x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Shaky foundation for heavy hopes

The mosque rising in the West Bank village of Izzariya is many things to the people involved: a dream project, a testimony to enduring heritage, a promise of a better life.

Issam Fa'roun, the mayor of Izzariya, left, and Jamal Baghdadi, the architect who designed the mosque, are working to see the project through to completion.
Issam Fa'roun, the mayor of Izzariya, left, and Jamal Baghdadi, the architect who designed the mosque, are working to see the project through to completion.

IZZARIYA, WEST BANK // Nothing comes easy in Palestine, even with the best of intentions. And while the minarets of the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Mosque rise ever higher, bringing one man's dream closer to reality, a confusion of circumstances dogs the project, leaving the land upon which the mosque is being erected still unpaid for. Izzariya, also known as Bethany, is a Jerusalem-area village with an illustrious history. It is home to the tomb of Lazarus where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead four days after he had been buried. For Muslims, Izzariya is the place where Salaheddin stopped to pray on his way to recapturing Jerusalem from Christian crusaders.

Today the village, by dint of its location, is a virtual prison. Izzariya is sandwiched between Ma'aleh Adumim - the biggest Jewish settlement in the West Bank - and Jerusalem, upon which it has a fine view and from which it is severed by Israel's separation barrier. Here, that concrete wall is nine feet tall and snakes its way up the hills and through narrow streets between crowded neighbourhoods.

"Israel wants this village to have no future," said Issam Fa'roun, the head of the Izzariya village council. "It interferes with Israeli plans for Jerusalem." Those plans - or more specifically, the E1 settlement plan - seek to link settlements in and around Jerusalem through a complicated network of roads, bridges and tunnels to create contiguity with East Jerusalem while skirting the indigenous Palestinian areas. Mr Fa'roun said it was a blatant attempt by Israel to surround Jerusalem and make any division of the city impossible.

Izzariya, said Mr Fa'roun, was a geographical obstacle to these Israeli designs. Before the 1967 occupation, the village commanded more than 11,000 dunams of mostly agricultural land. Today, with Israeli roads and settlements, Izzariya's 23,000 inhabitants are packed together on 2,500 dunams. Mr Fa'roun sees the mosque as a reassertion of the village's identity after decades of watching its area recede.

"This mosque will be a landmark, a show of moral support for our people and a reminder of the Muslim heritage here," Mr Fa'roun said. "We are very grateful." The design is the brainchild of Jamal Baghdadi, his "baby" as he likes to call it. For 10 years, the Gaza-based architect with a doctorate in Islamic art from Cairo University had a model of the mosque exhibited in his office. "I think all architects have one building they want to build so much they would do it for nothing," he said. "I am so lucky that mine will become a reality."

His passion is evident in the design. The minarets, at 80 metres, will tower above Izzariya and dominate the skyline for miles. The design itself is based on the Islamic ratio of 2.5:1. This "golden ratio" governs the size of the three large domes in relation to the size of the building and the height of the two minarets. The mosque will be able to hold 2,000 people and will include an Islamic study centre and a clinic.

The project design also incorporates an eight-floor commercial centre to be located nearby with room for 50 shops, 16 offices and a multipurpose hall. Mr Baghdadi had always envisaged that the mosque would pay its own running costs, some US$100,000 (Dh367,000) a year, while benefiting the community in broader ways. The commercial centre, however, has not yet been approved for budgeting by the Khalifa bin Zayed Charity Foundation.

So specific was Mr Baghdadi, who had originally approached the foundation with his design, that he rejected two sites for the location of the mosque, causing something of a dispute with the Palestinian ministry of awqaf, which offered the project a first site in Kufr Aqab, a Jerusalem-area village to the north. "I don't think it was studied well," said Mr Baghdadi of that site. "I went to the local mosque. There were only 12 people in there.

"Why would you consider building a mosque this size in a place where there clearly is no need for it?" Complicating matters further, Mr Baghdadi was looking for a location in early 2006 - after Hamas had won parliamentary elections. With trouble brewing between Hamas and Fatah as well as the international community, he thought it "best to avoid the complications with the government". Instead he went directly to the Izzariya village council, which enthusiastically endorsed the idea.

"No one co-ordinated with us at the ministry of awqaf regarding this project," said Salaheddin Ali, a deputy minister. Mr Ali was keen to emphasise that the ministry was not opposed to the project and did not want to criticise anyone for what he said was a lack of input for the ministry. "We didn't intervene. We appreciate the effort [by the foundation]. It's welcome. But there was no co-ordination, nobody asked us or told us about anything."

"It's a misunderstanding," Mr Fa'roun said. "I think it is something that will be forgotten soon enough." The Izzariya village council offered up an empty plot of public land, a dwindling resource in the village. But the location of that plot would have meant that the mithrab would have faced out to a busy main street. Another plot, privately owned, was identified and an agreement was reached with its owners.

That agreement, however, was not budgeted for. The plot of land costs US$560,000 (Dh2.06m) that the council proposed to pay for in instalments through the lease of 10 shops at the commercial centre. However, with plans for the commercial centre yet to be approved the landowners are now looking to be paid and an Aug 15 deadline is looming. "We have not yet received approval from the Sheikh Zayed Foundation for the commercial centre so we are trying to ensure that we can set aside enough from the budget to pay for the land," Mr Fa'roun said.

"Otherwise the construction will come to a halt after August 15." The land issue has cast a pall over a project that has gradually won over an initially sceptical population. Locals had questioned the US$4.5m (Dh16.5m) project, primarily because since the wall came up, Izzariya has been cut off from the health care facilities of Jerusalem. With no local alternative, travel time to Jerusalem trebled and access dependent on Israeli permits, many felt the greatest need was a hospital.

Mr Fa'roun said the village council had tried to approach several NGOs for funding for a hospital but that running costs were simply prohibitive. As a compromise, Mr Baghdadi incorporated a 1,000 square metre prenatal care clinic into the design for council use. "We need a hospital here," said Muatazem Hijazi, 32, a shopkeeper from just across the street where the mosque is being built. "But I think [the project] is helpful, both practically and psychologically. It tells people here that the Arabs haven't forgotten us."

That sentiment was echoed by Mohammad Rumeilleh, 15, who said he was looking forward to the completion of the project. "It's a mosque. It's a good thing, and it shows we have support from Arab countries," he said, to nods of agreement from two friends. It's true we need a lot of things here in Izzariya, but they say the minarets are going to be the tallest in Palestine and from there we can see the Aqsa Mosque, where the Israelis forbid us from going.

"I think it will be special." @Email:okarmi@thenational.ae