London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Few subjects are as emotionally charged as the status of the city of Jerusalem, site of some of the most sacred places in the world for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, and with control of the city also a major point of contention in the Arab–Israeli dispute, with both Israelis and Palestinians claiming it as their capital.
Given the continued division of the city, it is no surprise that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has taken an interest in ensuring the city’s ancient Islamic heritage remains intact, founding a standing committee for the purpose chaired by the King of Morocco, and based in Rabat. This was followed by the formation of the Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Committee in 1998 at the suggestion of the late King Hassan II.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Morocco’s foreign minister, Salaheddine Mezouar, on the eve of the committee’s latest meeting in Marrakesh on January 17 and 18, and with a new round of Arab–Israeli peace talks under way and the future of the city possibly at stake.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Why has the Al-Quds Committee, chaired by the King of Morocco, been reconvened?
Salaheddine Mezouar: The Al-Quds Committee has taken a fresh approach over the past 12 years, as represented by its focus on direct, concrete support, meaningful political initiatives, and its responsiveness to repeated and pressing humanitarian issues, all of which help Jerusalemites remain resilient in the face of occupation. Additionally, the Al-Quds Committee focuses on business projects in Jerusalem in an attempt to confront the politics of Judification the Israeli occupying forces are using to alter the Islamic, Christian and Arab identity of the city.
Alongside the supportive attitude towards Jerusalem adopted by His Majesty King Mohammed VI and other influential world powers, the Bayt Mal Al-Quds Agency, an affiliate of the Al-Quds Committee, has protected and continues to protect the city of Jerusalem through large and moderately sized development projects. These initiatives function on a residential, societal and educational level by reconditioning historical attitudes, purchasing land, awarding scholarships, equipping medical facilities in order to improve quality of life—specifically for women and youth—and maintaining spiritual and cultural landmarks in the stolen city of Jerusalem.
This approach has two fundamental focuses: political action and fieldwork. The situation on the ground in Jerusalem requires effective and serious intervention in order to save what remains; otherwise, the scope of political action will always be limited. This would cause the land to be lost and the city to be fully Judaized.
King Mohammed VI, in his capacity as president of the Al-Quds Committee and the sovereign of the Kingdom of Morocco, has spared no effort in utilizing the Bayt Mal Al-Quds Agency to achieve these goals.
While it is well known that Morocco has the honor of providing 80 percent of the Agency’s budget, this does not negate the fact that the Agency belongs to all member nations of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). This group acts as a communal vessel through which international efforts and contributions can flow, and will enable the Agency to fulfill its mandated purpose of protecting Jerusalem.
Q: What is the specific purpose of reconvening the Al-Quds Committee at this time?
This round of the Committee was initiated in light of new developments, perhaps the most important of which is the increasing threat of the Judification of Jerusalem. Given the resumption of US-sponsored negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, I believe this session will function as a necessary voice of caution against the destruction of Jerusalem’s identity. To fulfill such a role, a more practical approach is necessary. A unified Islamic vision must embrace the most effective measures with which to oppose Israeli’s occupation efforts. It must protect the holy places of Jerusalem from the threat of Judification and take a firm stance towards the occupation forces’ continuing violations, which have defiled the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa mosque. The city today faces an unprecedented set of circumstances. Should we fail to reduce the threat, we will pay a steep price.
We should also keep in mind that this session of the Al-Quds Committee is possible thanks to the tireless efforts of His Majesty the King, state actors and parties concerned about the Palestinian question, and the permanent members of the European Union. This international interest serves to highlight the importance of Jerusalem to both the Islamic and Christian worlds.
Because these issues are laced with delicate political considerations, we must be vigilant in order to prevent any concessions regarding the identity of Islamic Jerusalem, which Israel seeks to undo.
In that regard, King Mohammed VI was and is adamant that there can be no peace process if it comes at the expense of Jerusalem. His Majesty desires an end to settlement and to the threat of Judification. He expressed as much in his latest letter to the Vatican, in which he alerted the Pope to the risks of unilateral action which may destroy Islamic cultural landmarks in Jerusalem. The Occupation is trying to impose Judification upon Jerusalem before a settlement can be reached. This policy of fait accompli compels all Islamic Arab nations to be vigilant and apply increased pressure in order to prevent this plan from coming to fruition.
Q: The Palestinian question is currently in a crucial phase, given the ongoing US-sponsored negotiations, which begs the question: is the goal of the Al-Quds Committee in Marrakesh the return of the supportive role in the peace process that Morocco was known for during the rule of the late King Hassan II?
Morocco’s role in the peace process should not be understated, even as we seek to revive it. Many believe that Morocco has played this role for years, and it will continue to do so. Certainly, the Kingdom of Morocco always played an essential role in the peace process in the Middle East, and this is illustrated by the decisions and initiatives that have been enacted in meetings and conferences held in our country, such as previous sessions of the Al-Quds Committee.
Those who only take a cursory glance at this meeting might insist that the 20th session of the Al-Quds Committee is nothing more than a return by the Kingdom of Morocco to this prestigious role of supporting the peace process , as if all the work since then never existed. They are likely ignorant or bitter of Morocco’s history in the peace process. There is still a place for the Palestinian issue at the heart of Moroccan diplomacy, and it is still present in the many meetings that His Majesty King Mohammed VI holds with the leaders of great nations. For instance, in the summit meeting in mid-October of last year, King Mohammed VI and President Barack Obama touched upon the Palestinian issue, and the means by which to resume peace talks in light of diplomatic movements in the United States government.
