Yesterday, standing on top of the roof of the Harry S. Truman Centre for Peace at the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University, an Israeli colleague of Richard's showed us an area to the east known as E1. Perhaps the most potent symbol of Palestinian-Israeli divisions in the West Bank, it stretches from the edges of East Jerusalem annexed in 1967 to Ma'ale Adummim, a large Israeli settlement located east of the pre-1967 green line. In between is an Arab village, several Bedouin encampments and perhaps the busiest and most controversial police station in all of the Middle East.
The settlements are especially sensitive politically, as their further expansion would effectively encircle Arab East Jerusalem, dividing it from the rest of the West Bank and preventing contiguous access between Palestinian-controlled areas in the north (Ramallah) and the south (Bethlehem). This obviously makes it much more difficult to reach agreement about permanent borders in the region, something likely not lost on US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has come to town just as we're leaving to try to kickstart the stalled peace process, with Netanyahu's heel-dragging on halting further settlements like Ma'ale Adummim being a main order of business.
The roof of the Truman Centre actually gives one a 360-degree view of Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean Hills, and Menachem also showed us the hill due south which is Herodium, resting place of King Herod the Great, who gave the Jews the Second Temple, but was also a dutiful servant of Rome. These complexities are brought out in a superb exhibition on the man currently running at the Israel Museum. The region's great builder, Herod's architectural legacy--including Masada (which I visited the day before), the port of Caesarea (with its hippodrome and ampitheatre, and currently home to the region's current imperial prefect, Prime Minister Bibi), and of course the Temple Mount/Haram Ash-Sharif in Old Jerusalem--is itself historically contiguous with present-day ethnic and religious tensions. This is perhaps nowhere more materially evident than in the controversial and heavily monitored Mugrabi Gate walkway one must take to get from the Jews' holiest site in Jerusalem--the Western Wall--to the Arabs'--the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The gate was to have been on the agenda of UNESCO inspectors during a planned tour of the Temple Mount/Haram Ash-Sharif until Israeli officials cancelled the visit, contending the Palestinians had overly politicized the issue.
Myself, standing on the Truman Centre roof, I couldn't help thinking that the intersections and oppositions between the three major religions that have historically staked their claims to the region could be explained in part by the inhospitable landscape, each's follwers emerging out of the surrounding desert to vie for control of Jerusalem and its valuable watershed. At the very least, given how unyielding the earth generally is here, it is no wonder that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all had to invent heavenly paradises.
Kerry certainly has his work cut out for him, just like previous American envoys. And it's hard, given what we've seen, not to feel cynical (worst, most despair-inducing image: the colour-coded water tanks atop residents' houses--white for Israeli, black for Palestinian--in order to indicate or guard against, as the case may be, rocket attacks).
But then again, like I did in the Dead Sea two days ago, hope floats. It's been a very instructive trip, but now it's time to go home.