Israel is lurching toward international isolation

The Jordanians might be leading the charge, but the entire world seems to think that Israel is becoming increasingly disconnected from reality; meanwhile, both Israeli and Palestinian officials are busy making extreme comments.

The Jordanians are the litmus test, the sensor most reactive to the goings-on in the Middle East. And the Jordanians are hysterical, no less. They fear that the religious conflict on the Temple Mount and the anarchy in the West Bank will spark not only a wave of anti-Israel sentiment throughout the kingdom, but also bring a wave of Islamist sentiment that would sweep the king off his throne.

So not only have they recalled their ambassador and boycotted all future celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the peace agreement with Israel, they have also prevented two Jordanian ministers from attending a festive event to celebrate joint Israeli-Jordanian projects on the banks of the Jordan River.

They are even barring regular meetings between diplomats and former military officials, Israelis and Jordanians, that are intended to allow an informal exchange of ideas and messages between the sides. One such meeting, which was supposed to have taken place recently at the Netanya College, was canceled – and others have suffered similar fates too. The Jordanians are signaling to Israel: You’re detached from reality; you’re living in a bad movie and you believe everything’s coming up roses.

The Jordanian litmus test is far more reliable than any of the prime minister’s widely publicized assessments of the situation and security consultations. While the discussions do indeed involve Israel’s finest military and security minds, they also reek of internal politics. The prime minister appears more concerned about the fire licking at the edges of his robe and his public image. His statesman-like and security oriented appearance in front of the television cameras on Tuesday, following further security consultation, was an exercise in public relations: The situation is complicated; I know how to resolve it; trust me. The Jordanians don’t buy such posturing. In fact, no one in the world does.

Benjamin Netanyahu: Not convincing anyone (Photo: Alex Kolomoisky)

Benjamin Netanyahu: Not convincing anyone (Photo: Alex Kolomoisky)

The series of measures announced by Netanyahu in response to the current wave of terror are somewhat vague too – perhaps because none can really be put into practice in full. The increase in arrests, for example, certainly won’t reach the dramatic proportions the prime minister alluded to; not to mention the wholesale demolition of the homes of terrorists – an options that has yet to mature into a decision, with the defense establishment still debating its effectiveness. On the agenda still are the findings of a committee, headed by Major General (ret.) Udi Shani, that examined the issue and determined that demolishing homes as a form punishment for the purposes of deterrence achieves the exact opposite effect.

On survival and stupidity

On Tuesday, Palestinian security chiefs and their Israeli counterparts met to discuss the rising tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The two sides exchanged views on the explosive potential of the current situation and agreed, too, that if things were indeed to explode, they would be faced with a tough operational challenge that no one wants to encounter.

The Palestinians even made it clear to the Israelis that they had not been instructed from above to make any adjustments to the extent of cooperation between the sides, contrary to statements made by Mahmoud Abbas. It turns out the Palestinian security chiefs are just as concerned about the situation as their Israeli counterparts, and these sentiments were explicitly expressed in the room. But the leaderships on both sides – for political reasons, for reasons of personal survival, due to internal power struggles, a political vacuum and just plain stupidity – have led the region into a minefield.

Security officials, on both sides, are trying to vacate this field one step at a time, with a detector in hand, carefully uncovering and bypassing each and every mine so as to return to normal as soon as possible. But extremist elements – beginning with Israeli cabinet ministers and their ceaseless incitement around the subject of the Temple Mount, including Palestinian politicians who call for violence and the severing of ties with Israel, and through to both Jewish and Arab extremists on the ground – are doing all they can to set off the mines, no matter the cost.

Clashes in Jerusalem: Not an intifada (Photo: AFP)

Clashes in Jerusalem: Not an intifada (Photo: AFP)

The dilemma facing the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service with respect to the steps that need to be taken in the field stems first and foremost from the real picture, as revealed in the operations logs. Last Tuesday saw a record number of disturbances. That same day, the Palestinians marked the 10th anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death, Abbas delivered an inflammatory speech in which the Temple Mount received top billing, thousands attended the funerals of the two Israelis killed in terror attacks this past week, and a Palestinian was killed in a clash with soldiers.

