Jerusalem is a city of stark contradictions. There is no other city in the world that is more fascinating, that has as much faith, culture and civilization associated with it. And yet, there are few cities that are in such dispute, have as much bitterness and violence associated with them.
On a first visit to Jerusalem, in relatively peaceful times, you initially notice only the serenity of the old city. Within its walls you discover the holiest Jewish site, the Western Wall, which is part of the structure built by Herod the Great in 20 B.C. and which was subsequently destroyed by the Romans. You encounter the third holiest Muslim site, the Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount, from where Prophet Mohammed rose to heaven. And you see the Christian sites, where Jesus was tried, crucified, buried and from where he finally resurrected.
But even as you begin to be overwhelmed by the intense spiritual experience, you begin to notice the tension, the conflict, the bitterness and the deep division among the people.
These two contradictory experiences can violently shake you up. In fact, every year hundreds of visitors have to be taken to the Kfar Shaul hospital, the state psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of western Jerusalem. There is also a phrase to describe the illness that affects visitors whose minds are torn between these two contradictory experiences: the Jerusalem syndrome.
Imagine then what it must be to live in the city permanently. Imagine then how reckless was the decision by the Israeli government to allow the opposition leader of the right-wing Likud Party, Ariel Sharon, to visit Muslim religious sites in East Jerusalem, including the third holiest Islamic shrine. The protests by the Palestinians, which led to the violence, were provoked by this visit. Only one motive could have inspired Sharon, a known hardliner who even supported the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in the early 1980s, to make this provocative gesture: To demonstrate Israel's continued sovereignty over the Muslim sites in East Jerusalem.
Palestinian protests erupted as a direct consequence of Sharon's visit. They were limited not just to the West Bank and Gaza, as had been the case during the "intifada," but included Arabs living within the territory of Israel. What is unpardonable, however, is the use of force by the Israeli government that was totally out of proportion to the scale of the protests. It is believed that helicopter gunships, tanks and anti-tanks missiles were used to crush the protests.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's attempts to demonstrate that he was not soft on the Palestinians backfired. Not only has Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian National Authority, regained the moral high ground that he lost after he was blamed for the collapse of the Camp David Summit earlier this year, but also has Barak lost considerable support in the international community -- even among traditional supporters of Israel.
In the circumstances, the Palestinians are perfectly justified in demanding an international commission of inquiry into the incidents and have rightly rejected the deadline to arrive at a ceasefire, sought to be imposed by Barak.
It is, however, important for Arafat to also realize that sustainable peace in the region can be achieved only if all the leaders of the region have the vision to go beyond tactical considerations. The continuing tragedy of the Palestinians demonstrates that there is no alternative to a dialogue and only in a strategy of forgiveness, reconciliation and compromise is there a way out.
The frightening violence that has been witnessed in Israel and the West Bank, over the last two weeks, threatens to derail the peace process to such an extent that it will be extremely difficult to put it back on track again. It is critical, therefore, for all those who have influence and leverage over the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, especially the United States, to exercise maximum pressure to ensure a return to the negotiating table.
It must, however, be clear that the responsibility for the present crisis lies firmly on the shoulders of the Israeli government, and they must be persuaded to provide the healing touch. More than a hundred people have been killed during the violence, and - apart from a few - all of them were Arabs.
The summit in Saudi Arabia, which U.S. President Bill Clinton will attend, is only one way forward. The real summit must be between the people, who must organize themselves in such a way that politicians will not seek to divide them further.
For India the challenge is equally acute. On the one hand, it must develop a policy consistent with its traditional support for the Palestinians. On the other, it must ensure that its policies do not damage its new engagement with Israel. In other words, a balance must be struck, and that can only happen when New Delhi is seen to be speaking with honesty and integrity and not being dictated purely by tactical considerations.