A few good men

Among Israeli Arabs and Palestinians few are willing to speak out against terrorism, but some are outspoken.

Gazans in Rafah celebrate the attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, November 18, 2014.‏ (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gazans in Rafah celebrate the attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, November 18, 2014.‏
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE NOVEMBER 18 massacre at a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood shook nearly all Israelis, including Sheikh Kamel Rayan.
As a religious leader and former mayor of Kafr Bara, a small Israeli-Arab town of about 3,000 people located just five minutes from the city of Kfar Saba, Rayan was in his office at the local mosque when news broke that Muslim terrorists had entered Kehilat Bnei Torah and opened fire on worshippers.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Report a week after the killing spree, Rayan says he was still shaken by the incident – not just by images of the bloodstained synagogue, but also by the fact the murders were committed by supposedly religious Muslims, who screamed the Islamic chant “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” while carrying out their barbaric deed.
“I abhor the murder of any person Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Christian or anyone else,” Rayan asserts. “As a religious person, I was horrified and traumatized at the mere fact that a Muslim could go into a synagogue and murder people at prayer. How could we condemn Baruch Goldstein [who murdered 29 Muslims at prayer at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994] and then celebrate this horror?” Not that Rayan is sympathetic to Judaism or to the Zionist cause. He is reluctant to answer questions about his relationship to the State of Israel but, as a senior member of the Islamic Movement, he is a colleague of the controversial Sheikh Raed Salah. This summer, at the height of the IDF’s Operation Protective Edge, local media reported that the organization allowed itself to be used to transfer funds provided by Hamas to Israeli Arabs for a range of anti-Israel activities, including paying Arab youths to harass Jewish pilgrims to the Temple Mount.
Similarly, when he is asked why the media choose to emphasize the sporadic Muslim and Palestinian terror attacks instead of the majority of those sectors who strongly condemn murder (several individuals interviewed for this article repeated Rayan’s assertion that “95 percent or more of the Arabic- language discussion on Facebook and other social media sites was strongly against the Har Nof attack), Rayan’s explanation is simple. “Jews control the Western media,” he says.
DESPITE IT all, however, the sheikh says his conscience left him no choice but to speak out against wanton murder, regardless of political difficulties or social considerations.
“I have not paid any political or social price for my statements about terrorism, apart from some local criticism,” Rayan says.
“But, even if I had been threatened, it wouldn’t deter me. The Prophet [Muhammad] makes it absolutely clear that attacks against innocent people – especially when they are praying – is a violation of humanity.
Really, I had no choice but to speak out. This sort of attack is against our religion, against our morals, to say nothing of the fact that it is strongly against the political interests of the Palestinians.”
Rayan’s voice is notable largely because he appears to represent a minority within the Arab community willing to publicly voice their opposition to terror attacks against civilians – although an overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs, according to a November 24 poll, are opposed to such attacks.
In the West Bank and Gaza Strip the situation is different. This summer, Palestinian social and traditional media were replete with celebrations of the kidnap and murder of Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel. More recently, many Israelis felt that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s condolence letter to the family of Mutaz Hijazi, the wouldbe assassin of Jewish Temple Mount activist Rabbi Yehuda Glick (Hijazi was killed by Israeli security forces), was more indicative of his views on terror than his lukewarm condemnation of the Har Nof attack (“the Palestinian presidency has always condemned the killing of civilians on either side, and condemns today the killing of worshippers at a synagogue in west Jerusalem”).
Even worse, the televised images from Jabel Mukaber, the Har Nof killers’ East Jerusalem home, where neighbors celebrated news of the attack by passing out candy and baked goods, overshadowed those Palestinian and Muslim leaders and organizations in Israel and abroad, who distanced themselves from the attack. No major Arab voice is on record to denounce the celebrations in Jabel Mukaber.
That phenomenon provides a sharp contrast to international Islamic and Arab groups, which have long been quick to denounce atrocities such as September 11, the Boston Marathon bombing, the 2005 London Underground attack and, more recently, Har Nof. In Washington, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said “as Israelis mourn the deaths of those fallen in this latest round of evil let loose among them, we join them in the prayers for the dead and stand together with them in their resolve not to compromise with or surrender to those who wish them evil and terrorize them.”
FOR MEN of faith, or for secular nationalists who reject the notion that the goal of Palestinian statehood justifies murder, going public with their condemnation often entails significant risk.
Take Ali Abu Awwad, a scion of a senior Fatah family, veteran of several stints in Israeli jails and cofounder of the Bereaved Parents’ Circle (his brother was killed by IDF forces during the second intifada).
Abu Awwad says he “discovered” Martin Luther King Jr.-style nonviolence in prison, when he realized that refusing to eat gave him a power over his jailers that physical force never would, and later came to realize that his burning hatred of Jews and Israelis was taking a toll on him, but not really on the objects of his venom.
Since his brother’s murder, Awwad has made waves in Palestinian society for meeting publicly not only with Israelis, but with settlers. Last summer, Awwad cofounded Judur/Shorashim/Roots, a grassroots center for the promotion of nonviolence, where he has hosted joint dialogue groups of Palestinians and settlers and has consistently made his objection to violence clear.
However, Awwad’s group did not respond to a suggestion that the group draft a public statement to denounce the Har Nof attack, despite the fact that (he says) by definition, every Palestinian involved with Judur/Shorashim/Roots would be repulsed by the gruesome murders.
“Look,” said one imam, who is involved with the group and who said he had sent private messages of support to the grieving Shaer, Yifrah and Fraenkel families.
“There is no question that the boys’ murder violates the principles of Islam or of basic humanity. But as a community leader I’ve got to be careful. I cannot risk the chance that Hamas could attack our village in response.”
So, too, with regard to the murders of the three teenagers in summer. At least one Palestinian- Israel peace group debated issuing a public statement, but ultimately decided against the move because they feared for the safety of the Palestinian participants.
THE THREAT i s n ot o verstated. S heikh Samir Assi, imam of the al-Jazaar mosque in Acre, visited Har Nof the day after the attack as part of an interfaith clergy delegation to the site of the massacre. Speaking in the heart of the stunned neighborhood, Assi called the attack “an assault against the sanctity of the house of God, and against the unarmed worshippers.”
The response to Assi’s statement was short in coming – two days after condemning the murders, assailants poured acid on the imam’s car.
In a phone conversation with The Report Assi says he would wait for results of the police investigation before drawing conclusions about the nature of the acid attack.
But, he adds, he would not be scared away from speaking freely and providing leadership to the Arab community in Israel.
Assi noted, however, that it would be difficult for many Palestinians in Israel and the Palestinian Authority to accept his moral guidance in the absence of movement on the political process, and if Orthodox Israeli MKs and laypeople continued to visit the Temple Mount.
“First of all, let me say strongly and clearly that Palestinians have the right to defend themselves against the IDF and against violent settlers. I support any efforts to establish a Palestinian state next to Israel.
“Secondly, I have to tell you I visited al-Aqsa Mosque recently. I saw the horrible way that police and security forces treated people going there to pray. That is a huge issue for me. People are being beaten, many people are being summarily refused entry to the site, there are many arrests. Male police officers are manhandling women. The Jews are not sensitive to Muslim norms.
They are absolutely brutal.
“It’s a huge issue for us, one that brings out very heated emotions. As I said earlier, murdering civilians is completely beyond the pale of Islam, but Israel has to do its part to prevent the violence as well,” Assi contends.