On that charged day, the operations log recorded around 35 hot spots. A hot spot could be a group of 10 children throwing throw stones at an intersection and fleeing the moment the IDF jeep arrives on the scene, and it can also be several dozen rioters throwing stones, launching fireworks, burning tires and clashing with IDF soldiers and border police on the outskirts of cities. That day, IDF soldiers dealt with 600-700 rioters.

This is a high figure, which reflects a gradual increase in the number of rioters and the number of friction points. The defense establishment is talking about an increase of 15 percent in the scope of the violence; but even clashes with several hundred rioters every day do not make an intifada, which requires sending tanks into the city centers.

Abbas is ranting and raving because he’s frustrated and angry, because there’s a political vacuum and he has nothing to offer his public. His legitimacy is slipping from his grasp – after all, he promised that the reconciliation government he established with Hamas would rule for six months, after which elections would take place. But no one is talking today about elections. He received a mandate from the entire world, along with a pledge of $5 billion, to take a hold on Gaza and begin its reconstruction.

He, however, is deliberately delaying the discussions because he is afraid to enter Gaza. And thus he is diverting all his anger and frustration towards Israel, and the Temple Mount in particular. And in this regard, he is joining the ranks of Israel’s radical right-wing ministers, who are doing the exact same – firing up the street to reap political rewards.

But there’s a gap between the public calls for violence on the part of leaders and the reality on the ground. The Palestinian social media networks and media outlets are carrying calls for demonstrations of 60-70 thousand people and declaring a 60-minute protest against Israel, with every minute to be dedicated to a different kind of protest. An objective intelligence researcher who monitors the mood among the Palestinian public in the West Bank and feeds off the media could get the impression that the West Bank is currently caught up in a war to end all wars, but the street is speaking in a far more moderate tongue.

For now, therefore, we are tiptoeing along, trying to make as few mistakes as possible, and praying that politicians and extremist elements on the ground don’t drop explosives in this minefield. Defense establishment officials believe we need a few more days, perhaps a week, before we can say if we’ve safely vacated the field or if we remain bogged down in it.

European concerns
The Jordanians aren’t the only ones; the whole world seems to think that Israel is becoming more and more disconnected from reality. During a recent meeting involving senior representatives of the powers currently in talks with Iran on nuclear disarmament, the German delegate stood up and said to the Israeli officials in attendance: “You don’t understand what’s going on around you.”

Europe is extremely anxious about the disintegration of the Middle East, which could affect the entire world. The countries of the West are looking towards five states that in their eyes remain stable, in the hope that through them the entire region can be stabilized.

The Europeans are talking about Israel, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. However, each and every one of these countries carries a crippling burden that could destroy its own stability. In Iran, for example, it’s the nuclear issue; with the Turks, it’s human rights; and the albatross around Israel’s neck is the conflict with the Palestinians. A failure to resolve this conflict poses a real danger to the stability of the country, and Israel’s stability is in the interests of the West at large. Resolving the problem therefore is at the heart of Europe’s concerns, just like the Iranian nuclear program, and just like the efforts to deal with Turkish President Recep Erdogan as a nuisance and threat to regional stability.

It was clear to the Israelis at the meeting that the German delegate was not speaking solely for himself. The Europeans and Americans discuss such matters. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, apparently, carries far more weight in the West – over and above the human rights issue. Israel could end up being seen by the world as a catalyst for instability in the entire region and the cause of strategic damage to the West.
But the Netanyahu government continues to live in a virtual reality of there’s no one like me. The world is distancing itself from Israel, and Israel is sticking to its guns: We are the center of the world; the Temple Mount is in our hands. And at this rate, we’ll lose both Europe and the United States.

