The mufti of Jerusalem, fired last week by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, said over the weekend that he had been punished for criticizing Israel and opposing Abbas's policies.
Abbas's decision to dismiss the mufti, Sheikh Ikremah Sabri, came shortly after the latter said in a newspaper interview that "Israel did not want peace."
Moreover, the decision came after Sabri criticized the international sanctions imposed on the Hamas government and attempts by some Palestinians to bring down the Hamas government.
Abbas was also reportedly angered by Sabri's participation in a rally organized in the Galilee two weeks ago by Sheikh Raed Salah's Islamic Movement.
At the rally attended by thousands of supporters of the Islamic Movement, Sabri criticized Abbas's decision to hold a referendum on a controversial document drafted by a number of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Abbas decided to appoint Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, director of the Aksa Mosque, as the new mufti. Sheikh Hussein is a less controversial figure than Sabri and is closely associated with Abbas's Fatah party.
Sabri, who was appointed to the job 12 years ago by former PA chairman Yasser Arafat, was quoted last week by the Nazareth-based Kul al-Arab weekly as saying that "since Israel does not want peace, negotiating with it would be a waste of time." The interview is said to be the straw that broke the camel's back, as far as Abbas was concerned.
On Wednesday, while Sabri was in Amman, his aides phoned him to tell him that they had received a fax from Abbas's office to "retire" him.
The move caught Sabri and his aides by surprise, especially since the mufti had not been informed in advance of Abbas's decision. Sabri met twice with Abbas in recent weeks and did not hear from him any complaints about his statements.
A source in Abbas's office confirmed that Sabri had been sacked "because of his statements against the peace process." According to the source, Sabri appeared to support the Hamas government in its power struggle with Abbas and his Fatah party. "The mufti is appointed by the president, not the government. Therefore, he must represent the president alone," the source explained.
"I was totally surprised by the decision," Sabri said. "No one consulted with me about it. I believe I was fired because of my statements against Israel and the referendum."
Sabri stressed that despite the decision he would not change his views. "I have said - and will continue to say - that Israel does not want peace and that our efforts to negotiate with it are a waste of time," he said. "They used to say that Arafat was not a peace partner and they have not changed their position now that his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, is in power."