While this brutal and senseless conflict rages, we all must remember that decent people from both sides live here. See my MSNBC analysis or this site for Pausing for a Middle East Moment.
THE BATTLE FOR JERUSALEM? (photos by HRH)
With days of advance billing by Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Authority, today's Day of Rage began quietly. All roads leading to Jerusalem were clear, the radio was reporting that there were no signs of violence anywhere. Police had shut down the road encircling the Old City of Jerusalem, and hundreds of troops sat waiting for the end of Friday prayers atop al-Aqsa mosque.
Word on the street was that the Waqf, the religious authority in charge of the third holiest site in Islam, had reached an agreement with Israeli police that they would stop any attempt at confrontation. And less than 20,000 Muslims had shown up to pray -- far less than usual. It was as both sides had agreed that the terrible violence from the past week was enough, that the point had been made. Was this to be the beginning of the end of this miniature war? It was not. This Day of Rage that came in like a lamb, left like a lion --- and as we would bear witness to, through a Lion's Gate.
While the Muslims prayed at al-Aqsa, below them, a handful of Jewish worshippers showed up at their sacred Western Wall. They were outnumbered by the hundreds of heavily armed police officers filling the plaza adjacent to the Wall. And then it happened. A loud roar, like an approaching tidal wave began to sound out from above. The prayers were over. Suddenly, rocks began to rain upon the open-air synagogue and everyone ran for cover. Two men appeared on the edge of the wall above, throwing stones at the police and waving flags.
"Tell the world, anyone who wants to throw rocks while people are praying are barbarians!" one Jewish man shouted at to me.
Then we got the call -- battle at Lion's Gate. We showed up in the middle of a gunfire. Israeli soldiers were firing tear gas and rubber bullets at young Palestinians who were hurling stones at them. Fire and smoke were billowing out of the window of the police station behind them. We found out later from officials that some Palestinians had set fire to the station and tried to take it over. We were gassed three times as the fight raged -- my throat gagged as tears poured from my eyes. And then the police retreated, having rescued their colleagues from the burning station. We entered the area in front of the al-Aqsa compound as hundreds of Palestinian men shouted in victory from atop the wall.
An older Muslim man who had been inside of al-Aqsa during the confrontation, stopped to tell us that the Israelis had fired on them without provocation. "They began shooting, there was no stone throwing then. Ten people were wounded, and some of them were serious."
In 1948, the Jordananian Army entered Lion's Gate and captured East Jerusalem. In 1967, the Israeli Army did the same thing. Today, ambulances streamed out of the gate with wounded as this confrontation in the Old City spiralled out of control.
But is anyone in control? I heard that earlier in the day, plainclothes Palestinian policemen had tried vainly to stop their compatriots from throwing stones. Which begs the very serious question: Yassir Arafat may now be ready for a cease-fire and to return to the negotiating table, but are these young men prepared to do the same? It is as if they have lost patience with the "peace process:" words easily uttered by the media and politicans, but increasingly meaningless to those on the street.
"This is a very difficult situation," Ghassan Khatib, the Director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center. He said that is indeed those on the Palestinian streets who are setting the agenda right now. "Israel has to stop the killing. Arafat will be unable to stop his people from reacting to the Israeli shooting."
Which means that this Day of Rage will certainly not end tonight -- nor will the week of violence and death.