x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Palestinians divided over east Jerusalem

Earlier this year, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the West Bank's Palestinian Authority, broke with tradition and urged Muslims worldwide to visit Jerusalem - a city that has been boycotted to show defiance to Israel's occupation.

Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray outside the Dome of the Rock in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City.
Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray outside the Dome of the Rock in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City.

JERUSALEM // For 45 years the Muslim world has largely avoided this city, home to Islam's third-holiest shrine and revered by the three monotheistic faiths.

That was by design. An unofficial boycott was meant to show solidarity with Palestinians and defiance of Israel's occupation of east Jerusalem, which it captured along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

Now, Palestinian officials want this to change.

Earlier this year, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the West Bank's Palestinian Authority (PA), broke with tradition and urged Muslims worldwide to visit Jerusalem.

Religious figures from Yemen to Egypt have heeded the call, despite denunciations by foreign clerics and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which sees the decision as recognising Israeli control over the divided city.

But Mr Abbas' supporters reject the criticism as denying Palestinians the economic fruits of tourism. If anything, Mahmoud Al Habash, the PA religious affairs minister, said the boycott had made it easier for Israel to flood the city with Jewish settlers and undermine its Palestinian character.

"Look, the boycott of visiting Jerusalem has aided the Israeli presence in east Jerusalem," he said. "The near-total Arab and Muslim absence from the city has only supported Israel's policy of building settlements in east Jerusalem and turning it into a Jewish-only city."

The issue centres on the southeastern corner of the Old City, a flashpoint area of occupied east Jerusalem that is contested by both Muslims and Jews.

To the latter, it is the Temple Mount, the site of Judaism's Biblical temples that were razed by the ancient Babylonians and then again in 70AD by the Romans. In a move not recognised internationally, Israel annexed it and the rest of east Jerusalem after its military victory in 1967 and declared the entire city its undivided, eternal capital.

Muslims call the area the Noble Sanctuary, or Haram Al Sharif, where tradition says the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven in the 7th Century on a winged mythological steed. Distinctive by its gilded Dome of the Rock, the Sanctuary compound draws its religious significance from Al Aqsa, Islam's most hallowed mosque after those in Mecca and Medina.

Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state.

The boycott of the city, as well as Israeli visa restrictions, has led to relatively few Muslim visitors.

That explained why Mr Abbas' invitation in February to Muslim tourists was a surprise. He called the about-face an attempt to stop Israel's attempt to "Judaise" the city, saying the decision was as much political as religious.

Since 1967, Israel has pushed a quarter-million Jewish settlers into east Jerusalem while it has imposed harsh policies - home demolitions, building restrictions, residency revocations, the separation barrier - - on the area's more than 270,000 Palestinians.

Mr Abbas, who compared Jerusalem's Palestinians as prisoners to the Israeli occupation, justified his decision by saying that visiting "a prisoner is an act of support and does not mean normalisation with the warden".

Still, the about turn prompted anger. Hamas, which controls Gaza and rivals Mr Abbas' group, denounced it as "a gift" to Israel that legitimises its occupation.

Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, an Egyptian based in Qatar, warned the move "could be seen as normalisation" of affairs with Israel.

In April, Egypt's grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, was criticised back home for making a surprise visit to Jerusalem with an entourage that included Jordan's Prince Ghazi bin Mohamed. Many in Egypt - one of two Arab countries maintaining formal peace treaties with Israel (the other is Jordan) - support the boycott. Even leaders of its Coptic Christian community have abided by it.

Some Jerusalem Palestinians, such as Jawad Siyam, an activist, also fear the change could benefit Israelis, who dominate the city's tour-guiding companies and hotels.

"If there's no planning and if they bring in a lot of tourists, they'll just be taken by Israeli tour guides," he said, adding that it could give "the wrong impression that Israel actually supports Muslim tourists here".

But that misses the point, said Azzam Al Khatib, the director of Jerusalem's Religious Endowments (Waqf) Foundation. Controlled by Jordan, which supports the new Palestinian initiative, the Waqf manages Al Aqsa and Islamic sites in the city.

He said more pro-Palestinian pilgrims, whether Muslim or Christian, would provide symbolic pressure against Israel to halt inflammatory actions in Old City. These include soldiers entering the Sanctuary, Jewish zealots burrowing tunnels under the holy place and intrusive municipal repairs to site's entry points.

Such actions have sparked deadly riots in the past. In 2000, a visit to the Al Aqsa compound by the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, triggered the second intifada.

"Doing this might not put tremendous pressure on Israel, but it might be enough to stop them from doing inflammatory things in our holy places," Sheikh Khatib said.

He added that the move would "test" Israel's pronouncements that Jerusalem is open to all faiths.

Rami Nasrallah, the head of Jerusalem's International Peace and Cooperation Centre, said such tourism would also help reverse worsening Palestinian poverty and neglect by the Jewish-run municipality. It could provide an especially important boon to east Jerusalem hotels, many of which have remained shuttered since the second intifada.

But George Rishmawi, a Palestinian tour guide, agreed. He also believes an influx of both Muslim and Christian pilgrims who are sympathetic to Palestinians would counter the pro-Israeli narrative of the city's tour guides.

"They wouldn't be coming to see the Israeli propaganda," he said, adding that this alone "would boost the morale of all Palestinians".



* With additional reporting from Reuters