Israel: When Belief is More Important Than Truth

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Palestinians hurl objects at Israeli policemen from the al-Aqsa mosque

Middle East history is shaped less by the particulars of each event than by each side's perception of it. And on that basis, the region has good reason to be bracing for a dramatic upsurge in violence. Israeli helicopter gunships blasted Palestinian police headquarters in Gaza Monday, hours after six Palestinian activists in a refugee camp near Jenin were killed in an explosion. Palestinian officials claim the shack in which the militants were meeting was hit by tank shells; Western journalists report that the explosion appeared to have occurred inside the shack, and the Israelis claim the Palestinians were killed by the accidental detonation of a bomb they'd been building. But in the climate of mistrust left by 10 months of fighting and the collapse of the U.S.-brokered cease-fire, each side will simply believe its own account of that blast — or at least act according to their version, no matter what they believe.

The latest exchanges come on top of two attempted bombings in Jerusalem and a mortar attack on Israeli settlers in Kfar Darom in Gaza. But in the realm of perceptions, no event in recent months carries quite as much symbolic power as Sunday's clashes in the Al Aqsa mosque compound atop Jerusalem's Temple Mount. For the Israelis, it was a simple case of sending police up to the Mosque compound to stop stones being rained down onto Jewish worshippers gathered on the plaza in front of the Western Wall of Judaism's holiest temple. Palestinians — and the wider Arab world — will cast the fracas as yet another Israeli assault on the sanctity of Islam's third-holiest site. And that's likely to ignite renewed anger both among ordinary Palestinians and particularly on the streets of the Arab capitals, bringing renewed pressure on Arab leaders to take a tougher stance against Israel. The current intifada began with a series of clashes on the Temple Mount following a controversial visit by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon, and it is likely to be reinvigorated by the latest showdown.

Despite a frenzy of international diplomacy over the past three months in pursuit of reviving the peace process, the latest round of violence is reminder that violence continues to eclipse dialogue in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed, both sides appear inclined to respond to diplomatic peace initiatives only as a way of outflanking their adversary in the battle for international public opinion. It is plain that neither side, right now, believes that peace is possible — or at least possible at an acceptable price. But the current stalemate is inherently unstable, and particularly vulnerable to the provocations of extremists. And that means the cycle of violence, which had at least slowed in recent months as both sides sought to impress Western mediators, may be once again gaining momentum.

with reporting by Jamil Hammad/Bethlehem