A security detail is positioned outside the Palestinian Authority’s Religious Affairs Ministry, located in a residential neighborhood not far from the municipality building of al-Bireh, a suburb of Ramallah. Two men in a military jeep parked across the street eye me and photographer Denise Klahr as we get out of our taxi. Inside, a group of four or five burly men with pistols in shoulder holsters who are watching a movie on a computer screen look up as we enter the building.
We are quickly assessed to be no threat. The men go back to watching the movie and one tells us to go up to the fourth floor for our meeting with Religious Affairs Minister Mahmoud al-Habbash.
More guards meet us outside the thick, tufted door to Habbash’s office. Inside, Habbash buzzes us in.
Habbash was shot in the shoulder on December 18, a little over a month before my meeting with him. The shooting, reportedly part of a larger internal struggle within Fatah, emphasized Habbash’s tenuous political position within the PA. Habbash, 50, has many enemies.
His family is originally from the village of al-Majdal, which is present-day Ashkelon.
In the wake of the 1948 War of Independence, they were forced to move along with hundreds of other Palestinians from al-Majdal to the Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, where Habbash was born and raised. As a young man, Habbash, who excelled in Islamic studies, was active in Hamas, eventually serving as a preacher in Hamas-affiliated mosques in Gaza. However, in 1994, he left the organization, an act for which he is hated by many in the Hamas leadership.
And the animosity is mutual. Several of Habbash’s Facebook entries from the past few months are dedicated to criticism of Hamas. He has attacked the Hamas leadership for failing to pay its electricity bills, hinting that it is stealing taxpayers’ money; he has questioned its decision to postpone a mass wedding; and he has accused it of preventing Gaza’s citizens from leaving. In one entry he vowed that Gaza’s citizens would soon be liberated.
At the same time, Habbash never joined Fatah. Many senior Fatah leaders are resentful that a man who is an outsider – an independent and a former Hamas activist – has been given the religious affairs portfolio. But Habbash has untouchable status within the PA thanks to his special relationship with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Habbash saved Abbas’s life by tipping him off to a Hamas attempt to have him assassinated when his motorcade visited Gaza in 2004. I asked Habbash about the incident but he refused to comment.
Habbash is also a political asset to Abbas.
Here is a man who defected from Hamas, the Fatah’s most serious political opponent, to become one of Abbas’s closest allies. When Habbash criticizes Hamas in his Friday sermons with Abbas and other high-ranking Fatah leaders in attendance, his words carry special weight. He was on the other side, saw the light and made the transition.
In a sermon that he gave in July 2013 before Abbas, for instance, Habbash attacked Hamas for its “impulsive” strategy of armed struggle and praised the PA leadership’s “sense of responsibility toward its nation” which motivated it to sign the Oslo Accords.
Habbash went on to compare peace treaties with Israel to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, a truce described in Muslim tradition signed between Mohammed and the Quraish tribe of Mecca in March 628 AD. Just as Hamas opposes a negotiated peace with Israel, explained Habbash, so too did Mohammed’s followers question the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah which they saw as capitulation.
But in the end, Mohammed was proven right: within two years’ time Mohammed conquered Mecca from the Quraish.
In this telling, it seemed that a peace treaty was simply waging war by different means, a way of buying time until Muslims were strong enough to overcome their Zionist foe. Palestinian Media Watch, a pro-Israel body that scrutinizes official PA media outlets, claimed that Mohammed subsequently violated the treaty once he had achieved military parity.
I asked Habbash if my impression, backed up by PMW’s interpretation of Muslim tradition, was correct.
“Don’t try to understand Islamic history according to your culture. Come and ask us. Don’t hear about us from others.”
Habbash explained that according to the Sura at-Tauba, one of the chapters of the Koran, Muslims are obligated to uphold their part of the agreement as long as the other side upholds its part of the agreement.
“In Hudaybiyah the prophet [Mohammed] did not start the war. Quraish started the war. So if we reach an agreement with Israel we will respect it as long as they do.”
I asked him if according to Islam it is permitted to make peace with Israel.
“Of course. Listen, people have a wrong idea about Islam. You make a big mistake when you do not study Islam and consider Islam to be only Osama bin-Laden or al-Qaida or Hamas. Islam believes in peace between people.”
Habbash proceeded to tell me a story about his mother when he was still in Nusseirat to demonstrate the point.
“One day during the first intifada my mother was watching TV and on the TV there was an Israeli woman crying because her son, who was a soldier, was killed by a Palestinian. Then my mother started crying also. I did not understand. I said to her, ‘he was a soldier, he was killing Palestinians.’ She said, ‘I am crying because of this woman.
She lost her son. Look, son, look to his mother, do not look to what he did. Imagine if you were killed. What would I say? I do not want you to be killed and I do not want you to kill.’” Habbash concluded, “This is the culture of Islam.”
Habbash said that his decision to leave Hamas was a result of his rejection of the movement’s embrace of violent struggle.
Negotiations and coexistence are the way to peace, Habbash said, and peace between Israel and Palestinians can serve as a model for peace between people all over the world.
“OK, this land is very small – too small – but we can build an amazing example of peace for the world. If both sides come with open hearts I believe it is possible to reach an agreement.”
Habbash’s outline for a peace agreement reflects the official PA position: a two-state solution with minor land swaps of equivalent quality and size; refugees are issue that must be “put on the table”; all of east Jerusalem must be the Palestinian capital; allowing Jewish settlements to remain in a future Palestinian state is out of the question; the Jordan Valley must be under Palestinian control; and Palestinians will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state because this would contradict historical facts in the region, such as the historical right of the Palestinians in places like Jerusalem.