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By ochiengxavier Posted in Bloggs

‘We will see more European countries recognize Palestine’

Hugh Lovatt, the Israel-Palestine coordinator at European Council on Foreign Relations, tells Ynet that European governments are taking a more pro-Palestinian stance, starting to believe Netanyahu is not interested in peace.

Marlene Halser

At the end of October, Sweden’s center-left government officially recognized the state of Palestine, becoming the first major European country to do so. Ynet talked to Hugh Lovatt, the London-based Israel/Palestine Project Coordinator with the European Council on Foreign Relations about the chances that other European member states will follow Stockholm’s lead.

Sweden officially recognized the state of Palestine. Was this a singular act within the European Union or do we have to expect other member states to follow suit?
I think indeed that a lot of the reasons that has lead Sweden to recognize Palestine is part of a wider European phenomenon. Of course the internal dynamics in Sweden are different to the UK and other member states. But there are two things found almost all over Europe: A growing frustration with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies towards the so called peace process, combined with a swing within the public opinion towards a position that is more sympathetic to the Palestinians.

Which European countries are most likely to take such a step?
In this very moment you don’t see a massive appetite for other countries to go down this route. But that does not mean it will not happen. In countries such as the UK, Ireland and also Spain, the debate is happening on the parliamentary level.

The British Parliament just voted in favor of the government recognizing Palestine as a state in mid October. The Spanish socialist party introduced a similar motion. And also Ireland is about to have a vote in Parliament about the question of recognizing the Palestine state. Likely this will also happen in other countries.

Also important is to look at the lower level. Take the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius for example. He basically said that France would presume its responsibilities towards the Palestinians and recognize a Palestinian state if negotiations will not see as being viable.

Merkel and Netanyahu in Jerusalem earlier this year. Germany is 'increasingly frustrated' with Israeli policies. (Photo: Reuters)

Merkel and Netanyahu in Jerusalem earlier this year. Germany is ‘increasingly frustrated’ with Israeli policies. (Photo: Reuters)

Obama and Netanyahu at the White House last month. 'Netanyahu got the US to move closer to his positions.' (Photo: GPO)

Obama and Netanyahu at the White House last month. ‘Netanyahu got the US to move closer to his positions.’ (Photo: GPO)

Obama and Netanyahu at the White House last month. 'Netanyahu got the US to move closer to his positions.' (Photo: GPO)

Obama and Netanyahu at the White House last month. ‘Netanyahu got the US to move closer to his positions.’ (Photo: GPO)

So what you are saying is that other European member states will take further steps as soon as they consider the peace process to have failed?
That is at least very likely to me. Important is the broader picture. Assuming the Palestinians will address the UN Security Council perhaps this year, perhaps in January. Assuming there will be a resolution presented on their behalf calling for negotiations based on a clear set of parameters and a clear deadline. If the United States vetoes this resolution in the UN Security Council, then I think you will see a lot of European member states that will come to the conclusion that obviously the negotiations led by (US Secretary of State) John Kerry are going nowhere.

We used to be stuck in the peace process for many years, but I think we are even more stuck now. There is this huge lack of political horizons that a lot of politicians in the EU recognize. If you see this happening, then what Sweden has done suddenly seems like a more attractive option for trying to get some movement towards a two-state solution.

Of course It is very difficult to say but I think if these two things happen – the US vetoes an UN Security Council resolution calling for a clear path to negotiations and the Netanyahu government is not changing its course – there is a very strong likelihood that within the next year we will see some more countries recognize Palestine. I’d take that very seriously, even though it will not become a blanket policy within the European Union any time soon. But I do think there will be certain countries moving in that direction.

What you say involves a lot of uncertainties. Let’s stick to the facts. In all other countries but Sweden – as you said – the debate is taking place on a parliamentary level. In Ireland and Spain as well as in the UK it is the opposition that considers recognition of Palestine, not the elected government. Doesn’t that make a huge difference?
Yes, of course. But the opposition sometimes becomes the government. So it is very interesting that in the case of the British parliament debate the entire Labour Party shadow cabinet voted for Palestinian recognition. So if Labour comes into power next year, it is going to have this vote as precedent, and I am not sure how you can get out of that.

