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Monday, 9 October, 2000, 13:38 GMT 14:38 UK
Analysis: Violence that haunts Jerusalem
Palestinians rushed out of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound
Palestinians rushed out of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound
By Paul Adams in Jerusalem

On Friday, the violence returned to Jerusalem's old city. To the very spot where it began just a week before.

Climbing the Mount of Olives, I looked down on the heart of the city, crammed inside its immaculate Ottoman walls, and watched a plume of thick black smoke curling around St Stephen's Gate. A police station was on fire inside, following an attack by furious, stone-throwing Palestinian youths.

The sound of gunfire and distant chanting wafted over the valley, past the tomb of the Virgin Mary and the Garden of Gethsemene, where a few stranded tourists looked on and asked if this was really what they had paid for.

Palestinian youths climbed up the Dome of the Rock to stone Israeli police
Palestinian youths climbed up the Dome of the Rock to stone Israeli police
A desert wind, the khamseen, was blowing, drawing a fine veil of yellow sand over the city.

With distant figures just visible along the edge of the fortified compound that houses the Moslem holy places, it all seemed rather dreamlike.

I found myself wondering just how many versions of this contest had played themselves out in the turbulent centuries of Jerusalem's existence.

How often had passionate young men answered the call of religion or politics to lay siege to the city?

How often had they bared their chests and reached for Jerusalem's plentiful stones to repel the invader, or remove the occupier?

Pinned down

Despite the violence raging through its ancient, narrow streets, the old city looked serene, its domes and spires unmoved by the latest eruption. Been there, seen it all, the walls seem to whisper. When will they learn to stop fighting? I'm just a city, for heaven's sake.

Jerusalem's ancient ramparts provide cover for Israeli soldiers
Jerusalem's ancient ramparts provide cover for Israeli soldiers
Earlier, pinned down by bullets and rocks, inside the walls, there was little time for such musings. In the scramble for cover, weighed down by the mildly reassuring bulk of a flak jacket, the only thing that seemed relevant was to establish where the shooting was coming from.

At the entrance to the place the Moslems call the Noble Sanctuary, I might, on another day, have pondered the fact that here, behind these massive walls, is one of the most hotly contested spots on earth.

A few acres that house some of the loveliest and most sacred sites in the Islamic world but whose fate it is to be the place, also, where Jews believe their ancient temples once stood.

I might have cursed the tendency of the city's earlier rulers to build their religious shrines on top of someone else's. A nifty way of saying I'm the boss now, but a disastrous legacy for those who'll follow in centuries to come.

But on this day, caught in the midst of a seething mass of rioters, I thought only of the black object cartwheeling through the air towards me.

Something - adrenalin, I suppose - allowed me to watch in slow motion an event that can only have lasted a split second. The baton round, for that is what I assumed it was, crashed into the heavy wooden gate beside me.

As I lurched clumsily for cover, hands reached out to steady my fall and I heard voices debating whether or not I should be allowed to enter their sacred space. For a moment or two, I stood inside, before being told, none too politely, to leave.

Who is to blame?

So much for colour - but what is this all about? Why have 80 people died in the past week? What is this fever that has gripped the country?

Do not assume, as some would have you believe, that the violence has all been planned by Yasser Arafat.

Stone throwers burned the police station at the Lion's Gate
Stone throwers burned the police station at the Lion's Gate
But, don't believe anyone, either, who tells you that only one side is doing the shooting - that this is simply a massacre.

Having watched this now for a week, I can tell you that most clashes erupt when Palestinians choose to vent their wrath on Israeli soldiers. The demonstrations are not peaceful, and the Palestinians deliberately goad the Israeli soldiers to respond.

In many cases, Palestinian gunmen - only some of them directly answerable to Mr Arafat - are the first to shoot live ammunition. In other cases, they appear to place themselves in the midst of unarmed, stone-throwing demonstrators, knowing - surely - that the results will be fatal.

But as an explanation for what is happening, that does not even scratch the surface.

Why is it that young men can show such reckless abandon in confronting a regional superpower which will not hesitate to use helicopter gunships when the going gets rough?

Why do they line up to die in this hideously one-sided contest?

The answer is that Israel still occupies their land, controls their lives, determines where they can and cannot go, builds illegal Jewish settlements while demolishing their own homes and continues to show a callous disregard for their lives.

All of this under the guise of a peace process that has gone on too long and yielded too little.

For Palestinians, fed up with Yasser Arafat's failure to improve their lives, and the stink of corruption that surrounds his administration, the feeling of helplessness is overwhelming.

Periodically, they resort to the only kind of language they and their occupiers seem to share. Mr Arafat is compelled to climb aboard, in an effort to gain some political capital.

This round of violence will end, sooner or later but as long as the occupation goes on, it is bound to happen again.

And, until a just solution is found to the issue of Jerusalem, this long-suffering, stony city will ring, once more, to the sound of gunfire.

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See also:

06 Oct 00 | Middle East
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05 Oct 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Eyewitness: Battle for Jerusalem
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