Tourists Visit Disputed Tunnel As Palestinians Riot in Old City

As Israeli police and Palestinians clashed in the narrow alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City, it seemed as if the intifada had started all over again.

Angered by Israel’s decision earlier this week to open a new entrance to a tunnel next to the Western Wall and Temple Mount, scores of Palestinian men and boys scuffled Thursday with hundreds of police in riot gear.

Although sporadic and relatively short in duration, the clashes had all the earmarks of the intifada, the 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising, with Arabs lobbing rocks and bottles at police, who pursued the rioters through the winding streets.

Because of a general strike by Arab shopkeepers, and perhaps frightened away by the sight of police armed with tear-gas canisters and billy clubs, fewer people than usual appeared to be in the vicinity.

Even so, several young Arab children on their way home from school, and dozens of European tourists, many watching the clashes with a combination of fascination and fear, managed to snake their way through the police and protesters.

In a clear indication that the tunnel opening was just one part of a larger grievance, many Palestinians vented their rage at anyone who would listen.

At the height of a riot taking place in the Muslim Quarter, one man in his 40s shouted, “This is the start of a new intifada, but this time it will be much more intense than before. Netanyahu was asking for this.”

Pointing to Israeli police stationed on a nearby rooftop, he added, “Look at them up there. We’ve been on the road to peace, and all this time the Israelis have been on the road to war.”

Another Palestinian, watching the clashes from the sidelines, said, “It is impossible to make peace with the Likud,” referring to the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It’s been three months since Netanyahu became prime minister, and all he’s done is confiscate land, destroy Arab buildings, issue permits for more housing in the settlements and maintain the closure” on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has been virtually frozen since Netanyahu’s election in May, as the two sides have not been able to agree on further implementation of the self-rule accords.

Palestinian Authority official Faisal Husseini, who was lightly injured in a scuffle on the Via Dolorosa, said in an interview, “What is going on within Israeli society has nearly ended the peace process. If the peace process is stopped, [the situation] will regress to where it was before.”

While Israelis and Palestinians clashed throughout the day in the West Bank and Gaza, the tunnel that sparked the fighting was peaceful.

Hundreds of people, both Israelis and tourists, religious and secular, visited the subterranean path, which runs from the Western Wall plaza to the Via Dolorosa.

“I heard about the controversy, but it certainly didn’t dissuade me from seeing the tunnel,” said Iget Blacquiere, a Dutch tourist. “Personally, I don’t know how the Palestinians can claim that it is hurting their holy site.”

Although she denied feeling any fear, Blacquiere did say, “My parents are quite worried. They called me yesterday to say they will be glad to have me home.”

Incredibly, there were some tourists who had not yet heard of the violence taking place nearby.

“Honestly, we just arrived from New York a few hours ago,” said a member of the Goldstein family, in Israel on a Sukkot vacation. “But if we had known, we probably would have come. The only thing that would have kept us away was a direct threat, and as you can see, it’s very quiet here.”

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