From my recent blogs, the two issues that seemed to arouse some need for further discussion were the conclusion about Jerusalem remaining the key obstacle to peace and the implication that the United States and Israel would be at odds over negotiating with a possibly reunited Palestinian entity involving Hamas as well as Fatah. In this morning’s blog I will focus on Jerusalem and, more particularly, on a report on the conference, “The Road to Jerusalem” that took place from Monday to Wednesday of this week in Amman, Jordan.
The conference was opened by HRH Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammad, Jordan’s King Abdullah II’s Advisor for Religious and Cultural Affairs. It was not just a conference of Muslims. Christian clerics and scholars as well as politicians from across the Arab world were in attendance. Secondly, the premise of the conference was that Jerusalem was an occupied city. Given that it was occupied, how were both Muslims and Christians to deal with their holy sites when the occupying and controlling authority was neither Muslim nor Christian. The conference was organized by the World Islamic Sciences and Education (WISE) University, the Lower House Palestine Committee and the Muslim World League, a clear indication that the dominant instigation for the conference was a Muslim one. Christians had a token role.
WISE, for example, located in Amman, was only established four years ago. Its purpose from the beginning was primarily political rather than educational since it was established to be the home of the Arabic League and National Identity Conference. The university has nine faculties including Theology, Sharia Law, Humanities and Education, Traditional Islamic Art and Architecture, Information Technology, Business and Finance, Basic Sciences, A Graduate Faculty and an Institute for Quranic Studies and Recitation complete the list. It is, in other words, a traditional religious-based university. Thus, the Faculty of Theology offers a PhD in Faith and Islamic Philosophy as well as bachelors and graduate degrees in “scientific interpretation” of religious texts and ritual. In contrast, its Faculty of Arts and Education only offers a bachelors degree majoring in either English literature or Education. There are no courses in social sciences or history. The applied professional fields of study – information technology and business and finance – are concerned with business management and accounting as well as information systems and technology. The Faculty of Basic Sciences has a program in “Islamic Sciences” not chemistry, physics, etc. It also has a department of English, finance and education. This is not your typical model of a western university.
The focus of the conference was the religious significance of Al Aqsa Mosque as well as other Muslim – and Christians – sites in Jerusalem. Given the special custodial role of King Abdullah II for the Al Asque Mosque, the issue was how “the Arab and Muslim worlds and the international community can come to the aid of the occupied city.” The assumption was that aid was desperately needed because of “Israeli arrogance and violations against the Palestinians in the West Bank” as well as to thwart Israeli schemes vis a vis Islamic holy sites, in particular the expenditure of $4 billion dollars by the Israeli occupation on the Judaization of Jerusalem. The clear thrust of the conference was to document the central importance of Jerusalem and its holy sites in the history of Islam. The explicit goal was to preserve the Arab identity of the “holy city”. There was absolutely no indication that at least 40% of the Jews in Israel came from the Arab world.
Within that core focus was the central theme – how to protect the Haram al-Sharif, the site of the Al-Asqua Mosque and the Dome on the Rock given that Article 9 of the 1994 Jordan-Israeli Peace Agreement assigned Jordan that prime responsibility, an assignment confirmed by an agreement signed between King Abdullah II and Mahmoud Abbas on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in March 2013. What is also clear is that this new focus on Haram al Sharif is also fueled by Jewish religious extremist rejection of the Muslim control over the Temple Mount. As stated in the conference, Israel traditionally had respected Islamic control and had agreed that the site was to be protected by unarmed guards paid for by the Jordanian government. However, given Israeli control of the one gate, the Mughrabi Gate, in order to allow access to the Western Wall, unauthorized visits of militant Jews using that gate have significantly increased to the Haram al-Sharif.
A central theological issue was whether visits to Jerusalem by non-Palestinians were a) acceptable and b) to be encouraged, given that the sites were under the ultimate control of the Israeli authorities. Abbas and Mohammed Hussein, the Mufti of Jerusalem, were promoting such visits. Yehiya Soud, a Palestinian-Jordanian firebrand, recounted how, in spite of his Jordanian diplomatic passport, he was held up for five hours at the king Hussein Bridge before allowed entry. Given an Egyptian theological ruling, Muslims from Turkey, Indonesia and Jordan, countries who recognized Israel and whose passports would allow them to visit, were to be encouraged to visit Haram al-Sharif, but this was a ruling hotly disputed by Islamic scholars from Qatar, Yemen and Morocco who held that, while the holy sites were under Israeli – read Jewish – control, such visits only legitimized Israeli occupation. Further, the Arab Peace Initiative of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation prohibits normalization with Israel until Israel withdraws from Arab areas occupied in 1967. Yusuf Qaradawi, a prominent Egyptian cleric at odds with other Egyptian policies, had issued a fatwa against such visits. However, the trend to not recognize such visits and to view them as beneficial for the fight for Islamic control of the holy city was viewed as on the upswing. In parallel with the conference, Abbas I Ramallah pledged $1million towards an endowment to secure Muslim control of the holy city.
