Jerusalem Update in Light of UAE-Israel Peace Agreements

The political landscape is changing quickly in the Middle East. The changes are certainly affecting worldwide-Muslim relationships with Israel’s capital of Jerusalem. The potentials and dangers are palpable…

Will Abbas be forced to about-face on the Temple Mount?

Article Courtesy: Yisrael Hayom

The huge signs waved only days ago on the Temple Mount calling Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Zayed a “traitor,” the pictures of the Emirati leader that were burned and the UAE flags that were trampled outside the Dome of the Rock don’t seem to be a good sign for Jared Kushner’s religious peace vision, a story that has slipped under the radar amid all the coverage of Israeli-Emirati normalization.
The fatwa published last week by Palestinian Authority Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, which forbids Muslims who travel through the UAE from praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque, does not fit in with American expectations.
The Palestinians are having a tough time swallowing not only the process of normalization between Israel and the Emirates (and possibly soon Bahrain and Sudan), but also its religious aspect. Kushner expressed a vision of “crowds of Muslims form the Gulf states praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque, with a message of tourism, openness, and tolerance.”
Kushner believes that these crowds will see for themselves that Al-Aqsa is not “in danger,” as many Palestinians and Muslim clerics around the world have been falsely claiming for 50 years, and that after visiting Jerusalem, they will become good will ambassadors and help chase the lie away.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who until now openly encouraged Muslims from around the world to visit Jerusalem, is ambivalent about Kushner’s message. On one hand, Abbas rejects the normalization deal, but on the other, he supports the idea of Muslims “occupying” Jerusalem and Islamic holy sites, and wants them to “defend the occupied Al-Aqsa, which the Jews defile by their presence and threaten to destroy.” Abbas has yet to decide how to categorize the new Muslim “crusaders.”
Unofficially, Israeli and American officials have discussed an initial target of 2 million Muslims visitors to Israel per year, the vast majority of whom, experts believe, will visit Al-Aqsa Mosque. “Religious peace,” they call it. In 2018, only 98,000 Muslim tourists visited Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa, so the number cited would be nothing less than a human earthquake for the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is lining up behind Kushner’s vision, at least officially. In an interview to Sky News’ Arabic channel, Netanyahu even talked about “special arrangements for Muslims who arrive from the UAE and the Gulf, so they can pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque.”
In recent years, Israel has arranged visits to the Temple Mount for a number of Arab foreign ministers as a sort of test run for what might now take place. In March 2018, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita visited the Mount. Six months later, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf Bin Alawi bin Abdullah arrived, and last year a private delegation from Kuwait visited the site after coordinating with the Prime Minister’s Office.
It’s still too early to assess how the Palestinians and the east Jerusalem public will feel about a wave of Muslim tourists, if there is one. Middle East scholar Eran Tzidkiyahu of the Forum for Regional Thinking, who occasionally conducts guided tours of the Temple Mount, tried last week to joke with one of his Muslim tourist colleagues on the Mount about pairing up to take Gulf sheikhs around Al-Aqsa Mosque. But the joke fell flat. “You know they’ll throw shoes and tomatoes at them,” he was told.
Only a year ago, Saudi blogger Mohammad Saud – who was being hosted by the Tourism Ministry – was chased off the Temple Mount by a mob that threw chairs at him and cursed him. Saud was not the first to receive a “welcome” of that type, an expression of east Jerusalem Palestinians’ opposition to normalization with Israel. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Maher was attacked on the Mount back in 2003 and called a “traitor and collaborator.” Even when the late Anwar Sadat visited the Mount in 1977, his visit displeased the Sheikh of al-Azhar, the senior Sunni Muslim religious authority at the time, as well as the Palestinians.
Nor did the Palestinians care to see pilgrims from Libya visit the Mount in 1993, or the flood of Muslim visitors to the site after attempts to found a company to encourage Muslim tourism to Israel. In those years, and the years that followed, Muslims from Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan visited the Mount, as did a sheikh from Saudi Arabia, whose arrival caused great excitement in Israel.
But eight and a half years ago, in February 2012, Abbas changed course. He went to Doha, Qatar, and gave a speech at an international conference on defending Jerusalem in which he called on every Muslim to visit Jerusalem to strengthen the Palestinians’ hold on the Old City as well as fulfill the religious obligation to visit the Prophet Muhammad’s three mosques. That was the first time that Abbas, as a senior representative of the PA, changed his stance on visits to Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem.