His Majesty the King’s royal initiatives for the Palestinian people and the people of Jerusalem illustrate the depth of our country’s engagement in international peace efforts in the Middle East. Moroccan diplomatic efforts have always endeavored, by Royal Decree, to contribute to all meaningful efforts to enable the Palestinian people to reclaim their rights and maintain their legal status in the city of Jerusalem, internationally recognized as the City of Peace.
Q: And what about the Bayt Mal Al-Quds Agency, which has its headquarters in Morocco? Will you raise the issue of its funding, especially in light of the failure on the part of many countries to pay their share? It has been said that this has made it more difficult to confront the Judification of Jerusalem.
Morocco has, of course, renewed its call to all members of the Al-Quds Committee who have not paid their share to the Bayt Mal Al-Quds Agency to pay what they owe. All of the initiatives which aim to rescue Jerusalem from the threat of Judification depend on this funding. This is especially true given the recent Israeli settlement expansion. Maintaining the Islamic character of Jerusalem requires a large and collective investment effort which focuses on residential housing and public projects for residents of Jerusalem which will serve to counterbalance the violations committed by the Occupation.
It is worth mentioning at this juncture that these funds are, first and foremost, for the betterment of the Palestinian people and residents of Jerusalem. Since its inception the Bayt Mal Al-Quds Agency has successfully implemented several initiatives which King Mohammed VI has overseen personally. Some of these initiatives focused on the youth, education, health, women and the household. They have also contributed to the preservation of the city’s religious, cultural, and historical heritage in and around holy sites. Additionally, the Bayt Mal Al-Quds Agency has undertaken projects to renovate historical and religious landmarks within the city’s walls and living quarters.
Q: The Israeli Knesset has attempted to pass new laws which would give Jordan authority over Islamic sites and institutions. This would include the Al-Aqsa Mosque, effectively placing it under the control of the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) and Islamic Affairs. Is the Al-Quds Committee moving quickly to impede Israel’s goals in this regard?
Morocco certainly condemns Israel’s attempts to Judify Jerusalem and alter the character of its historical and religious sites. It is utterly unacceptable and runs counter to the United Nations’ recommendations. Moreover these measures threaten to delay, or even derail, the ongoing negotiations. It is a maneuver that targets the peace movement at its root, and thus it must be confronted at all levels. King Mohammed VI’s most recent statement to the Pope regarding the dangers inherent in the Judification of Jerusalem was nothing if not a clear condemnation from Morocco of this destructive Israeli initiative. His various projects that have aimed to protect Jerusalem and advance the hopes of its people have placed him at the forefront of the resistance to this Israeli push, and he has done so with the help of his allies in the Al-Quds Committee.
Q: Thirty-four years after the founding of the Al-Quds Committee in Fez, and during the leadership of Hassan II before being bequeathed to King Mohammed VI, what can the Committee count among its concrete achievements on the ground regarding liberating the holy sites and impeding their Judification?
Liberating the Holy City of Jerusalem is a shared Palestinian, Arab, Islamic aspiration. It has not only been a matter of verbal denouncements and demands. There have been tangible results from decrees and initiatives. As you already know, the Al-Quds Committee, under the guidance of King Mohammed VI, has undertaken a number of initiatives that have played a pivotal role in the plans to protect Jerusalem’s holy sites. It also successfully implemented programs aimed at restoring and renovating the city’s architectural make-up. Additionally there have been residential projects which have created schools and employment opportunities, undertaken so as to improve the daily lives of the Palestinian citizens of Jerusalem.
This has been the vision of His Majesty King Mohammed VI for rescuing Jerusalem, a vision based on civil engagement and tangible, on-the-ground initiatives which can be felt by the people of Jerusalem on a daily basis. This is also a concrete expression of Morocco’s solidarity with the Palestinian people, who have resolutely withstood all of the Israeli attempts to deface and distort the historical and religious landmarks of the Holy City.
<strong Q: It is no secret that Iran is a member of the Al-Quds Committee, and that the relationship between Rabat and Tehran is complicated. Will the Marrakesh Conference see the normalization of relations between these two countries? And how will Tehran be represented at the Marrakesh Conference? Will the Iranian foreign minister attend? And how will the rest of the Committee’s member countries be represented?
Ten foreign ministers from the member countries will attend this session of the Al-Quds Committee. Iran attends the meetings of the Al-Quds Committee in its capacity as a member of the Committee, just like any other member country.
A special invitation has been sent to Iran to attend this session by way of the OIC. We have yet to determine exactly how Iran will be represented at this session.
Q: What is on the agenda for this session? What are the priorities?
The session will focus on the shared, international responsibility to preserve Jerusalem as a human heritage site, not to mention the economic, civil, and educational initiatives that aim to maintain the character of the Holy City and help the people of Jerusalem persevere.
Parallel to that, the session will emphasize the necessity of supporting the initiatives of the Bayt Mal Al-Quds Agency, the executive arm of the Al-Quds Committee, by way of tangible contributions: residential housing, health, education, public works. All of these efforts must combine to reinforce the presence of the people of Jerusalem and protect them in their homes.
The 20th session of the Al-Quds Committee coincides with the renewed international push towards peace negotiations in the Middle East under the leadership of the United States. Moreover it will seek to bring order in a region that has seen more change and upheaval than any other place on Earth as of late. It will send a clear message to the international community that responsibility must be taken insofar as Israel is held accountable and its illegal settlement expansion stopped. Israel must desist from undertaking provocative measures and it must embrace the positive direction in which negotiations are now heading.