From September 21-23, Sheikh Mehmet Adil al-Haqqani, the spiritual leader of the Haqqanniya-Naqshbandiyya Sufi order, for the first time paid a historic visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The visit aimed to strengthen the ties with the followers of the order and the spiritual-religious link to the holy sites of Sufi Islam. However, the visit was exploited for political goals by the Higher Islamic Sufi Council in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Lands (HISC) to challenge Israel’s sovereignty on Jerusalem and to empower the religious-political legitimization of the PA on the background of its rivalry with Hamas. Al-Haqqani is a highly regarded spiritual leader in Sufism, a central mystical stream in Islam. Since 2014 he has been leading the Haqqanniya-Naqshbandiyya, a branch of the Naqshabandi order which his father established in the second half of the 20th century in North Cyprus. The Naqshbandiyya Sufi order was established in the 14th century in Bukhara, Central Asia, and succeeded to expand to extensive areas such as to the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey, India and even Israel.In the second half of the 20th century it even reached to the West, particularly Germany and the US. As a matter of fact, the Naqshabandi Sufi order is a cross-continental social network of about 60 million Sufi followers.Born in 1957 in Damascus and currently residing in Istanbul, Al-Haqqani visited Israel accompanied by more than 100 of his followers. He visited several important religious sites such as the Cave of the Patriarchs of the three fathers of Israel (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) in Hebron; the 16th-century al-Hanbali Mosque in Nablus, known for preserving three hairs of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, which bestow bless to those who pray next to it, according to the Sufi tradition; the shrine of the Sufi woman Rabia al-Adawiyya (713-810); and al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem; along with other religious sites in Ramallah and Jericho. The visit was part of a tour that started this January to strengthen Al-Haqqani’s ties with his followers such as in UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Kenya, South Africa, Israel and Jordan. This November al-Haqqani will visit Iran as well. Although his visit was not a political one, the HISC sought to impose political significance upon it.The HISC was founded at the beginning of 1995 following a decree of Yasser Arafat, former PLO leader and PA chairman. This was due to Arafat’s desire to foster a non-political force that would back his policies, give his regime a religious legitimacy, and erode the power of Hamas movement. Nevertheless, Arafat and several PLO leaders were members of the Palestinian Sufi branch of the Qadiriyya-Kasnazaniyya, which was established in 1993 in Kalkilya. Hence, Arafat was renowned as an enthusiastic major supporter of the HISC.However, the HISC began to lose power until a complete stagnation following the death of Arafat in 2004. Only 12 years later, the HISC renewed its activity thanks to the PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s support in light of the adversarial relationship with Hamas and the increased threat of the jihadi Salafi thought. TODAY THE council has 15 members from various orders active in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel. In its doctrine it was written that the HISC aims to unite the Palestinian Sufi orders under one roof to strengthen Sufism in the Palestinian society, to defend the Palestinians’ thought against the influence of extremist ideologies, and to adopt the political line of the PLO. Sa’ad Sharaf, a senior member of the HISC, perceived Al-Haqqani’s visit as an important message of solidarity and support in the Palestinians. He said, “Every Sufi that enters Palestine [becomes] an ambassador of our problem as he returns to his country and speaks on our people’s suffering.” Moreover, at the end of the visit, Al-Haqqani and the HISC’s members signed a treaty to strengthen ties between Palestinians and Sufis around the world. In other words, Al-Haqqani is described as a strategic partner playing a role in promoting the Palestinian narrative, challenging the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and strengthening the Islamic identity of Jerusalem. In this matter, the HISC represents the PA’s policy. This is true also against the Hamas movement, not only because of their traditional alliance with the PA, but because of the Hamas leadership’s hostility toward the Sufi orders. Since Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, its leadership has been narrowing the activity of the Sufi orders. Saleh al-Raqqab, a senior leader and a former member in the Endowment Ministry of Hamas under Ismail Haniyeh, led a strict policy against the Sufis that was articulated in closing Sufi houses, prohibiting their rituals, imputing them in deviating from Islam and defining them as a threat to Palestinian society. Moreover, he accused several Sufi orders, particularly the Yashrutiyya-Shadhiliyya order which is active in Khan Yunis in south Gaza and has a branch in Acre, of being in collaboration with the Jews. Today more than 10 Sufi orders are active in Gaza but under restrictions, and as long as they recognize Hamas’s sovereignty on Gaza. Nevertheless, it seems that the HISC has been investing efforts in bridging between the PA and Hamas to end the rift, emphasizing that this dispute only serves Israel and harms Palestinian interests. Although Al-Haqqani’s visit to Israel was claimed by the HISC for political needs, it is of the utmost importance to Israel. This is due to Al-Haqqani’s disregarding the calls by Islamist movements, such as the northern faction of the Islamic Movement in Israel, for Muslims around the world not to visit Israel for fear of contributing to normalization with Israel and thereby legitimizing Israeli sovereignty over the holy sites of Islam. Salafi factions in and outside Gaza have already defined the visit as a sort of “quiet normalization,” which was deliberately not covered by the media in order not to stimulate criticism in the Muslim world. Nevertheless, Al-Haqqani’s visit to Israel has given a legitimization for millions of Sufis around the globe to come and visit Israel.The writer is a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism and a lecturer at Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy school in IDC, Herzliya.