Abbas’ new position challenged the stance of many Muslim clerics, not to mention the widely-held Palestinian view that such visits enabled normalization with Israel and completed the “occupation” of Islamic holy sites.
At the time, Abbas had the support of Jerusalem Grand Mufti Mohammed Hussein, who issued the latest fatwa, as well as that of Mahmoud al-Habash, the PA minister for Palestinians holy sites. Habash even wrote a book on why these visits were permitted.
Now Abbas and Habash have a real dilemma on their hands. Abbas might be able to accept visitors from the Emirates, if they take on a different character and the Emiratis start investing in east Jerusalem “to strengthen the Palestinian position in Al-Quds [Jerusalem]” or if Emirati tourism keeps the Palestinian economy going. But only if the Gulf visits hire Muslim tour guides and stay in Palestinian hotels.
“Only then,” Tzidkiyahu says, “there might be a chance that the Palestinians will accept what is happening. But it’s too soon to tell.”
Tzidkiyahu says, “The Palestinians, who in principle switched to the stance that requires visits to Al-Aqsa, will formalize their new stance and distinguish between those who visit Al-Aqsa as tourists, thereby anchoring the normalization with Israel, and those who visit Al-Aqsa as part of the ‘ribat’ – activity to defend Islamic holy sites.”
Turkey is facing a similar dilemma. For some years now, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has backed the campaign calling on Muslims from all over the world to visit Jerusalem in droves to support the Palestinians.
“We must visit Al-Aqsa much more,” Erdogan has said. In 2015, he noted with disappointment that “only 26,000 tourists [from Turkey], the highest number of all Muslim countries,” had visited Al-Aqsa, much fewer than the “hundreds of thousands of Americans and Russians who visit the city and Al-Aqsa.”
On which side will Erdogan come down now? Will he go along with the “special arrangements for Muslims” that Netanyahu is proposing, or will he change his position because of the Israeli-Emirati normalization? Again, it’s too soon to tell. In any case, normalization has revived an old intra-Muslim dispute over the question of whether Islam allows non-Palestinian Muslims to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque when it is under Israel control.
Dotan Halevy, a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University, who published an in-depth article about this very debate, notes that according to those who see these visits as unacceptable, “In only two cases can Muslims visit Jerusalem without it being considered normalization: first, if the visitors are Palestinians Muslims, who live under the occupation already and are legally forced to use Zionist permits to enter and leave Jerusalem. The second case applies to Muslims from countries that have established diplomatic relations with Israel, like France or Germany.”
The most prominent opponent to Muslims visiting “occupied Jerusalem” is the head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. He thinks that any visit to Jerusalem by a Muslim comprises normalization, and so it is better to wait until Jerusalem is liberated through jihad.
Hamas sees the issue of visits to Jerusalem, as well as the Israeli-Arab conflict as a whole, in a religious light, and therefore does not accept the distinction that Abbas makes. Halevy explains that for Hamas, this is more than an ideological dispute – that Hamas sees Abbas’ 2012 call as a demonstration of political ownership of Al-Aqsa Mosque, and a step designed to anchor his standing in the Arab and Muslim world. So Hamas vehemently opposes Muslim visits to Jerusalem, thereby making the question yet another flashpoint of the intra-Palestinian quarrel.
Last week, head of Hamas’ politburo Ismail Haniyeh declared the deal between the Emirates and the “Zionist occupation” to be no less dangerous than burning down Al-Aqsa. Haniyeh was speaking at the 51st anniversary of the fire set at the mosque by Australian tourist Michael Dennis Rohan, a date the Palestinians use to keep the blood libel that Israel was behind the arson going.
The issue of the Temple Mount in the Israel-UAE peace deal has ramifications for the Jewish public, too, who have been visiting the Mount in growing numbers in the past few years. The Trump administration’s peace plan, presented in January, supposedly allows Jews to act on their right to pray on the Mount, in contrast to the existing status quo.
The Trump plan states that holy sites in Jerusalem must remain open and accessible to calm worshippers and tourists of all religions and that people of “every faith” must be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in a way that honors their faith. That sounds as if members of all faiths, including Jews, will be able to pray quietly on the Temple Mount.
But Israel’s joint declaration with the Emirates makes no mention of Jewish rights on the Mount, only Muslim ones.
MKs from the Knesset Land of Israel Lobby are worried that the new deal between the US, Israel, and the UAE actually takes Jewish rights on the Mount backwards to the “Kerry understandings” of October 2015. Then, for the first time since 1967, the Israeli government publicly acknowledged that Jews would not pray on the Mount, and that only Muslims would be allowed to do so. Until then, Israel had avoided speaking about the de facto reality that had been in place for over five decades – Jews could visit, but not pray.

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