March 16, 2020
“Where are you planning on visiting in the State of Israel?” The truth was, I wasn’t planning on visiting anywhere in the State of Israel – at least, as described in international law. But somehow, I didn’t think the Israeli border officer was going to be particularly cooperative if I pointed out we were already in occupied territory, and I was planning to visit elsewhere in the Palestinian occupied territories. So, I answered simply: “Jerusalem. I’m planning on visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem.”
A little while later, that’s precisely where I was — as it is called in Arabic, Al-Quds. The Holy.
I was about 17-years-old when I first saw a picture from al-Quds. It was a portrait of one of the mosques on the territory of the Haram al-Sharif, “The Noble Sanctuary.” Many think the iconic mosque with the prominent golden dome is the Masjid al-Aqsa mentioned in the Qur’an. In fact, Masjid al-Aqsa refers to the entirety of the rectangular area of the Noble Sanctuary, which is about 1.4 kilometres in diameter, and about 120,000 square metres. In the Islamic tradition, it’s known as the “first Qibla” — the first direction of prayer that Muslims prayed towards when the Prophet began his message — until, following a revelation recorded in the Qu’ran, Muslims began to pray in the direction of the Ka’aba in Makka. For many spiritual reasons, it remains profoundly important to the 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide, as the place where the Prophet ascended from earth to the Divine Presence.
Growing up in a multi-religious family, al-Quds always possessed a deep symbolic resonance. I wondered how it would feel to drive through the occupied West Bank towards it — and when I finally experienced it, it was at once wondrous and surreal. As a Briton of mixed race, including of Arab heritage, I received a certain type of treatment. Not as welcoming, I suspect, as a purely white Anglo-Saxon Briton might have expected, but definitely not what those of Palestinian origin would have endured. The Israeli security officers asked a couple of questions about a trip I’d taken to Lebanon, along with a number of more mundane queries — but after a couple of hours of waiting, I was at last in a car en route to Jerusalem.
When I saw the golden “Dome of the Rock,” the mosque in that picture I had as a teenager, the emotion was initially overwhelming. All along the road to Jerusalem, I had passed by different Israeli (only for Jews) settlements, erected in violation of international law, on territories occupied by the Israelis in 1967. I had no particular desire to enter them — though, as a Brit, I would have been allowed access, unlike the Palestinians who had no such privilege, and yet more right. Everywhere I looked, I was reminded of the occupation — the longest occupation in modern times, and the subject of scores of United Nations resolutions. But when I arrived at the gates of the Old City of Jerusalem — Bayt al-Maqdis, as it continues to be called by Arabs and Muslims worldwide — the sense of grief I had when witnessing the cold reality of the occupation was replaced with a mixture of wonder and bemusement.
Soon after entering the Old City, looking for the house where I would stay, I found myself walking behind a small tour group, led by an American tour guide. His accent identified him immediately, as did his protestations that Jerusalem was far safer than his country of birth. “It’s very safe here,” he proclaimed, “far safer than New York, where there are knife attacks and shootings all the time.” He then went on to say, “Of course, we need the Israeli military to ensure it stays safe” — though the irony of needing an occupying military force to keep the territory “safe,” presumably from those that it was occupying, wholly escaped him, it seemed.
As we passed one of the entrances to the Haram al-Sharif, the tour guide told the group, “We can’t go on the Temple Mount — the Israeli soldiers keep us out, as Muslims don’t allow non-Muslims on there.” This was, of course, a rather misleading statement. The status quo agreements on the Haram entail that the Haram al-Sharif is managed by a Waqf (a trust) that the Jordanian monarchy administers, as they did from 1948 to 1967, following which the territory was invaded and occupied. I personally saw many Israeli soldiers on the Haram while I was there, passing from one entrance to another; and periodically, Israeli citizens violate the status quo, with the cooperation of the Israeli military, leading to regular complaints to the United Nations. And it wasn’t as though non-Muslims couldn’t enter — I know many non-Muslims who have gone onto the Haram, and of course, the various mosques in Jerusalem remain open to non-Muslim visitors.
The Haram is supposed to be partially restricted, nevertheless, and that would seem to be down to the many provocations that extremist Zionist settlers have carried out over the years. For decades, extremists on the Israeli side have sought to raise awareness of the Haram al-Sharif as the site of the Third Temple in Judaism, with a view to destroying the mosques. I’m old enough to remember when the Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, engaged in a provocative, heavily armed visit to the Haram, which led to violence and sparked the second intifada (uprising) in 2000. The more recent unilateral decision of the Trump administration to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territory has only deepened tensions.
I spoke about my visit to an American friend recently, who bemoaned the lack of a peaceful and just solution to the conflict: “If the solution was found, we’d be able to more fully explore Muslim-Jewish links; there are so many areas of common interest.” He has a point: yet, Jewish-Muslim relations aren’t inevitably bound up with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — unless that conflict is made the subject of discussion and, crucially, international law is disregarded as playing a fundamental role in any future conversation.
I left my bags at the old Palestinian house where I was staying, a stone’s throw away from the Noble Sanctuary, and made my way to the mosque. It was a peaceful walk. And yet, every step of the way, the sense of Jerusalem being an occupied city was never too far from me: Israeli flags; Israeli military personnel. All that faded as soon as I crossed over into the sanctuary complex. And it was indeed a sanctuary — exuding a palpable sense of peace, sanctity, sacredness. I walked straight to the first mosque established on the Haram.
A good guide would have been able to point out the different additions made to the site over the centuries: the different prayer niches in the buildings; the rebuilding of the wooden minbar(sermon platform) following its destruction by a Christian extremist in 1969; the Dome of the Rock (where the Prophet ascended); and much more.
Upon entering the mosque, one is surrounded by a range of people: serene worshippers in prayer; shaykhs teaching from their canon; men and women teaching different classes; children playing; visitors taking pictures. A stone’s throw from the compound, a Sufi zawiya connected to an active Sufi order is holding remembrance circles. This, too, remains open for visitors and residents, men and women, who, even under the long shadow of the occupation, continue the traditions of their forefathers in gathering on Thursday and Sunday evenings to engage in dhikr (remembrance) of God.
But the guns and soldiers were also there, never far from view. They serve as a constant reminder that the Old City is occupied by force of arms. This tends to spoil or interrupt any sense of calm. Even when I witnessed Israeli settlers walking side-by-side with Palestinian Muslims and Christians, there was always a certain tension present: they’re not really walking “side-by-side” at all, but exist in parallel universes.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to miss the pervading sense of perseverance, of persistence. Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians selling their wares, and telling their stories through their food and their culture. In what commerce they’re allowed to have under the restrictions of occupation, Palestinians continue to challenge, to defy, to confront the realities around them. And they all seemed grateful for the presence of tourists — and I saw many from around the world. Some of them came simply to see the historic sites; others to show solidarity, and to witness first-hand Palestinians’ spirit of determination.
But that’s one kind of experience in Palestine. There’s another that showed a type of sacredness — and pain — that I wasn’t prepared for. That was in the city that is described as “The Friend” — al-Khalil — in Arabic. More commonly in the West, it’s called Hebron. And that’s where I’m visiting in the next instalment.
Dr H.A. Hellyer is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a visiting professor at the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation in Kuala Lumpur. He is currently on the steering committee for a multi-year EU-funded project on ‘Radicalisation, Secularism and the Governance of Religion’, which brings together European, North African and Asian perspectives with a consortium of 12 universities and think-tanks.
Source: ABC Religion & Ethics