Rioting in Cana underlies ethnic, religious tensions in Holy Land

Drew Christiansen

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Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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In Cana, the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding, changing water into wine. Today Cana is a dusty stop for pilgrim caravans on their way from Nazareth to Capharnum on the Sea of Galilee. There, pilgrim couples renew their wedding vows in the Wedding Church, and buy bottles of inexpensive Cana wine to carry home for anniversary celebrations.

Because of the scenes of quiet joy associated with the town in Christian memory, an outbreak of violence in today’s Israeli town of Kafr Kanna comes as a special shock, even to seasoned observers.  But the rioting in Cana last week was an acute symptom of the dangerous level ethnic and religious tensions have reached in the Holy Land. All week long there were protests in East Jerusalem, on the West Bank and in Israel’s Arab towns like Cana.

Chief among the reasons for protests were efforts by Israeli politicians to alter the status quo and pray atop the Temple Mount, the ancient site of Herod’s Temple, but also the home of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, both sites holy to the world’s Muslims. In September 2000, late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then a leader of the Likud party, visited the complex in the company of 1,000 Israeli police. Sharon declared that the site would remain under permanent Israeli control. In the following week, counter-demonstrations by Palestinians and the brutal Israeli response brought on the Second Intifada or Palestinian uprising.

This time a cascade of events was precipitated by the Temple Mount Movement, whose proclaimed aim is to allow Jews the freedom to pray on the park-like plateau that surrounds the two Muslim sites as well as to replace the Muslim shrines with a third temple. Since 1967, only Muslims have been allowed to pray there, with Jews permitted to pray at the Western Wall of the Second Temple on the perimeter of the Mount.

Last February Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home Party and Economy Minister in the current government, told the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, that Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem should eventually embrace the Temple Mount. In recent months, politicians and Members of Knesset have entered the sanctuary to pray. Among them have been Miri Regev and Moshe Feiglin and Housing Minister Uri Ariel.

Such inflammatory talk, coupled with the uncovering by Israeli authorities of a number of Israeli extremist plots over the years to blow up or attack the Muslim shrines has Palestinians and Muslims deeply skeptical and suspicious of professed Israeli intentions.

Yehuda Glick, a Temple Mount activist, has made public plans to erect a Third Temple at the holy site. A failed attempt Oct. 29 to assassinate Glick was the spark that ignited the latest wildfire of Palestinian Muslim protest. Authorities closed the area to the public, and immediately protests and riots spread across the region.

Jordan withdrew its ambassador, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Amman to de-escalate the crisis. There were charges of incitement on both sides, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned that the Israeli handling of the situation threatened to ignite a religious war between Muslims and Jews.

In Cana, riots developed when heavily armed security police shot 22-year old Kheir Al-Din Hamdan in the back while he was running from them after attacking their vehicle with a heavy object. Thousands came out to protest Hamdan’s slaying, and thousands more joined in a general strike across Arab Israeli towns. Resentment over police indifference to Arab lives mixed with Muslim fears over a Jewish take-over of the Temple Mount.

Young protestors also felt frustrated over the lack of employment and the discrimination Israel’s Arab citizens endure under the Israeli state. Elsewhere, especially in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and on the West Bank, there was anger over continued Israeli confiscation of Palestinian homes and land that might have become part of a Palestinian state.  

Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories are a powder keg. Almost anything could set off an ethnic and religious war. Anti-incitement efforts are needed on both sides. But the hardest part will be for Israel to learn to hold back from policy decisions that show disrespect to Palestinians and to restrain the political agitation by the Israeli right wing. In a country where nudging and one-upmanship are national past-times, that will be very hard to do.

[Jesuit Drew Christiansen, former editor of America, is a distinguished professor at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American political analyst and businessman.]

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