JERUSALEM (BP)–At their recent meeting in Washington, President Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon discussed the long-running dispute between Christians and Muslims over building a mosque in front of a revered Catholic church in Nazareth, sources in Israel said on March 22.
Sharon, who returned March 21 from three days of meetings with U.S. and U.N. officials, also repeated his pledge to strike against terrorism. Palestinian officials have expressed concern over what kind of action he planned to take.
Palestinian leaders vowed to broaden the current uprising to draw in more people to the protest clashes, an apparent attempt to thwart Sharon’s stated intention to differentiate between the general Palestinian population and terrorists.
In Washington, Bush asked Sharon to explain the status of a row between Arab Christians and Muslims in Nazareth, an Israeli Arab town that was the boyhood home of Jesus.
According to Sharon advisor Ra’anan Gissin, Bush said he had been approached by Catholics regarding the construction of a mosque in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation, the traditional site of the angel Gabriel’s message to Mary that she would bear the promised Jewish Messiah.
A dispute erupted several years ago between local Christians and Muslims when plans were announced to build a large plaza in front of the church, to accommodate pilgrims expected to visit for millennium celebrations.
Muslims opposed the construction, saying the area was a burial place of an ancient Muslim sage. They erected a giant protest tent and declared that they wanted to build a mosque to replace an earlier small structure there.
The controversy came to a head about 15 months ago, shortly before Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the Holy Land. The Israeli government was asked to intervene when the situation came to blows.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s government decided that Catholics and Muslims should split the area, to enable both a smaller plaza and a mosque to be built there.
The Muslims were sufficiently satisfied to remove their protest tent, but the Catholics were unhappy with the decision.
Gissin said Sharon intended to find a way “to reach reconciliation” in a way that would prevent frustration and tension between the two sides.
This would form part of Sharon’s broader policy of including the Israeli Arab minority as “true partners” in the country, he added.
Speaking at the airport upon his return, Sharon said that he had made it clear to the U.S. administration that, “since we took the step of easing up on economic restrictions, and the [Palestinian] reaction was an increase in the level of terror, that we will work against these [terrorist] elements.”
Sharon said regional stability was one of Israel’s goals, but the Jewish state was not willing to be the one to pay the price for it.
“We are the supporters of regional stability … but any arrangement that will be taken cannot be taken at Israel’s expense,” he said.
His comment was made in reference to those who believe that it would be easier for the U.S. to reassemble the anti-Iraq coalition if Israel would offer more to the Palestinians.
Sharon said he had sent messages telling PA Chairman Yasser Arafat that if he did not stop the terrorist activities of his presidential guard, Force 17, Israel would act.
Palestinian lawmakers expressed their concern after a cabinet meeting in Ramallah on Thursday that Israel might take over PA territories and kill PA leaders.
“Since taking office, Sharon’s government has been escalating military measures on the ground,” they said in a statement.
“This military siege around cities and villages … reveals an Israeli decision to strike the Palestinian Authority territories and to target the national authority and its leaders,” it added.
Meanwhile, the West Bank leader of Arafat’s Fatah faction, Marwan Barghouti, announced that the uprising leadership had decided to adopt a new strategy to deal with Israel’s new government.
He was quoted as saying that the Palestinians intended to tone down the intensity of the attacks, in order to involve more Palestinians in street protests.
The Palestinians may have realized that mass protests are a more effective way of promoting their cause than isolated shooting attacks, according to Israeli security sources.
Nevertheless, violence has continued. A bomb, blamed on terrorists, exploded in an upmarket neighborhood north of Tel Aviv on Thursday. No one was injured. A major disaster was averted one day earlier in a religious suburb of Jerusalem when an alert parking inspector discovered a large car bomb before it exploded.
Overnight, gun battles raged for several hours in Gaza. Israel accused Palestinians of throwing two explosive devices and firing anti-tank grenades at army outposts.
Stahl is the Jerusalem bureau chief for CNSNews.com. Used by permission.