Aqsa Attack begs questions of Atonement

Today marks the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the holiest of days in the Jewish tradition. This day, dedicated to fasting and worship is meant to allow all Jews to atone for their sins – against Judaism, Jews and other human beings. This day of reflection for Jews is meant to purge them of their sins through confession, fasting and prayer before the eyes of God. Israel literally shuts down for 24 hours, including streets, radio and television stations, shops and borders. For the Palestinians, Yom Kippur means those in Jerusalem can’t get to the West Bank, those in the West Bank can’t get to Jerusalem and those outside the country have to wait a day to return home until the borders reopen.

Yesterday, September 27, clashes erupted in and around the Aqsa Mosque Compound. Several Palestinians were injured and arrested along with a few Israeli police. Palestinians say a group of religious Jews wanted to enter the mosque’s compound and perform prayers on what Jews call the Temple Mount.

It cannot be a coincidence that this occurrence happened just hours before Yom Kippur was to begin. While Israeli police sources maintain that extremist Jews were not trying to enter and that the reason for the clashes is disputed, Palestinians and Islamic Waqf officials along with eyewitnesses at the scene all insist that this is one more attempt by extremist Jews to desecrate Al Aqsa by performing prayers on its grounds, grounds which they believe are the spot where the Third Temple should be built. On Yom Kippur, a special prayer is performed in order to attain atonement following the destruction of the temple.

Most of all, as non-Jews, Palestinians wonder what kind of atonement Jews here in Israel actually seek. For Israel’s leaders, many of whom surely observe the rituals of Yom Kippur, it cannot be for sins against the Palestinians.

Take Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example. Just last week, he stood before world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York and ranted and raged about Israel’s victimization at the hands of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, at the hands of the Nazis and at the hands of Hamas. He chided the UN-commissioned Goldstone Report for its attack on Israel, saying such reports gave a message that terror pays.

“Rather than condemning the terrorists and their Iranian patrons, some here have condemned their victims. That is exactly what a recent UN report on Gaza did, falsely equating the terrorists with those they targeted,” he said. The UN, he said, was silent on Hamas’ firing of rockets but slammed Israel on its “act of self defense” in Gaza. Never mind that over 1,400 Palestinians were killed, thousands of homes demolished or damaged and Gazan infrastructure severely undermined. Not once did Netanyahu or any of his close cronies, give one smidgen of apology for the devastating harm done to innocent civilians in its Cast Lead Operation last winter. Not once was there a sign of repentance for the 42 years of occupation Israel has imposed on Palestinian land and which it continues to impose with impunity. From Israel’s leaders there has been no sign of remorse for the homes demolished in east Jerusalem and in the West Bank or the families evicted from their houses and left without shelter on the streets of Sheikh Jarrah, stolen from them by self-righteous settlers.

No, from Israel’s leaders, there is no sign of atonement where the Palestinians are concerned. Instead, there is the perpetual portrayal of Israel as the eternal victim, defending itself from hostile neighbors both within and without its borders. The only positive thing that may have come from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s UN address is the fact that he sounded so outrageous. Instead of dealing with real issues such as why Israel continuously disregards international law and calls from the international community to halt settlements, he ridiculously pulled out a document proving that the Holocaust existed. In true Netanyahu form, he went on a wild defensive that in the end, looked simply ludicrous rather than convincing.

But perhaps the world is changing. While many still buy into Israel’s sob story, others have begun to see through the smokescreen. Richard Goldstone is one. We as Palestinians should grab opportunities such as the one presented to us by the Goldstone report regardless of what we may perceive as holes or misconceptions in it. However, the task is not all on the international community but on ourselves as well. The Palestinians are not Jewish but as we continue to allow our people to split and our leaderships to claw at each others’ throats perhaps we too could use a little reflection and repentance for our sins.

But that is our business. The little stunt that group of extremist Israelis pulled yesterday in Al Aqsa cannot possibly be in the spirit of Yom Kippur. The fact that these Israelis, the leaders who guide them and the army that protects them all operate from the common premise that this land is for the Jews, there is little hope that their atonement will have anything to do with us. Mr. Netanyahu said it loud and clear. “The Jewish people are not foreign conquerors in the Land of Israel. This is the land of our forefathers,” he said, thus effectively negating any claim of occupation or illegal settlement on Palestinian land.

It is now up to those Israelis of conscience to change the tide in their own society and seek out a truth that may not be very agreeable to their fellow countrymen. Perhaps this Yom Kippur, there will be more Jews praying for and seeking absolution for the sins of their leaders and those who believe they are made of more valuable material than other human beings.