Fayyad accuses Netanyahu of "expropriating" Ibrahimi Mosque

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad attended the Friday prayers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron today.

In remarks to journalists in Hebron, Fayyad accused Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and his government of “expropriating” or “annexing” the Ibrahimi (Abraham) Mosque and several other sites important to the three monotheistic religions, including Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem. Agence France Presse reported that Fayyad said: “The Palestinian people understand extremely well that this decision has a political dimension, and that it is aimed at Israel expropriating sites that are part of an occupied territory … These sites belong to a future Palestinian state”. According to AFP, Fayyad also reaffirmed “the inalienable right of the Palestinian people on their soil”. AFP also reported that “the head of the United Nations cultural body UNESCO ‘expressed her concern” at the plan and the ‘resulting escalation of tension in the area’. UNESCO chief Irina Bokova endorsed a statement by Robert Serry, UN coordinator for the Middle East peace process, that the sites have ‘historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam and to Christianity’.” She also “reiterated UNESCO’s long-standing conviction that cultural heritage should serve as a means for dialogue”. This AFP report is posted here.

The Jerusalem Post reported that “Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad visited Hebron on Friday and prayed at the Cave of the Patriarchs on Friday afternoon, criticizing Israel’s decision to add the site and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem to the list of Jewish heritage sites marked for renovation and preservation. Speaking to reporters after prayers, Fayyad accused Israel of ‘annexing’ the Cave of the Patriarchs. ‘[Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu’s decision is dangerous and political in nature. The site is an inseparable part of the occupied Palestinian territories’, [Israeli] Channel 10 quoted Fayyad as saying”. The JPost added that “US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the administration viewed the move as provocative and unhelpful to the goal of getting the two sides back to the table. Toner said US displeasure with the designations of the Cave of the Patriarchs in the flash point town of Hebron and the traditional tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem had been conveyed to senior Israeli officials by American diplomats”. This JPost report is published here.

The declaration, last Sunday, by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and endorsed by his Cabinet, did not announce any legal annexation of the sites. But, this is what the Palestinians fear is the logic.

Palestinians also fear, not without justification through experience, that the allocation of large sums of Israeli money for the maintenance and preservation of these sites as part of Israel’s heritage is likely to entail preferential Israeli access and denial of Palestinian access.

Major-General (Res.) Giora Eiland, Israel’s former National Security Adviser who is now an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv (and an advocate of extensive “territorial swap” involving Israel’s neighbors Egypt and Jordan), noted during the week in a press conference in West Jerusalem that Rachel’s tomb, in Bethlahem, was “on the Israeli side of the Clinton maps [of 2000-2001]”, meaning that it was considered an area that would be assigned to the State of Israel in a final peace settlement. But, Eiland noted, “I cannot say the same about the Hebron mosque” …

Rachel’s tomb it is now surrounded by The Wall in its 8-meter-high concrete block manifestation, and accessible only to Jews and Israelis who enter in guarded buses escorted by Israeli security forces. The visitors’ busses pass through a huge gliding metal gate that opens for their arrival. Under the Oslo Accords, Israel guaranteed freedom of worship and access to all holy sites under its control. In practice, I have not heard of Christian groups visiting Rachel’s tomb, though it is not as important in Christian worship. Palestinian Muslims, however, revere not only Ruth, but important historical Muslim figures from a later era who are buried there. And, there is a Muslim mosque on the site. In theory, at least, Palestinian visits are now supposedly to be allowed through permits, though I do not know of any Palestinian who has ever requested such a permit… Maybe Fayyad can ask for one for next Friday’s prayers…

[Once, in June 2004, I made a spontaneous visit to Rachel’s tomb — before it was completely surrounded by The Wall — with two UNRWA colleagues, both female, one was Palestinian. As it happened, because we hadn’t planned the visit, we were all wearing jeans (not well viewed at all by Orthodox Jews, who think long skirts are more appropriate for modest women). We parked the official UN-marked vehicle a few hundred meters away, but directly visible to the Israeli military in the control tower. As we walked forward, one Israel soldier emerged and pointed his automatic weapon straight at us. We explained we just wanted to visit Rachel’s tomb, and moved forward. He waved his rifle menacingly. Then, another soldier emerged from the control tower and ran towards us, while motioning to the one with the pointed weapon to move aside. He told us we were allowed to enter. But he said to hurry, because a bus of Jewish worshippers was due to arrive any minute from Jerusalem, and they wanted the streets absolutely clear in case of any sniper fire. He went inside with us, and stopped anyone from interfering with us. We were able to spend about 30 minutes in meditation and observation on the womens’ side of the tomb, without even a cross look, and we left in peace. It was a rare and actually wonderful experience — thanks in particular to that one Israeli soldier who enforced his government’s official policy that, in theory at least, and on paper, allows people of all faiths to enter all holy sites under Israeli control.]

Clashes continued for a fifth day between stone-throwing Palestinian youths and Israeli troops in Hebron about the Israeli government decision to declare the Ibrahimi Mosque an Israeli heritage site.

Ma’an News Agency reported that Jewish settlers, accompanied by Israeli soldiers, marched through downtown Hebron on Friday in support of the Israeli government decision.

Separately, a group of about 300 Israeli, Palestinian and international activists marched in the rain to call for an opening of part of central Hebron which has been locked down under Israeli military pressure for several years in favor of a Jewish settler presence in the neighborhood.