We have seen other politicians change their mind as soon as they came into power…
Sure. But it is very difficult. What is also very notable is that a lot of those who voted for the motion after the four hours debate in the House of Commons were people perceived as being pro-Israel. If I were an Israeli diplomat, this is something that would actually alarm me. It’s the friends of Israel. This really does show the increasing frustration with the direction that the current Israeli government is going in.

In addition to that you have this swing of European publics towards a more pro-Palestinian position as I already mentioned earlier. The last two Gaza wars played an important role in this swing. This phenomenon is seen in most European countries. We did some research on this. Basically almost every single member state is facing this swing, sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller, but it was nevertheless present. Most governments are following this swing. They are somewhat behind the curve but they are following it. Politicians are elected and they are held accountable for their decisions. If there is enough political pressure on them to make a certain decision then they will.

What about Germany? Will it always be the big exception in Europe?
Germany does come with baggage. It is very difficult for any German government to take a very critical position of Israel. Nevertheless you have seen also an increasing frustration on (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel’s part and the German government towards Israeli policies. (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu is not making it easy to be a friend of Israel at the moment in terms of the settlement policies and his decision to flout all European concerns.

And again, when Israel refuses to even listen to any European advice, the frustration this creates may lead to other decisions. Germany for example is very responsive to the discourse on upholding international humanitarian law. So for sure you won’t see a German state recognize a Palestinian state any time soon, but maybe we will see actions in different areas. Perhaps less high-profile, but that does not mean that they will remain idle.

Think of Germany’s position in the United Nations General Assembly in 2012. It was quiet noticeable that Germany abstained when it came to the vote to de facto recognize Palestine, when everyone thought they would actually oppose it. There are different theories why this happened and undoubtedly one was this deep frustration with Netanyahu, who just before the vote announced more settlements.

So if Israel and its government are the reason why the peace process is failing – as you say – what do you think needs to be done?
To avoid European member states going down this road, Israel has to actually hold up the prospect of a meaningful peace process. In the last nine months, Netanyahu did not retrench his positions, actually he got the US to move closer to his positions. Quite an accomplishment.

But fundamentally there was the stance that Netanyahu and all the Israeli government are interested in – maintaining the status quo and using the peace process not as a conflict resolution mechanism but as a conflict management mechanism. Together with the ongoing building of settlements, this makes European leaders come to the conclusion Netanyahu is just not interested in peace with the Palestinians or creating a Palestinians state that Europe would recognize as such.

Obama and Netanyahu at the White House last month. 'Netanyahu got the US to move closer to his positions.' (Photo: GPO)
Obama and Netanyahu at the White House last month. ‘Netanyahu got the US to move closer to his positions.’ (Photo: GPO)
This sounds quite cynical when you take into account what is going on right now. There were more Israelis killed in the past month than in the last two years. What about Israel’s security?
Israel’s security is a paramount consideration for European states and also the US. Having said that, I very much believe that a democratic Israel that lives side by side with a Palestinian state in peace is ultimately a lot better for Israel’s security then one that lives by the sword continuously.

If it is purely a matter of security, there are things that have been discussed and that can be discussed. The Palestinians themselves have basically agreed to a demilitarized state. They have agreed to some sort of limited Israeli or third party presence in the Jordan Valley after Palestinian statehood. If you look at the instability in the occupied territories at the moment, it is in areas controlled by Israel. The areas under the control of the PA are stable. So the PA has proven itself to be a partner that is able to maintain security for the population of Israel.

But most importantly, I think this debate about security is a convenient way of sidestepping all the other issues. It is not really about security. Of course security is important. But security is achievable and there are ways of ensuring that this is happening. The current debate in Israel is only using security as a fig leaf, in order to avoid more perhaps politically costly discussions about borders, about the fate of settlers. So it seems much better for Netanyahu to avoid these matters and try to cast the Palestinians as the side that is resisting or opposing talks.

