by Nidra Poller (October 2009)
Sometimes a small story sheds light on a big issue. This one almost escaped me. I skipped the item about inter-religious quarrels in Jerusalem in the breaking news column of the Figaro hours before the Kol Nidrei. I didn’t have the heart to read about Neturei Karta crazies attacking the police or haredi assaulting bare-armed women. It didn’t even occur to me that those unsavory incidents would be described as “intra-religious” conflict. I turned my mind to higher things for the hallowed space of Yom Kippur.
Back to the news after the holiday, I hear a Jewish radio report about Palestinians throwing stones at “French tourists.” “Whaaat ‘French tourists,’ I mumbled. Don’t you mean French Jews praying at the Kotel?”
When I realized the target of all that stony wrath was a group of [non-Jewish] French tourists, my mind perked up. And I started digging under the Temple and behind the stones.
As the story goes, Palestinians attacked a group of French tourists who were visiting the “esplanade des mosquées” (French for Temple Mount). Israeli police intervened. Calls for help broadcast from the minarets drew Palestinian youths who scuffled with the police here and there in the Old City. It took several hours for calm to be restored. A dozen Palestinians and 17 policemen were injured.
Reports then make a quantum leap to flaming declarations from Palestinian officials. Saeb Erekat accuses Israel of “deliberately escalating tensions in Jerusalem” by sending police to the mosque compound just when President Obama is striving to bring peace to the region. The Palestinian Authority Information Ministry accuses “Israeli occupation police and extremist settlers of breaking into the courtyard of the mosque, firing tear gas bombs and live bullets” against Palestinian worshipers. The PA demands an emergency meeting of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Gaza government spokesman Tahar an Nazou calls the Islamic nation to defend the al Aqsa mosque against aggression. Hamas authorities order the PA and Fatah to break off “useless” talks with the “occupation,” and advise Arab governments to speak out forcefully against Israeli crimes against al Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian people, and stop hoping for an American solution. Islamic Jihad leader Abdallah Chami calls the Palestinian people to unite against Israeli plans to undermine the al Aqsa mosque and “Judaize” al-Quds (= Jerusalem). The residents of al-Quds, he adds, will firmly resist Zionist attempts to attack the mosque. PA President Mahmoud Abbas accuses Israeli authorities of “a crime that calls for an immediate intervention of the international community” and warns that these actions “destroy all efforts to bring peace and establish an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.”
Granted, these extravagant declarations are the stock in trade of Palestinian leaders and their international fan clubs. But what exactly is the war crime that was committed on the Temple Mount / Mosque Compound on the 27th of September? Countless newspapers big and small picked up and retailed the story in French or English without giving it a second thought. If Israeli soldiers harvest the organs of their Palestinian victims and committed a variety of war crimes in the 2008 Cast Lead operation in Gaza, why question their guilt in this admittedly minor incident?
Did any news editor actually read the accounts before publishing them? How would a journalist pitch the story? Palestinians throw stones at French tourists visiting the mosque compound. Jerusalem police forces intervene. Skirmishes in the Old City pit police against Palestinian youths. X injured, x arrested. Saeb Erekat calls for an emergency session of the Arab League. Mahmoud Abbas declares that all hopes of peace are dashed. Hamas calls the faithful to defend al Aqsa mosque against assault by the occupation forces. Ban Ki Moon… International Court… Amnesty & the gang… everyone is up in arms.
About what? Up in arms because Palestinians threw rocks at French tourists? Not on your life! Should an emergency session of the UNSC be convened because Jerusalem police prevented Palestinian youths from sacking and burning the Old City? They’d like to but we haven’t reached that point yet.
Any clues in Isabelle Kershner’s Jerusalem Post report, “Palestinians and Israelis clash at Jerusalem Holy Site”? Having introduced her article by supposing that Palestinians mistook tourists for “Jewish activists,” Kershner gets confirmation from an “independent” Palestinian news agency, Ma’an, that the Palestinians were expecting a group of religious Jews. Quotes police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld who says 150 Palestinian Muslims attacked French tourists. And cites a Palestinian Authority Information Ministry statement calling all Palestinians to come to defend the mosque without mentioning--adds Kershner in passing--the French tourists.
