On Oct. 13, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin hosted a quiet gathering of Jewish and Muslim religious leaders to try to defuse some of the religious tensions which permeate the Arab-Israeli conflict. The meeting, according to the organisers (which included David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy), was intended “to forge a joint effort against religious violence, and to promote peace and coexistence”, the New York Times reported.
The participants, including one of Israel’s two chief rabbis, some rabbis from West Bank settlements, and some Palestinian Muslim leaders, put out a positive and hopeful statement: “We believe the deliberate killing of or attempt to kill innocents is terrorism, whether it is committed by Muslims, Jews or others. In this spirit, we encourage all our people to work for a just peace, mutual respect for human life and for the status quo on the holy sites, and the eradication of religious hatred.”
All this would seem a real step forward – except most of the Palestinian participants refused to be photographed or have their names mentioned. Even worse, the one exception, Sheikh Mahmoud al-Habbash, the head of the West Bank’s Sharia courts and religious affairs adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, is a walking, talking illustration of the extent of the problem of religious incitement.
For instance, in mid-October he asserted that Jews have no religious rights to any sites in Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, saying:
“Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in particular, and the Al-Buraq Wall (i.e., Western Wall) and the Al-Buraq [Wall] plaza are all purely Islamic and Palestinian assets and no one has the right to be our partner in that… Only the Muslims have the right to the Al-Aqsa [Mosque] and the Al-Buraq [Wall] and the Al-Buraq [Wall] plaza.”
He also denied that a Jewish Temple ever existed in Jerusalem earlier this year, saying; “They [the Jews] claim that there was a Temple here. Those are unfounded claims, myths, and rumours.”
His religious claims about exclusive Muslim rights extend beyond Jerusalem. In 2014 he asserted that “the entire land of Palestine” (which would include pre-1967 Israel) is Islamic “Waqf (i.e., an inalienable religious endowment in Islamic law) and is blessed land, and… it is prohibited to sell, bestow ownership or facilitate the occupation of even a millimetre of it.” This would appear to rule out, on religious grounds, ever agreeing to any two-state coexistence with Israel.
In 2015 he accused Israel’s Jews of being “evil” and supporters of “Satan”:
The conflict here in Palestine… is a further manifestation of the historic conflict between truth and falsehood, between good and evil. Throughout history, there has been a conflict between good and evil. The good is represented by the prophets and their supporters. The evil is represented by the devils and their supporters, by the satans and their supporters. This is a conflict between two entities, good and evil, between two projects: Allah’s project vs. Satan’s project.
And Sheikh al-Habbash supports anti-Israel violence. Not only has he repeatedly praised Shahids (martyrs) and Shahada (Martyrdom), saying there is “no status Allah has exalted more”, but in 2014 he openly called on Palestinians to carry out Ribat (religious conflict/ war over land claimed to be Islamic) saying “We are behind them in every movement, in every action and every deed… Yes, we are inciting the people in Jerusalem to [perform] Ribat.”
In other words, al-Habbash has been consistently acting in contradiction to almost every element of that hopeful statement put out at Rivlin’s house. While his example underlines the urgency of what Rivlin was trying to achieve in dampening down religious incitement, it also highlights how difficult this is actually going to be.
Ethnic Cleansing revisited
In early September, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu created controversy when he put out a video claiming Palestinian insistence that they must be given the West Bank without any Jewish settlers amounts to a demand for “ethnic cleansing”. More on this comes from legal expert Eugene Kontorovich opposite, but I want to tackle a common response from pro-Palestinian advocates – namely that it is Israel that is guilty of ethnic cleansing, especially in 1948.
The definitive response to these claims comes from Prof. Benny Morris, the best-known academic historian of the 1948 war – and one whose work is often misrepresented by pro-Palestinian activists. Writing in Haaretz (Oct. 10) in response to an article which repeated such myths about 1948, here is what he had to say:
At no stage of the 1948 war was there a decision by the leadership of the Yishuv or the state to “expel the Arabs” – neither in the Jewish Agency nor in the Israeli government; neither in the Haganah General Staff nor in the Israel Defence Forces General Staff. Nor did any important party in the Yishuv, including the Revisionists, adopt such a policy in its platform…
Already on March 24, 1948, Israel Galili, Ben-Gurion’s deputy in the future Defence Ministry and the head of the Haganah, ordered all the Haganah brigades not to uproot Arabs from the territory of the designated Jewish state. Things did change in early April due to the Yishuv’s shaky condition and the impending Arab invasion. But there was no overall expulsion policy – here they expelled people, there they didn’t, and for the most part the Arabs simply fled.
Incidentally, Arab countries carried out ethnic cleansing and uprooted all the Jews, down to the last one, from any territory they captured in 1948… The Jews, on the other hand, left Arabs in place in Haifa and Jaffa, and in the villages along the country’s main traffic arteries – the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway and the Tel Aviv-Haifa highway – a fact that does not conform with the claim of “successful” ethnic cleansing.