So given the European member states have the ear of both Israel and the Palestinians, what role should the European Union and the European governments have in restoring calm in Jerusalem and the rest of the country?
A lot of what has happening in the last few days and in Jerusalem over the last weeks on the Palestinian side is very much something that is happening at the local level, at the grassroots. That makes it difficult for the EU to have much of an impact. Contrary to what the Israeli spokespeople would be saying this is not something that has been premeditated or orchestrated by the PA or by Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas). Even Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which released statements claiming responsibility, in fact had no control over those incidents.

These attacks are clearly an emotional reaction on the grassroots level, a reaction to 20 years of Israeli occupation policy, a reaction to a lack of a political horizon that Palestinians feel. Public opinion in Palestine still tends to see that armed resistance as the best option for creating a state and ending occupation based on the fact that 20 years of negotiations are worth nothing. There is no organization behind it. It is purely an individual reaction. And this makes it difficult for anyone to be in control, also the EU. But the EU can have an impact on Netanyahu and the Israeli opinion.

How?
Actually there are a variety of things happening in the EU on a member-state level. Taken individually it does not seem very significant, but take it together there is noticeable action happening. Also the EU itself is taking action by banning settlement products, for example. Take the Israeli chicken industry. Europe said we no longer want your chickens from the occupied territories and forced the Israeli chicken sector to actually differentiate between chickens raised in the occupied territories and those raised in Israel. The EU has done the same thing with vegetable products from the settlements.

This has a financial impact on Israel’s industry as the EU is Israel’s biggest trader. Israel is doing its best not to publicize what this impact is, but anecdotally it does seem to be something. What applies to fruit and chickens can also apply to the financial sector if there is the willingness to pursue it.

So let’s say the fact that every Israeli bank has a settlement branch can lead to the European decision that it does not want to do business with Israeli banks anymore. Suddenly Israeli banks would no longer be able to engage in transactions with European countries. Or visa issues. At the moment you have a visa free travel from Israel to Europe. Imagine suddenly because of the occupation Israelis no longer would be allowed to travel to Europe. That is the level on which EU sanctions would start to interfere with the normal life.

Netanyahu and his ministers. 'Israel is using security as a fig leaf.' (Photo: Alex Kolomoisky)
Netanyahu and his ministers. ‘Israel is using security as a fig leaf.’ (Photo: Alex Kolomoisky)

Do you really see these things coming?
It’s the kind of direction things are going in. I imagine this debate on labeling settlement products will continue and there is a whole other range of things that are increasingly being discussed. So I think there will be some sort of financial impact. In my view, the value of all this is not a financial impact. It is about creating a conversation within the Israeli society.

Take the guidelines that were mainly applied to the sector of research and academia. There has been this moment within the Israeli society when suddenly Israeli academic institutions publicly said, ‘Hang on, we are going to lose funding because Israel does not do what it has signed up to, which is an agreement to differentiate between settlement products.’

This was really driving a wedge between the settlers and all the pro-settler movements and average Israelis. The Israeli government saw this as a danger and it quickly signed on to the EU guidelines implicitly accepting this differentiation. If there is the political willingness to go down this path, then there is quite a bit that can be done by the EU.

By ochiengxavier Posted in Bloggs

Spain to hold symbolic Palestinian vote

Following UK and Sweden, Spain to join France in holding vote to recognize a Palestinian state.

News Agencies

Spain’s parliament plans to hold a largely symbolic vote next week on a resolution to recognize a Palestinian state.

The non-binding resolution, presented by the Socialist opposition party, will be debated in parliament on Tuesday, and it appears the governing conservatives will support it.

It would follow moves in other European countries intended to increase pressure for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Britain and Ireland approved similar motions last month. Sweden’s new left-leaning government went a step further and officially recognized a Palestinian state on Oct. 30, prompting a strong protest from Israel, which swiftly withdrew its ambassador from Stockholm.

