank and Gaza.
All of this proves that the status quo in the city, touted by some as a possible basis for a settlement, is utterly intolerable to the 200,000 Arabs of East Jerusalem, the largest city in the West Bank, which has once again been revealed to be under brutal Israeli military occupation. Failure to recognize this can only prolong the suffering of the Palestinians, and the insecurity of all concerned, including the Israelis themselves.
The issue of Jerusalem is too dangerous to be swept under the carpet, as the U.S.-driven peace process has done for most of the past decade. As soon as the current tension dies down, which will clearly take some time, there must be a realistic and pragmatic effort to change the status quo in Jerusalem, end the occupation, end the suffocating closure of the city to the 3 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and end the subjugation of one people by another.
Jerusalem can only be an open city, free of borders and barriers, if both the peoples who regard it as their capital feel that their national aspirations are realized, if there is security for both, and if each has full control over its own part of the city and its own holy sites. It is inconceivable that there could be a permanent settlement in Jerusalem acceptable to either side whereby their civilian population, and their holiest sites, continue to be subject to the control of others, and to the kind of brutal violence we have been witnessing since Thursday.
A real settlement between the Palestinians and Israelis will require a fundamental shift in a situation in which one people has created massive and continuing insecurity for another in the name of its own security. These principles will not be easy to carry out in a small place like Jerusalem, a single city that is home to and capital for, two contending peoples, and which includes many sites sacred to multiple religions.
Thanks to Sharon's ostentatious provocation of last week, it will be harder to achieve than ever. Nevertheless, anything less than a radical solution of this sort only will guarantee more shedding of Palestinian blood, and more insecurity for the entire Middle East.