A New Intifada, an Old Infection

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One generation passeth away. The young Palestinians of the late '80s uprising are raising children of their own. Kids who had not yet started school back then have taken their places now in the streets of Nablus and Ramallah and Khan Yunis.

In those days, we drove around Gaza and the West Bank in a car with blue license plates — meaning Palestinian — and my friend Jamil spread a checked keffiyeh on the dashboard to reinforce the message. But the kids threw stones at us anyway, not with the viciousness they used in the real game, against the Israeli soldiers, but somewhat in the way that pitchers warm up in the bullpen, just keeping their arms loose. Sometimes they laughed at us as they threw. Jamil — amused, embarrassed, outraged all at once — wagged his finger at them. Assaulting him, they were throwing, in effect, at their own fathers — and yet in the context of the Intifada, the kids had the moral authority; they, not the fathers, were risking their lives.

Two monotheisms is one too many in a small, bitter place. Jerusalem is a holy city, God help it — palpably, magically holy. That's the trouble. Holiness makes people crazy. David Ben-Gurion toyed with the idea, when Israel was just starting, of tearing down the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem — a blasphemous idea, until you look behind it to see the point: People cannot lead normal lives in a manifestly holy place, especially one so dogmatically contested. They are subject to ecstacies, and there is nothing worse than ecstatic violence, which is the form that religion may take when it goes into politics; absolutism does not like to share, and considers whatever gruesome aggressions it may commit to be justified as self-defense. Religious indignation expresses itself as massacre.

If you enter the living room of almost any Palestinian almost anywhere in the world, you will probably see a large photograph of the magnificent golden Dome of the Rock, set against a flawless blue sky. The other morning, just before the Jewish New Year, Likud party chairman Ariel Sharon and a half dozen other party leaders walked through the Mughrabi Gate, near the Western Wall, and approached the Dome of the Rock itself. About a thousand Israeli policemen came along to protect them. The Israeli paper Ha'aretz reports that several Palestinian members of the Knesset were on hand, and walked with the Sharon party for a little way, talking and even laughing; but then, says Ha'aretz, the Palestinian politicians spotted the TV cameras, and began hurling abuse at the Likud people.

Sharon performed this provocation for a reason. Prime Minister Ehud Barak had just given an interview to the Jerusalem Post in which he suggested that a peace agreement might allow for separate side-by-side capitals, Israeli and Palestinian, to share the city, to be called both Jerusalem and Al-Quds ("the holy," the Arab name). Sharon said, "This is a major historical mistake. It is the first time that a Jewish leader agreed to divide Jerusalem."

So Sharon came to the Dome of the Rock to assert sovereignty, and to stick a thumb in the Muslim eye. He achieved the desired effect: Within a day or two, Israel and the Occupied Territories had reverted (as they usually do) to a vicious status quo ante, the Intifada, only this time with guns. People started dying. Hundreds were wounded. Was it Sharon's intent to empower the Palestinian extremists in Hamas, to derail Arafat, and thus to return the parties to the more candid and manly state of outright war, which is Sharon's preferred medium?

All the rest of us keep waiting for these sectarian idiocies to die of exhaustion or embarrassment or the world's disgust. But an abscess is an infection that walls itself off and makes itself impregnable. The usual antibiotics (reason, common sense) can't penetrate. The infection goes on, and gets worse.