More than a walkway

Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, arrives at the Jerusalem Shalom court in Jerusalem, 7 February 2007. Salah and six supporters were taken for questioning after a brawl with police guarding works on a pathway next to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, in the Old City of Jerusalem. (MaanImages/Anat Zakai)

If Israeli officials felt that the protest against work near Al-Aqsa mosque was a local problem that would soon go away, they were not watching Lebanese television.

Some might think that the Arab world’s most popular TV program, Star Academy, is all about singing youth and half-dressed presenters. But on Friday, February 9, the students at Star Academy joined together in singing the song of Lebanese superstar Fairuz about Jerusalem.

Dressed in chic black outfits, the entire class of Star Academy 4 joined hands in front of sets depicting Jerusalem’s Old City walls as they sang “Zahrat al Madain” (The flower of cities).

Without making a single reference to the latest controversy over the Mughrabi Gate walkway, the directors of this musical program made a huge political sensation. The lyrics of the song, written just after the 1967 occupation, reminded the tens of millions of young Arab viewers of Jerusalem’s centrality to the Arab and Islamic cause more than any politician ever could have.

Israeli spin doctors’ attempts to portray the dig by the Israel Archeological Authority as nothing more than a municipal action aimed at fixing a walkway did little to sway Arab opinions, which continue to see the struggle in Palestine, and especially in Jerusalem, in larger-than-life terms.

Unlike the response to Ariel Sharon’s provocations in 2000, there is one major difference this time around. The Islamic movement in Israel is all over the city in a strong and powerful way. By insisting on the annexation of east Jerusalem and by cutting off the city from its natural outlying areas with administrative decisions and a concrete wall, the calls for help from the cities Muslim community have now been heard by Palestinian Muslims who are citizens of the State of Israel.

This shift is perhaps one of the main reasons why the Israeli army, which usually responds forcefully, has been compelled to deal with the protests much more carefully. It has also introduced in a much bigger way the role of Arab members of the Israeli Knesset. These MKs have both political immunity and legislative standing to demand information and documentation of the real aims of the Israeli Antiquities Authority in its actions.

As in Lebanon, Israeli leaders, including the prime minister, seem once again to be making fatal miscalculation. Noting the internal fighting in Gaza, the Israelis seem to have thought that with Palestinians busy fighting each other, they would not pay much attention to the dig.

They were wrong on two counts. The internal differences didn’t stop Palestinians from protesting. In fact, many are saying that the Israeli decision to begin the controversial dig near the platform on which the Al-Aqsa mosque stands may have speeded up the reconciliation that produced the Mecca Accords.

What Israeli politicians are also unaware of is the amount of literature about the various messianic groups that exist in Israel and whose main goal is to rebuild the temple. Almost every action of the Temple Mount Faithful is broadcast on Arab satellite stations. Reports on the various Jewish organizations dedicated to studying and rebuilding the Jewish temple are regularly featured in the Arab media. The Islamic media, whether in Israel, Palestine or the Arab countries, is especially focused on this issue.

While many Israelis might claim that these fringe groups are not representative of the main Israeli body politic, so long as the Israeli governmental and semi-governmental institutions are not taking a stand on them, most Muslims will believe that their silence toward these radical groups amounts to acquiescence.

The Israelis could have done much to reduce the potential for misunderstanding. They could have made a strong effort to win over the Islamic Waqf authorities, which are the official guardians of the Aqsa Mosque compound. Jordan, which under the peace treaty with Israel has a specified role relating to the holy places in Jerusalem, could have been brought in and convinced of the nature of the planned actions.

By acting alone and without serious coordination — rather than simply informing the Waqf of a fait accompli — the Israeli government has endangered its position and brought dangerous trouble to its doorstep.

If the aim of the works is simply to fix a walkway, there was no need for the Antiquities Authority to be involved. By including it and by failing to win over the Islamic Waqf and the Jordanian government concerning these steps, the conclusion that is left to an already skeptical Palestinian, Arab and Islamic population is that there is something much more sinister going on behind the construction work.

The writer is a Palestinian journalist, director of the Institute of Modern media at Al Quds University in Ramallah.

Related Links

  • PCHR Condemns Israeli Diggings near Al-Aqsa, PCHR (11 February 2007)
  • UNESCO voices ‘deep concern’ at Israeli construction work in Jerusalem, UN News (8 February 2007)
  • PCHR: Stop the destruction of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, PCHR (7 February 2007)