French lawmakers will vote on November 28 on a proposal by the Socialist Party urging the government to recognise Palestine as a state, a parliamentary source said Wednesday.

The non-binding but highly symbolic vote would follow a similar vote in the British parliament and after Sweden announced it formally recognised the state of Palestine.

A draft of the proposal states that the lower house National Assembly “invites the French government to use the recognition of the state of Palestine as an instrument to gain a definitive resolution of the conflict”.

France will “obviously at a certain moment recognise the Palestinian state,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told AFP on Saturday.

“The question is when and how? Because this recognition must be useful for efforts to break the deadlock and contribute to a final resolution of the conflict,” added Fabius.

British lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on October 13 in favour of a non-binding motion to “recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution”.

Sweden announced on October 30 it officially recognised the state of Palestinian, a move criticised by Israel and the United States.

The move by Sweden’s new left-leaning government reflects growing international impatience with Israel’s nearly half-century control of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and its blockade of the Gaza Strip. It also comes during increased tensions between Arabs and Jews over Israel’s plans to build 200 housing units in east Jerusalem.

Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said Sweden, fulfilling a promise made when the Social Democratic-led government took office earlier this month, believes the Palestinians have met the criteria under international law for such recognition.

“There is a territory, a people and government,” she told reporters in Stockholm, adding that Sweden was the 135th country in the world to recognize a Palestinian state.
It is the third Western European nation to do so, after Malta and Cyprus. Some Eastern European countries recognized a Palestinian state during the Cold War.

The Associated Press and AFP contriubted to this report

By ochiengxavier Posted in Bloggs

We are all God’s children

For the past 13 years, one group has been organizing secret meetings between Jewish and Muslim clerics in an effort to promote interfaith harmony and understanding in a region where religion lies at the heart of the conflict.
Tali Farkash
Published: 10.09.14, 23:58 / Israel News

Rabbi Yakov Nagen embraces his friend (Photo: Dida Mulder)

Rabbi Yakov Nagen embraces his friend (Photo: Dida Mulder)

East Jerusalem – that’s the only reference point I’m allowed to give for the location of the extraordinary encounter I had with Rabbi Yakov Nagen and Sheikh Ismail, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim cleric who meet on a regular basis, as part of a secret group of rabbis and sheikhs, in an effort to promote dialogue from within the Arab-Israeli conflict’s most fiery perspective – its religious aspect.

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On the day of the interview, just west of here, in the seam line neighborhoods only a few minutes away, violent clashes are taking place; but here, tucked away inside, in a location accessible to Palestinians from the Palestinian Authority without special permits, the quiet runs deep and the mood is a pastoral one. The three interviewees have come all the way from deep inside Area A. Fearful for their lives, they cannot reveal their names or faces, and will therefore remain anonymous.

For some 13 years now, the group has been responsible for arranging these coexistence meetings, which take place under the radar of the media. Dozens of groups play an active part in the association, with some based on common professional interests (Arab and Jewish midwives, for example) and others coming together according to geographic location. Among others, participants at these encounters also include settler leaders, while one of the group directors is a leading rabbi who recently inherited his late father’s congregation.
The leaders of the group of religious figures – one of the most important groups working in the territories – meet once a month, always in a different location, and speak primarily about the religious bond between them and the fact they all do God’s/Allah’s work.

Learning to live together (Photo: Interfaith Encounter Association)

Learning to live together (Photo: Interfaith Encounter Association)

“True peace isn’t made in political agreements,” says Dr. Yehuda Stolov, executive director of the Interfaith Encounter Association. “The relationship between the two groups living here isn’t working. Both sides feed on endless prejudices and warped ideas. This is where the unmediated encounter comes in. Our challenge is also to learn how to agree to disagree, and still to live together and in friendship. For 20 years we have tried to make peace via the leaders. Perhaps we should be starting from the bottom, from the people?”