After picking my way through a slew of mud pie articles in English and French blithely capped with the misleading “Palestinian-Israeli clash” title, I conclude that they are all based on a single release drafted by a Palestinian working for Agence France Presse.
A closer look at that release reveals a clever chain of non-events linked up to justify the mistaken identity. Yes, it’s true that police spokesman Shmuel Ben Rubin says 150 Muslims mistook a group of French tourists for Jews who had come to pray on the Temple Mount, but they weren’t far off the mark. Yehuda Glick says his group of 200 religious Jews was on the edges of the Old City near the Maghrebi Gate. Aha! The real villains were near the gate that opens on to the pathway that leads to the Kotel [Western wall] that leads to a walkway that leads to the “esplanade.” You understand? They were one step away from profaning the mosque!
The release provides background details about the mosque compound built on the ruins of the Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Jews are sometimes permitted by the Waqf to visit the site but are not allowed to pray there. The “provocative” visit of Ariel Sharon to the holy site on September 28th 2000 triggered the “2nd Intifada.”
Yes but what about the provocative visit of French tourists? Did they enjoy their tour of the esplanade des mosquées? Who were they anyway? Grey-haired pensioners, Evangelical Zionists, leftwing anti-Zionists, students, swinging singles, amateur archeologists, aspiring journalists, who, what, when, where, why? Nothing. This lack of interest, which might be understandable in English-language media, was equally dense in French. Why? The Temple Mount clash--between 150 furious Muslims slinging rocks at an unspecified number of French tourists —was less tragic than the attack on French lycée students near a souk in Cairo last spring, plotted by a jihadi of French origin, that left one dead and several injured. But not without interest.
The victims must have something to say. How do they react, after this narrow escape, when they see fellow citizens in their native land with keffiehs wrapped around their necks? Have they modified or confirmed their opinions about the “Mideast conflict”? Were they grateful for the policemen who intervened, or do they intend to drag them into the international court as war criminals?
Nothing. Not an image, not a word, not the tiniest question mark. The French tourists have been erased from the picture like Soviet officials fallen from grace. And one media after another, without batting an eyelash, relayed extravagant reactions from Palestinian sources, deserving of inclusion in the Goldstone Report, without questioning the logic of it all. And no one noticed the empty place where the French tourists must have been standing.
Google finally yields the answer.
A Manar press release, in French, posted on the International Solidarity Movement site [my translation]. “Profanation of al Aqsa by Jews disguised as tourists: 19 Palestinians wounded.” Now do you see the whole picture?
“At least 19 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli occupant forces in clashes Sunday at the holy Al Aqsa mosque after occupation forces profaned the esplanade des mosquées. Most of the wounded were hit in the head and eyes.
“Palestinian worshippers gathered at the mosque to keep Jewish extremists, disguised as tourists, from seizing the mosque under the pretext of practicing rites on the occasion of a Jewish holiday baptized [sic] ‘Yom Kippur.’”
This recital of the “facts” is followed by the explosive declarations quoted above. Suddenly it all makes sense. If 150 Muslims assaulted these creatures it proves they were Jewish terrorists. If everyone who counts from Hamastan to Fatahland called the masses to defend the mosque, demanded emergency sessions, international action, ruptured negotiations, and death to the Jews, it follows. The holy mosque was profaned. Muslims were provoked. They did the right thing. N’est-ce pas?
And your corner journalist swallowed and regurgitated the story without noticing the bit about the provocative Jews coming to provocatively pray deceitfully disguised as French tourists. Ariel Sharon’s visit to the “esplanade” on September 28th 2000, we are reminded in all these copycat reports, was so provocative that it triggered the “al Aqsa Intifada” leaving thousands of victims in its wake. Or at least that’s the way the story went at the time. In fact, it took the staged Mohamed al Dura death scene, the most scandalous blood libel since the Shoah, to really provoke to the hilt and get the umpteenth Palestinian war on Israel going.
That was when our national George Mitchell made a reputation for Mideast conflict sleuthing with his sloppy report on the cause(s) of the violence. Upgraded to czar in our time he is now in charge of magical solutions based on age-old wisdom, to wit: if Jews are not allowed to build glass houses Muslims won’t throw stones at them.
Pas de chance, mon vieux. A bunch of French tourists wander onto the scene and spoil it all.
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