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Mideast Clash Is Becoming an All-Out Religious War

Conflict: Attacks on holy sites raise fears on both sides that the fighting could become unresolvable.


NABLUS, West Bank — Nuha Sawalhi has no doubt the conflagration that has engulfed Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the past month is about religion.

Standing in the debris of Joseph's Tomb, in the West Bank town of Nablus, Sawalhi rejoiced on a recent afternoon that Palestinians now control the site, which she calls Sheik Yusef's Tomb.

"It is our Muslim holy site," said the 54-year-old Sawalhi, cloaked in the dress of an observant Muslim woman. "When I was a child, I came and prayed here as a Muslim. Please don't let the Jews come back to this place."

Around her, reconstruction was underway of the small shrine that a Palestinian mob destroyed Oct. 7 after Israeli troops abandoned the site as indefensible. All evidence that Israelis once controlled the tomb, or that Jews had studied and prayed here since 1974, has been erased.

The man buried here, Palestinians insist, is Sheik Yusef Dweikat, who died in the 1800s, not the Jewish patriarch of biblical times.

"He had no relation to the Jews. The prophet Joseph is buried in Egypt," said Dr. Ayoub Hamadan, a pediatrician. "This is not a religious war, but the Jewish settlers decided to make it a religious war."

For Arabs and Jews, some of the most disturbing images to emerge from four weeks of clashes have been those of the destruction each has wreaked on the other's holy shrines.

On Friday, worshipers arriving at a synagogue in the West Bank settlement of Efrat found its interior walls spray-painted with swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans in Arabic and English.

"Hitler correctly destroyed the Jewish vermin" was scrawled across one wall, said Shlomo Riskin, Efrat's chief rabbi. "People whose parents lived through Kristallnacht are weeping," he added, referring to the 1938 Nazi destruction of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses throughout Germany.

The attacks have raised fears that what both sides have for decades insisted is a national war over land is being transformed into an all-out religious war, where compromise over borders and sovereignty will become impossible.

Palestinians charge that it was the Israelis who infused religion into the conflict, triggered Sept. 28 when Ariel Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, asserted Israeli sovereignty over the compound in Jerusalem that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Haram al Sharif.

Palestinians viewed the visit, made with an armed police escort, as a deliberate desecration of the Al Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. They dubbed the riots that erupted after the visit the Al Aqsa intifada and said the young men who have been killed in confrontations with Israeli troops died defending the mosque.

"Sharon set off a spark that spread from Jerusalem to every Arab, Muslim and Christian city and village," Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat said in a speech Sunday at a summit of Arab leaders in Cairo. Sharon's visit, he said, "created a new dimension in the Arab-Israeli struggle--the religious one."

Muslims also have been outraged by the firebombings of two mosques in Jaffa and the burning of tires and spray-painting of hate slogans on a mosque in Tiberias. They were angered by the desecration of a Muslim cemetery in Nesher, burial site of Palestinian hero Iziddin al-Qassam, who resisted British rule and fought Zionists in the region before Israel became a nation.

Jews have decried the firebombings of synagogues in Jaffa, Haifa, Ramla and Shfaram, and the defacement of tombs of Jewish saints in several Galilean towns. They watched in horror the televised destruction of Joseph's Tomb and were incensed when another mob torched a yeshiva, or school, built over the ruins of a synagogue under Palestinian control in Jericho.

Moderates on both sides fear that the conflict is becoming infused with religion.

"You cannot argue with someone who says: 'For me it is holy and that is it,' " said Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv and Jaffa.

"What we are witnessing is a kind of hidden hatred which was maybe there for tens or hundreds of years on both sides," said Mohammed Hurani, senior lecturer and researcher in Islamic culture and education at Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute and David Yellin College. "If we continue damaging our religious symbols and holy places, it will take a long, long time to remove the bad feelings that will be created."

Writing in the Hebrew daily Maariv, Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, recently called on Islamic clerics to join him in an appeal for both sides to stop the bloodshed and the desecration of shrines.

"If we don't show an example on this issue," the rabbi warned, "the whole Middle East may enter into a bloody whirlpool, a fire whose end we cannot see. . . . Religious wars throughout history were bloody, and their price horrific."

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