May 07, 2012 Edition 14 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
The Arab visits to the Jerusalem mosques
Those who care need to act  - Ghassan Khatib
The debate over visits to Jerusalem should focus on the plight of those who live there.

Is there a viable strategy here somewhere?  - Yossi Alpher
Not surprisingly, radical Arab Muslims have erupted in protest.

Occupation without adornment  - an interview with Taher Nunu
These officials shouldn't have helped Israel in its propaganda.

A subtle game of mutual benefit  - Amnon Lord
If ever there was a happy convergence of Israeli and Palestinian national interests, this is a case in point.

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Those who care need to act
 Ghassan Khatib
Several weeks ago, at a Doha conference promoting solidarity with occupied East Jerusalem, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas encouraged Arabs and Muslims to visit the occupied city as a form of support for Palestinians under occupation. This call generated a great debate, one simultaneously enflamed by a series of controversial visits to Jerusalem holy sites by prominent Arab personalities. Among these visitors were the sheikh of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo (one of the top religious leaders in the Muslim world), a high-ranking member of the Jordanian royal family, and a number of prominent Egyptian Copts.

There have been three main positions adopted in this debate. The first was to criticize and attack these visits because they might be considered normalization of relations with Israel. (Visiting Jerusalem requires an Israeli visa or permit or other facilitation and Israel controls the borders of the Palestinian territories and is in direct control of occupied East Jerusalem.) The most prominent figure leading the criticism of the Palestinian president's request that supporters of the Palestinian cause visit Jerusalem and of the actual visits that took place was Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is based in Doha and appears regularly on the al-Jazeera satellite channel. He is known as being supportive of Islamic political movements in the Arab world and he is also a critic of the Oslo agreements and the Palestinian Authority.

On the other side of the fight was the Palestinian Authority's minister of Islamic Waqf, Mahmoud al-Habbash, who was very vocal and articulate in defending the idea of Arabs and Muslims visiting East Jerusalem. He argued that these visits support the Palestinian right to Jerusalem, constitute a form of solidarity with Palestinians in the city, and boost the Arab and Islamic presence at Arab and Christian holy sites in East Jerusalem.

The main slogan used first by Abbas and later by others in promoting this initiative is that "visiting the prisoner should not be considered normalization with the jailer." Out of loyalty to the original author of this famous saying, it should be said that the first person to come up with this expression was the late Faisal Husseini, one of Jerusalem's most important political leaders.

There is a third view--perhaps the most popular--that became apparent during this debate. This view states that the pertinent question is not whether visiting Jerusalem is correct or not, but rather that one should ask, what are the circumstances of the visit? Those people who support the idea of Arabs and Muslims visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem believe that such visits can be useful and helpful to Palestinians if they are done in the open, in a transparent manner, and if those visitors are able to interact with Palestinians and express their solidarity and support. Visits that are carried out in secret and without the knowledge of or interaction with the Palestinian public do not serve the required purpose and instead allow Israel to claim that it is the one facilitating pilgrimage and visitation to the city.

In all cases, it is important to say--and hopefully such visits would highlight this reality--that Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian holy sites in the city are subject to terrible discrimination and oppressive treatment by the Israeli occupiers, even in comparison with how this occupation treats the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories. As such, those who care about the fate of the city and its people need to redouble their efforts to end Israel's occupation and allow for the creation of the Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is a precondition for the two-state solution and a peaceful settlement.-Published 7/5/2012 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Is there a viable strategy here somewhere?
 Yossi Alpher
Last February, at a conference for the defense of Jerusalem in Qatar, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on Arabs to visit East Jerusalem and the mosques on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The declared objective was to enhance and support the Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem and the Old City and break Israel's "siege" of the city.