Distorted interpretation of faith
The group’s legal advisor, Abu Walid, who studied at religious schools, among others, and is also an expert in Sharia Law, tells me that he and his fellow Muslim leaders aim, first and foremost, to come out against the radical streams of Islam and their religious interpretations.

“The people of the Book,” is the term from the Koran that Abu Walid attributes to the Bible’s Jewish prophets.

“Islam includes all the prophets that preceded it,” says Abu Walid, laying out the principles of their doctrine to me. “Our religion stems from the same source. The religious ethic that created us also created Judaism and Christianity. The same restrictions God imposed on the Prophet Israel (Jacob) were imposed on us. Later on, additional restrictions were imposed on the Muslims; but the praying, fasting, God’s work, charity, slaughter rituals and much more – these are common principles.”

And what about Jihad, I ask, and Sheikh Abu Ismail, the Muslim cleric in the group, smiles: “It’s all political interests,” he says, and his companions nod in agreement.
“Islam cannot be imposed by force, there’s no such thing. Religion is only a manner of persuasion, reasoning and choice. The Jihad of the past, at the outset of Islam, only took place when they banned the spreading of Islam and barred Muslims from entering certain territories.

“What we’re seeing now is a distorted interpretation of the religious scriptures. It doesn’t matter if you are Jewish, Muslim or Christian; we’re all God’s children. We are all the children of Ibrahim. I’m not even allowed to curse a monk or Jewish rabbi because maybe his rank and faith override mine.”

They tell me their group numbers around 12,000 people from Israel and the PA, and hundreds of thousands more from around the world. And, according to them, they adhere to the moderate and correct interpretation of the Koran. But Abu Walid also speaks of persecution, economic mistreatment, and “many agonies.”

The sheikh alongside him is pessimistic too. “I’m going tomorrow to meet some people in the Strip in an effort to restore some calm,” he says. “I don’t know exactly what you are going to write, but if we are identified, our lives will be placed at risk. There are extremists who wouldn’t think twice. That’s the way it is.”

Judaism is not the only human story
Rabbi Dr. Nagen, who heads the group for the rabbis, is moved to tears. “If not for the table between us, I’d hug you,” he says. “My fellow rabbis and I aren’t able to say that we pay a price for our faith.”

Nagen, a writer and the head of the yeshiva in Othniel, which lies over the Green Line, says his inspiration comes from the late rabbi of Tekoa, Menachem Froman. “It’s first and foremost one’s outlook on life,” he says. “Judaism is a large part of the story of humanity, but not the entire story. The Torah begins with the story of humanity, man who was created in God’s image, and ends with a vision of the end of days, which speaks about the future of all of humanity.
“Religious Zionism, for its part, talks about action – about the fact that things won’t simply happen of their own accord; and for me, a life of peace and harmony for all of humanity together is my image of Judaism. Peace doesn’t only mean peace and quiet or being a part of the Western world; it is also a Jewish vision that the Torah points towards.”

Are there no breaking points along this path you have chosen?

“The crisis point is the starting point; the fact that I live in the Hebron Hills, and that my students were murdered in the dining hall here, or along the road. The fact that evil and killing exists – that’s the starting point.”

Nagen tells those present about his wife’s visit to the Cave of the Patriarchs, close to the time of the muezzin’s call to prayer.

“She said that the muezzin’s calls had interfered initially with her praying,” he recounts. “But then she became aware of the beauty in the muezzin’s song. And his song in fact meshed with her prayers. She didn’t know if it was a live human voice or a recording, and I related her experience at the group’s following meeting, and made inquiries about the voice. And then one of the group members told me that not only was it not a recording, it was actually the voice of one of his relatives, and he conveyed to him my wife’s enjoyment of his calls to prayer. This is an example of the connections that always pop up in the group.

“They (the Muslim clerics) have nothing to gain from these meetings with us, only to lose,” Rabbi Nagen goes on to stress. “I, personally, have read through the entire Koran; and yes, there are some harsh things in there. But I also see the other side. The chapters always open with the words, ‘In the name of Allah, the most gracious and the most merciful.’ During the war, a photograph of me and a dear friend, Sheikh Sufi, got endless Shares. So you can argue about how much dark and how much light there is, but it’s our task to push towards the light.”

