After three days of vicious combat, Israel and the Palestinians seemed to step back from the brink Saturday, with Palestinian police keeping demonstrators away from Jewish settlements and Israeli army posts. There were no deaths and only a handful of minor injuries.
But with 72 people dead in three days - 56 Palestinians, 14 Israelis and two Egyptians - the situation remained very tense. Despite U.S. efforts to arrange a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, no plans have been agreed on and the public rhetoric of both sides has maintained a steely edge.
Netanyahu said he would not close the archeological tunnel near the Al-Aqsa Mosque, whose opening sparked the rioting and fighting.
“The tunnel has been around for 2,000 years. It will stay open. It will always be open,” he said in a speech to 6,000 visiting Christian supporters of Israel.
“Israel doesn’t make unilateral concessions anymore,” he said. “It actually demands a quid pro quo.”
The tunnel, while seemingly minor, symbolized to many Muslims the Israeli dominance of the holy sites, as did Friday’s storming of Al-Aqsa by Israeli troops who, facing stone-throwers, killed three and injured scores.
Al-Aqsa, one of Islam’s holiest shrines, sits atop what the Jews call the Temple Mount, site of the ancient temple. It is therefore the spot that epitomizes this conflict and competition over historical legitimacy.
Israel’s decision to open a second entrance to an archeological tunnel near the mount last week set off Palestinian riots. While putting down those disturbances, Israeli soldiers found themselves also up against armed Palestinian police and engaged in three days of the fiercest combat seen in the Holy Land since the 1967 war.