Abbas' appeal was answered by King Abdullah II of Jordan, who sent a member of the royal family, Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad who holds the religion "file" at the palace in Amman, to pray in the al-Aqsa Mosque. Under the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, Jordan maintains a special status with regard to the Jerusalem holy places, including those of Christianity. Jordanians head the Jerusalem Waqf (Islamic endowments fund) and the Greek Orthodox and Lutheran church establishments in Jerusalem.

A few weeks ago, Prince Ghazi returned to the Mount and the mosques in the company of Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa and a Yemeni Islamic scholar, al-Habib al-Jaafari. Palestinian Authority Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs Mahmoud al-Habbash announced that more visits were planned. Lately, Qatari and Bahraini religious figures have made the al-Aqsa pilgrimage. And last Easter, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher witnessed a dramatic rise in visits by Egyptian Copts who took advantage of the passing a month earlier of Pope Shenouda III, who had banned such visits.

Obviously, these visits could not have been possible without some measure of coordination with Israeli border and security authorities. But there is no evidence of specific Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Jordanian connivance in arranging them. Assuming the military regime in Cairo approved the visits by the mufti and the Copts, the ruling Egyptian generals were apparently seeking to send a positive message to Israel and the United States.

Not surprisingly, radical Arab Muslims have erupted in protest. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, perhaps the best-known Sunni Islamic scholar in the Middle East, reputedly issued a fatwa banning such acts of "normalization" with Israel by Arabs other than Palestinians. Pan-Arab al-Quds al-Arabi daily newspaper called for Gomaa to be removed from his post. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood denounced the mufti's visit and summoned him to explain his actions. So did the Egyptian secular opposition--not to be outdone by the Islamists in opposing "normalization".

What shall we make of this flurry of activity and controversy in the midst of a non-existent Israeli-Palestinian peace process and an Arab Middle East torn by revolution? There are Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian and broader Arab dimensions of interest.

Israel has long argued that Israeli rule alone can guarantee free and universal access to Islamic, Christian and Jewish holy places in Jerusalem. It can cite the visits as affirmation of its contention. Yet this Israeli claim is highly flawed. Citing security reasons, Israel has for many years prevented numerous Palestinian Muslims from even entering the city. Nor do non-orthodox Jews and many Jewish women feel they have equal access to the Western Wall. Moreover, for some time now Israeli Jews have been forbidden by the Waqf from entering the two mosques on the Temple Mount, and Israel has avoided protesting or forcing the issue, presumably in the hope of maintaining quiet on the Mount.

But Israeli rule in Jerusalem is not the only explanation for Arab anger at the visits. There is a perception in certain Arab circles that the Palestinian Authority is essentially a lackey of Israel. To take a totally different example, bank managers in Beirut refuse to accept money transfers to Lebanese citizens from banks in Ramallah, arguing that they are "Israeli banks". So much for Palestinian autonomy in their eyes.

We can at least hope that the current wave of Arab visits to Jerusalem's holy places will weaken that perception. Abbas is right: visits like these help his case by reaffirming that Jerusalem is as important to Muslims and Christians as it is to Jews. They also affirm that boycotting Israel is not a formula for softening its conditions for a two-state solution. On the other hand, the denunciation by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which supports Hamas in Gaza, could exacerbate Egyptian-Palestine Liberation Organization relations, to the detriment of peace.

Turning to Jordan, King Abdullah II presumably launched the visits in the hope of fortifying his Islamic credentials in a rapidly Islamizing Middle East, even as he takes steps to distance Jordanian Islamists from the centers of power. Certainly, the affair points to a shared perception with Abbas regarding the Islamist threat and creative ways to counter it.

As for the Palestinian leader, the call to visit the Jerusalem mosques was characteristic of his approach to peace and a two-state solution in recent years: launch provocative initiatives in every regional and international direction (membership in the United Nations, reconciliation with Hamas and visits to Jerusalem) and drop hints about recourse to extreme measures (intifada, dismantling the PA, resignation and detaining critical journalists and bloggers). All this, while confronting an uninterested, settlement-hungry Israeli government with hitherto unheard of pre-conditions for renewing negotiations.