Palestinian fury continues over Israeli decision on holy sites

Unrest continued for a third day in Hebron over the Israeli government decision to declare the important Ibrahimi (Abraham) mosque an Israeli heritage site, as schoolgirls in headscarves and green and white striped dresses over their jeans confronted Israeli troops who shot tear gas at them, while the situation was discussed at an Arab League meeting in Cairo today.

Yesterday (Tuesday), YNet reported that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in Belgium that “the Israeli decision to add the two sites, located in Hebron and Bethlehem, to the list of national heritage sites was ‘a serious provocation which may lead to a religious war’ “, while “The Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, presented an even firmer stand. He called on the Palestinians to launch a new intifada in protest of the decision to add the two places to the heritage sites list. ‘This requires the release of all Palestinians prisoners in the PA’s jails, halting the negotiations and achieving a Palestinian reconciliation agreement’, he said”. This report is published here.

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu repeated a statement first made by a member of his office yesterday. YNet reported today that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday reiterated Israel’s commitment to the freedom of ritual of members of all religions in all holy sites. According to a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu said that ‘this policy is implemented in the Cave of the Patriarchs as well, where the State is working constantly to guarantee appropriate prayer conditions for Jews and Muslims’. According to Netanyahu, ‘Proof can be found in the renovation work being completed these days in the entrance plaza and on the path leading to the Muslims’ prayer hall on the site’. The prime minister stressed that ‘any other claim is an artificial attempt to distort reality and evoke a dispute’.” This can be read in full here.

Israel’s State President Shimon Peres met UN envoy to the Middle East Robert Serry on Wednesday. and said that “Israel plans to invest significant amounts in infrastructure that will increase the accessibility of holy sites to all worshipers. By doing so it aims to honor and allow freedom of worship to all, irrespective of their faith, and protect the holy sites. There is no violation of Muslim or Christian religious rights in any holy place.” According to a statement issued by his office, Peres “requested that this clear message be delivered to the U.N. Secretary-General so as to stop those parties which wish to incite unnecessary conflict”, and UN Special Coordinator Serry “thanked the President for clarifying the issue”, while adding that “following a series of meetings with leaders of the Palestinian Authority he believes the most serious obstacle to peace remains the lack of trust between both sides — that neither side believes the other will remain flexible and make significant advances in negotiations. Nevertheless, he also stated that with the proper steps there exists an opportunity to resume proximity talks.

The Jerusalem Post reported after the Peres-Serry meeting that “Peres stressed that Israel wasn’t interested in ‘monopolizing’ the sites and that it did not need ‘artificial conflicts’ sparked by a ‘misunderstanding’. He said that Israel respects ‘every holy place’, emphasizing that while it wanted to educate Jews that the sites are holy to them, this certainly did not mean they would be off limits to Muslims. ‘We are going to tell our children that it is a holy place for the Jewish people’, he said. ‘It doesn’t mean Muslims can’t pray there’.” This article is posted here.

In actual fact, Muslim worshippers have been excluded from the Ibrahimi mosque during the last two years on important Muslim holidays when they coincided with important Jewish holidays. The Muslims prayed in the streets in front of armed Israeli armed soldiers.

The Ibrahimi Mosque in the occupied city of Hebron is the fourth holiest site to Muslims [after (1) the Kaaba in Mecca, (2) Medina, and (3) al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock Mosques in the Old City of East Jerusalem! It is so important that the Jordanian government tried to negotiated a share in controlling the Ibrahimi mosque in its 1994 peace treaty with Israel — but Israel refused.

The Tomb(s) of the Patriarchs, located within the Ibrahimi Mosque, may be the second holiest site for the Jewish people. The most important site is what Jews call the Temple Mount (while Muslims call it the Haram Ash-Sharif, where Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock are located) in the Old City of East Jerusalem where the Second and possibly also the First Jewish Temples were located. The Western (“Wailing”) Wall is believed to have been the retaining wall outside the Temple area.

In a press conference at the Mishkenot Shaananim center in West Jerusalem on Wednesday afternoon, Major-General (Res.) Giora Eiland, Israel’s former National Security Adviser and now an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said he thought that Netanyahu’s statements were “not that important … symbolic … but at the end of the day not too smart”. He noted that Rachel’s tomb, in Bethlahem, was “on the Israeli side of the Clinton maps”, meaning that it was considered an area that would be assigned to the State of Israel in a final peace settlement [which must be why it is now surrounded by The Wall in its 8-meter-high concrete block manifestation, and accessible only to Israelis who enter in guarded and escorted buses which pass through a huge gliding metal gate that opens for their arrival]. But, Eiland noted, “I cannot say the same about the Hebron mosque” …

What has Netanyahu done?

Palestinians are furious at an Israeli government decision to classify the very important Ibrahimi (Abraham) Mosque in Hebron (as well as Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem) as Israeli heritage sites.

It was not a decision to annex these two sites to Israel. It was a decision to allocate money to upgrade and rehabilitate the sites. But, in the current context, the decision has been understood as yet another move by the government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to restrict, if not exclude, Palestinian and Muslim claims + interests.

It is being received and perceived as an act of incitement.

There has been a firestorm of reaction. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is busy in Paris, and hasn’t said anything himself. But a representative of Abbas denounced the move on Palestinian television tonight, and argued that this puts into further question any idea about a resumption of negotiations. The Palestinian Authority Minister of Awqaf (Muslim trusts), Mahmoud Habbash, in Cairo for a meeting, denounced the move as “crazy” and “war-like”.

Both sites are revered by both religions. But sites contain graves of ancestors revered by both religions. For Muslims, both sites are also mosques. And both sites are in the occupied West Bank.

Continue reading What has Netanyahu done?