As we reported previously, Palestinian Authority leaders recently began calling publicly for Arabs to visit Jerusalem. They urged the Arab world to view such visits as an expression of solidarity with the Palestinians, not as a sign of normalization with Israel.
Those calls, combined in one case with the death of a longtime opponent of such visits, have opened the door for several recent developments – developments that have, in turn, sparked an interesting debate within the Arab world.
From Yemen: In early April, prominent Yemeni preacher Habib al-Jafri also visited the site, in a visit that sparked condemnation from Hamas and the Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Akramah Said Sabri. Jafri’s visit was praised by the office of President Abbas.
Also from Egypt: Last month Egypt’s Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Church, died. Following the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, Shenouda had imposed a total ban on visits to Jerusalem so long as there was no Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. While some Egyptian Copts had defied the ban, with his death, a much larger of Egyptian Copts saw an opportunity to finally make the pilgrimage to the city – something that is central to the Coptic faith. The result has been a spike in such visits (also here), particularly around the celebrations of Easter. This led, in turn, to denunciations of the Copts in the Egyptian press and a subsequent reiteration by Coptic Church leaders on the ban on such visits. It was also reported in the Egyptian press that Coptic clerics in Jerusalem refused to let Egyptian Copts enter and pray in the Egyptian Coptic area within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, with the clerics at the site arguing that Pope Shenouda’s ban remained in force.
We have long argued that while the issue of Israel-Palestine is not the top item on the agenda of the emerging forces in the Middle East, it is only a matter of time before the issue, and the issue of Jerusalem in particular, becomes a major issue in the current upheaval.
That time has clearly come. The issue of visits by non-Palestinian Muslims and Christian Arabs is becoming a prominent fault line in contentious schisms between radical Islamic elements and the forces of moderation throughout the region. This trend apparently commenced in February in Doha, at the Arab League Conference on Jerusalem. At that event, sharply divergent and very public views were articulated on the subject of visits to Jerusalem. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on Arabs to visit Jerusalem as an important expression of solidarity with Palestinian East Jerusalemites under occupation; the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, ruled that visits to Jerusalem are forbidden so long as it is under occupation.
Since then the recent flurry of visits and the ensuing condemnations demonstrate that this issue is now a rallying point for Islamic elements (who tend to reject political engagement with Israel) and moderate Islamic forces (who refuse to allow the rejectionists to monopolize the issue of Jerusalem and want to express their roles as protectors of the Arab and Islamic equities in the city). This currently appears to be a product of internal debates within Jordan, Egypt and the Arab world, more than a direct result of the interactions between Israel and its neighbors. That said, it is also clear that Israeli settlement and settler-related activities in and around Jerusalem’s Old City are significantly contributing to this debate, and emboldening the more radical forces currently at play.