Is there a viable strategy here somewhere?-Published 7/5/2012 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Occupation without adornment
an interview with  Taher Nunu
bitterlemons: What is your view of the recent visits to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, first by the sheikh of al-Azhar and then by Jordanian officials? Does this hurt or help the Palestinian cause?

Nunu: Look, we as Muslims are required to visit the two "harams" [the Kaaba in Mecca and the Prophet Mohammed mosque in Madina], in addition to the al-Aqsa Mosque, as part of our doctrine. But in light of the current conditions where Israel is occupying al-Aqsa, it is not logical that Israel allows these people to enter the al-Aqsa Mosque while simultaneously preventing Palestinians who live nearby from praying in it.

These officials shouldn't have helped Israel in its propaganda of presenting itself as a democratic entity that has sympathy with and tolerance for [other] religions, even as it bans the [rightful] owners of Jerusalem--Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza Strip or even Arab Israelis like Sheikh Raed Salah--from entering it and praying there.

So, these visits give the wrong impression about Jerusalem as occupied land. They are a kind of normalization with the occupiers and a [way of] dealing with Israel as the owner of this land, legitimizing its presence on it. We want imams and sheikhs to enter al-Aqsa as Salah Eddin: to free al-Aqsa and then enter it.

bitterlemons: There are many Palestinians who argue that the isolation of Jerusalem through the boycott is actually hurting Palestinians and those who live in the city. How can Palestinians be supported when their Arab brethren cannot see what is happening there?

Nunu: Nowadays, the media shows and tells you everything as if it were happening in your bedroom. The whole world has become a small village. Therefore, a physical or personal visit to see what is going on is not that important, except in some cases of investigation.

Israel is isolating Jerusalem from its Palestinian environment, not only its Arab and Islamic one. Instead of allowing 10 Arab and Islamic officials to visit Jerusalem, [it] must allow the Palestinian people to enter it. Here I am talking about tens of thousands of Palestinians seeking to enter it daily, either to pray or even for commercial exchanges, as part of the Palestinian land and people.

Secondly, would Israel allow all Arabs to enter and pray in the al-Aqsa Mosque? Or only those it approves of?

Thirdly, if they [these visitors] want to help the people of Jerusalem, it is easy for them to do so. Everyone knows how to help financially or politically, if they are truly willing. They don't have to go there personally to do it. To build a house, one doesn't have to go there personally.

bitterlemons: Why do you think that Arab leaders always talk about Jerusalem but when it comes to putting money and support there, they fall short? This is true even after the Arab revolutions, isn't it?

Nunu: I agree with that. Unfortunately, the Arab nation remains weak. And in the case of weakness, people talk more than they do because action is governed by external powers that control the decision-making. For example, the Arab League has many times called for lifting the siege imposed on Gaza by Israel, but because decision-making and even its execution lie completely in the hands of external superpowers, they have been unable to lift the siege. The same is true of the Islamic Conference countries.

[Moreover], the "Arab spring" countries have prioritized building themselves up and reorganizing their internal house. I don't think they are able to start battles at this time.

bitterlemons: How can supporters of Palestinians help them best at this time?

Nunu: At this time, we need two things. The first is to show Palestinian suffering as it is, without adornment. Israel, over the last 60 years, has presented itself as a victim of Arab hatred. Now it's time to tell the truth and reveal the Israeli lies and show more sympathy and support with the Palestinians.

This support might come through international legal groups and committees. [These should] pursue Israeli leaders that have committed crimes against Palestinians and bring them to justice. We are not asking anyone to use propaganda on behalf of Palestinians, as Israel has done for more than 60 years. Just show reality as it is and use international law against Israeli criminals. This would be a very important aid to Palestinians.

We also encourage financial donations, to help Palestinians in improving their living conditions, and political help in international forums to demonstrate the justice of the Palestinian cause and besmirch the ugly face of the Israeli occupation.-Published 7/5/2012 ©

Taher Nunu is a spokesperson for the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.

