Will Arab & Muslim Leaders Start Coming to Jerusalem?

 A top headline from the recent Arab League International Conference on Jerusalem in Doha (or, as it was called in Arabic, the Conference on the Defense of Jerusalem) was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas calling on Arab and Muslim leaders to visit Jerusalem.  Doing so, he made clear, should be seen as an act of solidarity with the Palestinians and to challenge Israeli efforts to isolate the city, not as an act of collaboration with or acquiescence to Israeli control over the city.  Previously, in November 2010, Egyptian Minister of Religious Endowments Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq made a similar call, urging Muslims around the world to visit Jerusalem.

Now, it is being reported that, in response to Abbas’ call, a number of Arab delegations will soon visit, or attempt to visit, Jerusalem.  Reportedly the delegations will come from Tunis, Bahrain, Jordan, and other countries.

Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, and since Israel took control of East Jerusalem in 1967, few Arab or Muslim leaders have visited Jerusalem, despite the fact that it is home to the third holiest site in Islam, the Al Aqsa Mosque.  To do so has generally been considered a step toward normalization of relations with Israel – something that Arab and Muslim states have rejected outright or have rejected outside of the context of a peace agreement that resolves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (i.e., the Arab Peace Initiative).

Immediately after Abbas made his speech in Doha, prominent Sunni cleric Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa forbidding non-Palestinian Muslims from visiting Jerusalem so long as the Israeli occupation continues (it is not clear if in this context Qaradawi is referring to the occupation of the West Bank/Gaza/East Jerusalem/Golan, or he means all of pre-1967 Israel).  Palestinian leaders urged Qardawi to retract the fatwa and have continued in their call for Arab and Muslim leaders to visit.  Palestinian minister of religious affairs Mahmoud al-Habbash argued, among other things, that “When Muslims and Christians visit Jerusalem, they are actually challenging the Israeli policies aimed at isolating the holy city. Such visits represent material and moral support to the Jerusalemites who insist on remaining in Jerusalem so that they will not feel they were left alone to defend the Arab and Islamic identity of Jerusalem and its Islamic and Christian holy places.”

Also worth noting: at the Doha Conference, Israeli MK Ahmed Tibi called on the Arab and Muslim world that “Arab states don’t know how to support East Jerusalem, only how to give empty slogans about it.”   He said that if the Arab world really cares about Palestinian East Jerusalem, it is time to start investing in it.