Everyone hates Islamic State (and the US)
According to Sheikh Ismail, Operation Protective Edge pushed things years back. He speaks about the rising popularity of Hamas and the almost desperate struggle to change the current reality.

Does it all boil down to a religious war?
“We’ve been studying the causes of radical religious Islam for six years and we’ve concluded that the secular Arab rulers are detached and alienated from the needs of the people,” Sheikh Ismail says. “Corruption and money that went only into the pockets of close associates who enjoyed the spoils of government left the people in dire straits. And then along came organizations that did indeed help the man in the street, religious organizations with a radical Salafist agenda that did see the little man, and their popularity gained momentum. (Egyptian President Abdel) al-Sisi is now trying to prove that a moderate and secular regime can also look after the regular citizen. If that happens, the extremists will disappear from the map all by themselves.

“Another problem is that the only voices that are being heard in the region today are the voices of the radical religious clerics, the ones who adopt an extremist interpretation of Islam. The late king of Jordan, for example, was wise to keep moderate Muslim clerics among his leadership, and thus there was no room for the extremists. Now, these moderate are inactive, and Israel finds itself between a rock and a hard place – between Hamas and Islamic State.”

One mention of the group is enough to fire up the mood in the room. If there’s one thing that rattles Jews and Muslims, it’s those “men in black,” as they are referred to. “I don’t like them at all,” Sheikh Ismail is quick to declare. “They’re everywhere now, including in the PA, and they are a real threat.”

Sheikh Ismail blames the US for the rise of IS. “They supported all the corrupt rulers; they knew where the money was going and they shut their eyes,” he says. “They are forcing themselves onto this region due to economic interests, which includes the arming of all the sides. What they did now in the Strip was only detrimental too, and that’s why there’s no justice and no peace.”

You can’t ignore the fact that the main dispute between the two religions was and remains a religious one – Jerusalem, the Temple Mount for us, al-Aqsa for you.
“The bottom line is that you need to make a simple calculation. How many Jews are there in the world? Twelve million in total. How many Muslims? Hundreds of millions. If things change for the worse regarding al-Aqsa, there’ll be a huge war. The entire Muslim world will unite and fight. Is that what they want to happen?

“I want you to listen to me, sister Tali. I call you sister because we are all human beings. Let’s say I’m a Jew and you are only seeing me in front of you in Muslim dress. Why drag your people into a war at the end of which there may not be a single Jew left here? You live in peace with the Western Wall, but the area of the mosque must remain under complete Muslim control – Jordan, the PA, it makes no difference. The Palestinians won’t forgo this; they don’t have the religious right to do so.”

But it’s not only control; you don’t allow the members of other religions, “the children of Abraham,” as you called them, me, to pray there. That site is as holy to me as it is to you. Why not share it? Why can you pray in a synagogue (according to Jewish law), yet I can’t pray in the al-Aqsa Mosque?
“Al-Aqsa is indeed off limits to non-Muslims. But, sister Tali, in your case, it wouldn’t be a problem. With the right attire and headdress, you’ll fit in just fine,” he says with a smile. “I assume that when things settle down, perhaps there’ll be a chance for quiet personal prayer in the courtyard for everyone. Right now, until there is complete Muslim control, it’s too sensitive.”

Sheikh Ismail doesn’t take risks: “Following a talk with another member of the group, I came to the conclusion that a future peace agreement should include a clause that says that if the Messiah comes, his instructions are to be followed,” the sheikh says. “If he orders the building of the Temple, I will personally carry the stones on my back. Until then, let things remain as they are. God created the situation, and I guess that’s his will.”

The Jewish and Muslim religious figures express wishes for a new and peaceful beginning. “We are here together on land that is called the land of peace. We have no choice but to learn to live together.”

By ochiengxavier Posted in Bloggs