Abbas won. The majority of Islamic scholars in attendance reversed past practice and supported visits by Muslims in addition to Palestinians to Haram al-Sharif. This can be read in two different ways – as progress towards recognition of Israeli de facto control and sovereignty and as a source of further disruption and controversy for Israel as Islamic militants from Egypt or Turkey take to seeking access in large numbers. On the one hand, Islamic tourism could be fostered which could bring about greater understanding even if that was not the motive. On the other hand, the new move could be a source of new tensions
The situation is further complicated by corresponding shifts in attitudes and approaches by religious Jews. Traditionally, since 1967 the two chief Israeli rabbis, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi, have concurred and made visits to the Temple Mount off limits for devout Jews lest they trod on what was the Jewish temple. However, militant religious Jews have begun to challenge that ruling. In fact, recently right wing Israelis have begun visiting the area and provoking controversy by seeking to pray on the site. Muslims see this as an initiative to blow up the site – there have been incidents of such efforts in the past – in order to rebuild the Temple.
With the possible increase in both the numbers of Muslims and religious Jews visiting the Islamic holiest site in Jerusalem, the potential for clashes also increases enormously. But the way to sort out the issue of sovereignty also becomes more complicated as emotions get roused on both sides over incidents that are bound to take place. The more Jerusalem becomes the final redoubt in the negotiations between Israel and Palestine, the more the Old City is in danger of serving as a tinder box. The diplomatic issue exacerbates the concern, the concern exacerbates the security issue from both sides and the security issues compound the difficulties in resolving the conflict over Jerusalem and endangers the Israeli traditional stance of acknowledging Islamic religious control while insisting on sovereign control. Thus does the dialectic dance of extremism undermine the search for stability of moderates.
As Ezekial describes it, the road from Babylon split in two, one road going to Amman (then Rabbah in Ammon), the other to Jerusalem then the capital city of Judah. Islam has always wanted to make the road to Jerusalem the ultimate destiny on that route as a path of Islamic religious expression. Jews have always recited, “Next Year in Jerusalem” and regarded Jerusalem as their one and only holy city, though religious Jews have other holy sites. Ezekial prophesied that the Babylonian king would set Jerusalem as his goal and thereby threaten Jerusalem as a Jewish city. Plus ça change, plus la même chose.
And for Christians and Messianic Jews, “Remove the turban, and take off the crown; things shall not remain as they are; exalt that which is low, and abase that which is high. A ruin, ruin ruin will I make it; there shall not be even a trace of it until he comes whose right it is; and to him I will give it.”
In such a controversial historical, religious and political quagmire, can anyone expect that proposals for international sovereignty over the city have any more headway and strength than when proposed in 1947. When the UN advance guard came to the city to take over administrative control in 1948, they were totally ignored as irrelevant.
Though I now see that all other aspects of the dispute are in principle resolvable – water, refugee return, security, even borders except for Jerusalem, I have no idea on how to resolve the Jerusalem issue except by divided authority. I think international authority – though international involvement in an advisory or observer role would be welcome – is not acceptable to either side. I do not even think joint control is possible. There will have to be continued divided authority, but Israel remaining the default sovereign control remains unacceptable to both Abbas and Muslims.
So that is why there will be no formal deal in the near future.
The greatest potential for violence has resided in Jewish zealots who are determined to pray on the Temple Mount under the guidance and incitement of the Temple Mount Faithful in defiance of Israeli political prudential decisions. On 7 December 2000, the al Aqsa intifada was instigated by a visit of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount and fiery sermons in response from Muslim pulpits. Neither side believes in sharing. Will the historic situation of the Second Civil War in 68CE repeat when moderates lost control of the Temple Mount to both the zealots entering from the West and the Edomites from the east?