Palestinians refuse to affirm a Jewish narrative that gives the Jewish people a special status in the land of Israel because doing so would annul the Palestinian narrative that focuses on the Palestinians’ special ties to the same land. Indeed, the difficulty Palestinians have in recognizing Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people is the belief that by doing so they would be forced to reject their own national narrative. As a result, Palestinians refuse to acknowledge Jews’ historic ties here. I broached the subject of Jerusalem with Habbash, specifically the Western Wall or the Kotel.
“What is the Kotel?” asked Habbash.
“Maybe you mean al-Buraq wall.”
Habbas was, of course being facetious.
Buraq is the name of a mythological steed, described in the Koran as a creature from the heavens which transported Mohammed from Mecca to what is referred to as “the farthest mosque.” In Islamic tradition the Mosque referred to is al-Aqsa, which located on Haram al-Sharif. Mohammed was said to have tied the steed to a wall referred to as the al-Buraq wall, named after the mythical steed. This is the wall that Jews refer to as the Kotel and Habbash undoubtedly knew this.
“Look any religious arrangements could be achieved after the end of the occupation.
In a [future] Palestinian state we believe in the religious freedom and rights of all three religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The conflict [between Israel and the Palestinians] is a political conflict not a religious conflict. Any arrangement could be achieved.”
Do you believe there was a Temple where Jews once worshiped on Haram al-Sharif [the Temple Mount]? “No. Of course not. There was never a Temple there.”
But you respect their belief.
“Yes. This is their narrative. This is their story.”
Would you allow Jews to go up to Haram al-Sharif to pray? “After the establishment of a Palestinian state and after Israeli withdrawal from Palestine and especially from east Jerusalem everything could be discussed according to the religious principles, according to our belief, according to the religious rights.”
Habbash was essentially denying the existence of the Jewish Temple, an historic fact backed up by archaeological and historical evidence. I had heard this sort of Palestinian revisionism before, including in a telephone conversation with Ibrahim Sarsour, an Arab member of the Knesset who is on the United Arab List. But somehow hearing Habbash articulate these views in person in his Ramallah office augmented their delusional quality and emphasized for me the hopelessness of a peace arrangement – at least on the issue of Jerusalem.
After saying goodbye to Habbash, photographer Denise Klahr and I decided to visit the Mukata, literally “headquarters” or “administrative center.” The Mukata, which is seen by Palestinians as the temporary hub of the PA government until east Jerusalem is declared the Palestinian capital, is dominated by Arafat’s memory. The main entrance most accessible to visitors is a broad walkway of off-white, smooth Jerusalem stone that leads directly to Arafat’s grave. The mausoleum, which adjoins a museum dedicated to Arafat, is 11 meters by 11 meters, alluding to November 11, the day Arafat died. The minaret of the adjacent mosque, used by the government workers, was designed to shine a laser beam that would, after several reflectors along the way, shine on al-Aqsa Mosque.
Arafat specified in his will that he wished to be buried on Haram al-Sharif, though Israel denied his request. At the time the PA declared that Mukata would be a temporary resting place until a Palestinian state was formed. Palestinians would then take control of Haram al-Sharif and Arafat would be reinterred there.
As a testament to how central Jerusalem has become in Palestinian national consciousness, the last battle Arafat waged was the al-Aqsa intifada, launched after prime minister Ehud Barak’s failed peace offer at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000.
Arafat’s grave has become a site for pilgrimage.
My driver Ahmed told me that people come to pray for Arafat’s soul at the gravesite. While there, we saw a Palestinian family pay its respects to Arafat. Father, mother and three little girls with scarves prayed. Two armed guards in uniform stood motionless on either side of the tomb. The mood was solemn. The father took a few pictures and the family was gone.
At first, it was difficult for me to grasp how Arafat had become such a revered figure for Palestinians. Here was a man who made many incredibly bad choices which were arguably instrumental in delaying the creation of a Palestinian state.
He supported Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War, a morally repugnant move that also left him broke and stripped of political assets in the early Nineties. His political weakness at that time was probably what led him – against the better judgment of members of the Palestinian delegation to the 1991 Madrid talks – to sign the Oslo Accords, which actually worsened the dayto- day life of Palestinians by closing them off into quasi-autonomous enclaves without leading to the creation of a Palestinian state.
When in July 2000 an opportunity was presented to him by Barak to establish precisely such as state, he rejected it and opted for a failed military offensive that left about 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis dead.
The PA was in tatters and had lost the moral high ground by condoning or cooperating with suicide bombings. And then there was the corruption. Over the years, the Old Man, as those who knew him longest called him, embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars from his fellow Palestinians.
But as I thought about it more and spoke with Palestinians it became clearer to me.
Arafat was, after all, the man who created a nation out of the Arabs who were either turned into refugees or saw their land come under Israeli control in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the Six Day War.
In his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” in which he was, by the way, referring also to Zionism, George Orwell defined nationalism as “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”
He also noted that “some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world.”
Since Arafat did more than any other man to bring to international awareness the concept of a “Palestinian people,” it is only natural that the people whose aspirations he articulated and gave political significance will overlook his many shortcomings and see only his accomplishments – real or imagined.
And the same explanation might be used to explain the reverence Palestinians have for “martyrs,” or people killed by Israel’s military forces as part of the struggle against Israel. Pictures of these “martyrs” can be seen attached to the walls on the streets of Ramallah, with the date of their deaths. When death in struggle against the Zionist entity automatically transforms the deceased into a martyr or when senior PA officials like Habbash reject Jewish ties to what he calls Haram al-Sharif, it is clear that this clash of two nationalisms – Zionism vs. the Palestinian national struggle – is all but intractable.