A subtle game of mutual benefit
 Amnon Lord
A number of important Muslim religious dignitaries have recently visited the mosques on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The most significant visits were made by a young member of the Jordanian royal family and, shortly thereafter, by Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa. More pilgrimages of a similar nature followed and more are expected.

The general spin for international consumption has it that these visits are held at the invitation of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with the objective of strengthening his claim to East Jerusalem and "breaking the siege" by Israel around the holy city. If ever there was a happy convergence of Israeli and Palestinian national interests, this is a case in point. The PA can satisfy its claim to be handling a meaningful share in Jerusalem affairs, while Israel can afford to be generous in this respect without conceding any of its own claims, insofar as the visits are a symbolic act that does not involve compromise in security matters.

Further, Israel benefits in a subtle way from these visits because, while Abbas can claim he is breaking the Israeli "siege", the religious dignitaries from all over the Muslim world can attest that Israel poses no danger to al-Aqsa and that the great mosque is under no threat. After all, in recent years Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, led by Islamist movements, have tried to incite outrage and riots under the slogan, "Al-Aqsa is in danger."

So now the royal family of Jordan, the top Muslim religious authority of Egypt, and even visiting Egyptian Coptic Christians all can deny that false claim.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood argues that visits by Muslim dignitaries to al-Aqsa legitimize Israel and its sovereignty over Jerusalem. Here again we can see two opposing historical interests happily converging: the Palestinians show some symbolic sovereignty over the Temple Mount while Israel--thanks to a reminder from the Brotherhood--can display its claim to general sovereignty over the entire municipal area of Jerusalem. Thus does the hostile reaction to the visits by the Brotherhood, especially against the visit by Ali Gomaa, reveal their real meaning. This development should make us wonder how much business can be done between the Palestinian and Israeli governments without actually negotiating above the table and sealing a final status deal.

Although the visits are very important to the Palestinians, they have drawn little attention in Israel as both sides engage in convenient duplicities. The government of Israel recently struggled to legalize outposts in the West Bank while at the same time offering no opposition to US President Barack Obama's major decision to release nearly $150 million to the PA. Israel continues to seek to boost the Palestinian economy, which this time around has a world-class manager in the person of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

From the Palestinian side, duplicity was reflected in improved security and economic development combined with constant anti-Israel and anti-US campaigns both inside the PA and abroad. Abbas on the one hand threatens that if a single prisoner in Israeli incarceration dies from a hunger strike he'll go on a rampage, while on the other hand he declares, "Netanyahu is my partner in peace, there is no other."

Since the Palestinian demands for "peace" are quite rigid, it remains very unclear how Israel could possibly accept their terms and satisfy them. Indeed, the Palestinians demand that all their demands be met, because for them they are the bare minimum.

This leaves no option but that of finding all those sub-surface areas in which Israelis and Palestinians can work out deals and arrangements. The visits to the mosques by Arab Muslim dignitaries prove that this is possible. Perhaps now more points of common interest can be identified: more barriers and checkpoints can be removed and more investments, especially from the Gulf, can find their way into the PA economy.

The West Bank actually could prove to be the ground where the successful Arab economies of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia meet the Israeli economy, to the great benefit of both Israel and the Palestinians. The Israeli economy shows signs of slowing down lately, and the more the standard of living among Palestinians grows, the more market demand grows--provided Palestinian businessmen have maximum access to the Israeli market.

Meanwhile, the security envelope of the Israeli-Palestinian complex is not good. A great deal of negative propaganda, such as that of the Muslim Brotherhood, inhibits political progress. So Abbas and Netanyahu should keep their love-hate story cooking on a low flame while they welcome the colorful robes and the money, leave the barriers down and keep out the terrorists.-Published 7/5/2012 ©

Amnon Lord is a senior editor with Makor Rishon daily newspaper.