The Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Religious Affairs Mahmoud Habbash on Thursday condemned last weekend’s murder of five Israelis in Itamar and insisted that the PA was acting to counter incitement against Jews.

“I say the same as [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas – this is a big crime against civilians in their homes, an inhuman crime,” he told The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview.

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“We are against such crimes from both sides, and against any murders, whether from the Palestinian or Israeli side. We want to see all the civilians living in peace in the Holy Land.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in a Saturday night statement, linked the brutal stabbing to death of the sleeping family to incitement in the mosques and educational system in the PA.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger said that “the spiritual leadership and religious leaders inciting also bear the responsibility,” and Habbash’s local counterpart, Religious Services Minister Ya’acov Margi, called the murders “the result of the unrestrained incitement” in the Palestinian territories, “first and foremost by the religious leaders inciting in the mosques.”

Abbas, too, condemned the murder, but denied that such incitement existed in the PA.

On Thursday, Habbash firmly rejected the notion that the PA allowed incitement, while noting that violent rhetoric aimed at Palestinians emanated from Jews as well and must be addressed.

“We are, from the beginning, against any bad incitement, not just inside the Palestinian Authority. This includes from schools, mosques and the media,” he said.

“There is a clear policy in the PA leadership to work against any bad incitement. We said this before and always will – we believe that by this policy we can establish real peace and good life for all the peoples in the Holy Land.”

When asked what he defined as incitement, Habbash said that “first it must be agreed upon what exactly incitement is. If I say in a mosque we have the national right for our homeland, is that incitement? I don’t think so.

“We were asked to take part in the American committee established over 10 years ago to define what is and what is not incitement, not only on the PA side, but also the Israeli one, how to stop it, and move forward in cooperation. Until now the Israeli side refused to meet with the Palestinians for these discussions,” he said.

To Habbash, “if anyone encouraged hatred among the public, called to kill others, or to throw them out of their homeland – this would be considered bad incitement. If people are called animals – such as if Muslims calling Jews children of monkeys – this is bad incitement, and we are against it. And the same applies to if a Jewish rabbi calls Palestinians snakes and animals.

“In such cases, we have to step in, whether it is in mosques, schools or holy places, to prevent imams and rabbis saying such things,” Habbash said.

“Let’s stop the conflict, and go ahead to establish a real peace in the Holy Land – a two-state solution of independence for the Palestinians and Israelis according to the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem a united city for all the religions, and a political capital for both states – east Jerusalem for the Palestinians, and west Jerusalem for the Jews,” he added.

The committee to which Habbash was referring was a trilateral anti-incitement committee, composed of American, Israeli and Palestinian representatives, formed at the demand of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as part of the Wye River Memorandum.

While the committee met once a week in 1999, “nothing ever came out of it,” said Itamar Marcus, founder and director of Palestinian Media Watch, who was part of the Israeli team for the anti-incitement committee.

“Calling what goes on in the PA incitement would be understating the problem and its significance; talking about indoctrination, and seeing it as part of the ongoing war against Israel” would be more accurate, Marcus said on Thursday.

Marcus noted examples such as the fact that Abbas recently awarded $2,000 to the family of a terrorist who attacked IDF soldiers, and that a week before the Itamar killings, the PA-controlled television channel honored two people sitting in prisons, and referred to them as heroes – the woman who drove a suicide bomber to the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem, and the man who drove a suicide bomber to the capital’s Pat junction.

As for Habbash himself, Marcus said the minister had referred to the conflict with Israel on religious terms, calling it a Ribat, which in effect means that reconciliation is prohibited from a religious point of view.

“It’s a big mistake to take [what Abbas and Habbash say in] English seriously; they speak very differently in different languages every day,” Marcus said.


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