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Opinion: A Well-Timed Appeal for Jerusalem | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Palestinian Muslim worshipers walk in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound following Friday prayers on May 2, 2014 in Jerusalem’s Old City. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine-month effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal formally collapsed this week, with no revival on the horizon because each side appears firmly entrenched in its positions. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD […]

Calls from Muslims for fellow members of their faith to abandon the widespread boycott on visiting Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, are nothing new. Such calls have been made in the past by a number of Palestinian political and religious leaders, but they have fallen on deaf ears. Visitors from the Muslim world remain few, and even Arab Christians do not visit for fear of having to obtain an entrance visa from Israel.

This time, though, things are different. This time the call came from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an organization of 57 states from the Islamic world. Its secretary-general, Eyad Madani, called on Muslims worldwide to visit the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in their tens of thousands, an invitation which was greatly welcomed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and which comes at an important juncture, when a new chapter of Palestinian attempts to gain statehood appears to be beginning.

Indeed, what we are seeing cannot be denied. The world is tired of the cycle of violence and counter-violence that keeps the entire Middle East in a state of perpetual tension and causes untold and undeniable hardship for the Palestinian people. People are tired of Israeli intransigence and procrastination on the issue of Palestinian statehood, and its continued land grabs.

Calls for the recognition of the state of Palestine in European parliaments, symbolic though they may be, are a clear indication that there is a global understanding that this period, where the Palestinian state exists as a mere idea, has gone on far too long. It has also strengthened US Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy over the past year, which aimed to achieve an agreement on this matter, despite its eventual failure and the emergence of further US–Israeli tensions as a result.

The Palestinians may have failed in their latest bid for statehood at the UN Security Council, but this does not mean that Israel will be able to rely on its delaying tactics and excuses on the issue forever.

Nonetheless, the current international political momentum for Palestinian statehood needs another push, and the latest call for Muslims to visit Jerusalem is such a push, because it has the potential to create a new reality on the ground.

However, the initiative will become chaff in the wind—as previous calls did—if it does not come armed with a mechanism to allow people from the Muslim world to make such visits. Who, for example, will deal with their entry visas? This is an issue that can certainly be solved, but it needs serious political will. The OIC could play a crucial role here, given that it is an organization that brings together 57 countries with a population of over 1 billion Muslims between them—all of whom have a connection to Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

I’m not saying this will be easy. Past calls for Muslims to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque were met with opposition from political circles because it was feared such visits would constitute a kind of normalization of relations with Israel, “gratis”—that is, without Israel giving up anything from its own end on the Palestinian issue or occupied Arab lands. This is an argument that cannot be ignored: any agreement on these visits would have to include Israel, since the reality of the occupation and the absence of a Palestinian state dictate that it is Israel that occupies the other side of this equation between the visitors and the place they will visit.

So, yes, such a move, if it happens, will not be easy, neither politically nor in terms of procedures, and it will certainly constitute a radical change in the way many deal with Israel. But the flood of positive reactions to the calls by the OIC, particularly from the Palestinians, shows that the positives could outweigh the negatives feared by those who make the aforementioned argument about cooperation with Israel.

One of these positives could be the creation of new jobs for Palestinians in East Jerusalem due to the influx of all the new tourists to the area. Another, and which will have a much wider international impact, is the crystallization of the image of Jerusalem as a city for people of all the three Abrahamic faiths, who all have an equal right to it. The Al-Aqsa Mosque, sacred to more than 1 billion Muslims across the globe, is a part of this image, and so any political considerations regarding the area will now have to take them and the visitors among them into account.

I think such visits will indeed create a new dynamic that will drive people to reexamine the political aspects of this issue. And in the end, all this will work toward reaching a solution in the Palestinians’ favor—not only that: this solution will have the weight of more than 1 billion Muslims behind it.