In announcing the purported “historic” normalisation deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates – which a host of Palestinian voices have slated as treacherous, US President Donald Trump and his cohorts were keen to sweeten the proposition by suggesting that the deal would afford free access to Masjid al-Aqsa for Muslims from around the world.
“This deal will allow much greater access to Muslims from throughout the world to visit the many historic sites in Israel — which the Muslims want to see very badly and have wanted to see for many, many decades — and to peacefully pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is a very special place for them,” Trump said during an Oval Office briefing.
Speaking at the same event, Trump’s son-in-law, Middle East broker and “senior advisor” Jared Kushner proffered an additional rationale, linking this component of the deal to the fight against “radical extremism.”
“A lot of the extremists have used these conflicts,” he said, “to recruit people and to say that the mosque is under attack and that Muslims don’t have access to the mosque.
“And now this will enable people to take flights from Dubai and Abu Dhabi directly to Tel Aviv. Muslims will be welcome in Israel, and this will create better interfaith exchange.”
Longing for al-Aqsa
The prospect of being able to visit the third holiest site in Islam, which has been inaccessible to the vast majority of Muslims globally since the onset of the Israeli Occupation, is one that would certainly be looked to with promise by many. Muslims the world over fervently pray for the opportunity to perform Salah at the Masjid, remember it on commemorations such as the Mi’raj, and are reminded by Ahadith, of the Masjid being among the select three to which one is allowed to journey to for worship.
The question then is whether the UAE-Israel deal offers the panacea for these deep-seated longings?
The actual text of joint US-UAE-Israeli declaration references the January 2020 American Vision for Peace document on Israel-Palestine for direction on how the latest proclamation is envisaged to take shape.
That document, which is the basis of Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’, suggests that “people of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion, taking into account the times of each religion’s prayers and holidays, as well as other religious factors.”
Palestinian observers have pointed out that this seemingly innocuous passage in fact provides for equal prayer access to Masjid al-Aqsa to Muslims and Jews, thereby eroding the historic status quo of the mosque as a Muslim-only place of worship – a precept that the same document elsewhere claims to uphold.
Thus, whilst purporting to be widening Muslim access to al-Aqsa, the deal is also opening the door to changes in the administration and role of the mosque, which Palestinians say is consistent with the spatial and temporal division plans for Masjid al-Aqsa advanced by prominent voices within Israel.
Despite this, Kushner takes a notably romantic view of how matters will play out in the Muslim world if the deal takes hold.
“As people go there and pray and see that this is available they will share it with their friends, and share the experiences. They will share pictures on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and people throughout the world will see that the mosque is safe and that all people are welcome there.”
In the long-run, he believes, this will take the wind out of the sails of the “extremist” argument that al-Aqsa is being threatened, and Muslims are unable to pray there.
On the ground realities
Kushner, who exudes a sense of entitlement relating to the region based on his familial links to the White House, and the 25 books he read on the Middle East, is due for a reality check.
If affording unhindered Muslim access to Masjid al-Aqsa is what he truly seeks, he ought to look no further than the gates of al-Aqsa where the dozens of Jerusalemites slapped with Israeli banning orders for periods of up to six months, which are regularly renewed, gather to perform Salaah in longing, daily. He should deal with the Israeli permit regime that denies access to Jerusalem to millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; and should consider how fully-armed Israeli Occupation police trampling over al-Aqsa contribute to his vision for peace.
It is equally awkward to see how Kushner would be able to maintain his notion that al-Aqsa is not in danger when footage from the mosque show members of Temple groups bowing on the ground, saying aloud Jewish prayers, waving Israeli flags, and boasting on social media that “little by little we are gaining sovereignty.”
Last but not least, Kushner would also have to deal with the utterances of the likes of Gilad Erdan, former Israeli minister and incoming ambassador to the United States, that “the return of the Temple depends on the [fulfillment] of the Mitzvah of climbing to it and I am happy to have taken a great part in increasing the climbing of the Temple Mount.”
While holding official office, Erdan had also previously discussed the intent to build the Temple at the expense of the Muslim holy places: “The fact that Jews can now pray on the Temple Mount does not mean that full redemption has arrived. Because this is dependent on powers beyond me, I cannot predict when this will happen. But it must be an objective realised in the coming years, a decade at most.”
As for the UAE role, suffice to say that a party that has been subject to multiple allegations of using fronting arrangements to purchase Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem in order to sell them to Israeli settler organisations, thereby accelerating Judaisation plans for the city, can be no redeemer of al-Aqsa.
Weaponisation of prayer for normalisation
The global Muslim aspiration to pray at Masjid al-Aqsa is indeed a noble and meritorious one. However, this right should be attained in dignity.
The Jerusalem that the US ‘Vision for Peace,’ and by extension the UAE-Israel deal, envisages is one that would be encircled by the Apartheid Wall, where Israeli sovereignty over the city will be normalised, Jewish settlements will be expanded, and Palestinians will be pressed to its margins in the hope that they will accept the marginal Abu Dis their ‘capital’.
It was in 2014 already that the late South African pro-Palestinian icon and community leader Moulana Ihsaan Hendricks warned of the weaponisation of Muslim visits to Masjid al-Aqsa.
“Somebody said to me,” he recounted, “‘I went to Masjid al-Aqsa recently, I was allowed in, I did not experience any tension, I made my Salaah in Masjid al-Aqsa – I had a good experience and I returned back to South Africa’
“That means nothing,” the veteran campaigner interjected. “Your individual contentment at having been able to visit Masjid al-Aqsa does not diminish the fact that there is brutality of occupation not only on Masjid al-Aqsa but also on the City of Jerusalem (and beyond).”
An art that Israel has expertly mastered over the decades of Occupation is that of feigning normalcy.
“It has tried to make itself appear to be somewhat of a normal country,” says Diana Buttu, a former member of the PLO negotiations team. “(But) it is not a normal country. It is a country that was founded on the dispossession of millions of Palestinians; it is a country that believes in racial and ethnic exclusion; and it is a country that continues to deny freedom to millions of Palestinians. You can only understand what the current State of Israel is, if you understand its past as a nation founded on exclusivity, ethnocracy and ethnic privilege”.
As hopeful as they are to welcome many more visitors from around the world to the Holy City, Palestinians in Jerusalem stand resolute nonetheless in their contempt towards traitorous schemes that are used to embellish the Occupation and airbrush their existence even with added sweetener of religion.
So too do they remain optimistic of popular rejection of such schemes and the triumph of a just vision for al-Quds.
“The Saudi and Emirati people, just as the Arab and Islamic nation, are carriers of the same nature, roots, constants and civilization, and many institutions, even elements of the state-run media, refuse normalization,” Palestinian religious and political leader Sheikh Raed Salah argued recently.
“Now someone has appeared who wants to change the people through normalization, but these are vain attempts. Whoever allows himself to be cut off from the Palestinian, Arab and Islamic constants, will be boycotted by the people whose living conscience will remain the compass. It is true, the present is painful in light of the pandemic of normalization championed by some. But the life of the popular will outlives that of the leaders, and hence the future is for the people, and the Arab and Islamic conscience will triumph for Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa and Palestine.
Ebrahim Moosa is a freelance journalist, and researcher at the Palestine Information Network (PIN).