Feb 12 2007

More than a walkway

Published by at 9:34 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

By Daoud Kuttab
If Israeli officials felt that the protest against work near Al-Aksa 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 Magharbeh (Moroccans) Gate, the directors of this musical program made a huge political sensation. The lyrics of the song, written just after the 1967 occupation began, 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 Israeli Archaeological Authority as nothing more
than a municipal action aimed at fixing a walkway did little to sway Arab opinions.

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 annexing East Jerusalem and cutting off the city from its natural outlying areas with administrative decisions and a concrete wall, the Israeli government ensured that calls for help from the city’s Muslim community would be answered 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 was the case in the war against Lebanon, Israeli leaders, including the Prime Minister, seem once
again to be making a fatal miscalculation. Noting the internal fighting in Gaza, the Israelis seemed 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 did not stop Palestinians from protesting. In fact many are saying that the Israeli decision to begin excavations near the platform on which Al Aqsa Mosque stands may have sped up the reconciliation that produced the Mecca agreement.

What Israeli politicians seem also to be unaware of is the vast amount of literature regarding the numerous messianic groups that exist in Israel and whose main goal is to replace the Mosque with the temple that these groups claim was once in the same spot.

Almost every action of the “Temple Mount Faithful” group is broadcast on Arab satellite stations. Reports on the various Jewish organizations dedicated to studying and building the Jewish temple are regularly featured in the Arab media. The Islamic media throughout the region is particularly focused on this issue.

While many Israelis might claim that these fringe groups are not representative of the main Israeli body politic, the Israeli governmental and semi-governmental institutions are still not taking a stand against them. As long as that is the case most Muslims will view the silence as acquiescence.

The Israelis could have done much to reduce the potential for outcry. They could have made a strong
effort to win over the Islamic Waqf, which are the official guardians of Al Aqsa Mosque compound. Jordan, which under the peace treaty with Israel, has a specified role relating to the holy places in Jerusalem. Instead of bringing them in, the Israelis earned condemnations.

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

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 the Authority and by failing to consult 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.

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