PA cracks down on Nabi Mousa to protect image of defending holy sites

PALESTINIAN AFFAIRS: This is the kind of stuff that plays into the hands of the PA’s critics and political foes, particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

A VIEW of the Nabi Musa Mosque in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea. (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
A VIEW of the Nabi Musa Mosque in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea.
Dozens of Palestinian Authority police officers were busy on Tuesday and Wednesday carrying out renovation work at the Nabi Musa, one of the largest architectural complexes in the West Bank. Some were painting the ancient walls, while others repaired broken doors and windows at the site, where Muslims believe the Prophet Moses is buried.
The officers, from various branches of the Palestinian security forces, were dispatched to the site on the direct instructions of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding a music event held there by Palestinian DJ Sama Abdulhadi and a small group of young men and women.
The renovation work was part of the PA leadership’s measures to offset damage to its reputation and credibility in light of the public outcry on social media surrounding the circumstances of the controversial rave.
By all accounts, the PA’s handling of the issue, from beginning to the end, was utterly disastrous.
On the one hand, the PA government’s actions confirmed long-standing allegations that it is an undemocratic regime, one that does not hesitate, for example, to imprison a young woman for holding a music party.
On the other hand, the Nabi Musa incident illustrated the PA’s fear of popular opprobrium, especially when it is related to Islam and Muslim holy sites.
The “scandal” exploded two weeks ago when a number of east Jerusalem men who were on their way back from Jericho decided to visit Nabi Musa, which includes, among other things, a guesthouse and a mosque.
Upon entering the site, the men were surprised to see Abdulhadi and her friends dancing to the sounds of techno music. After threatening the partygoers and expelling them from the place, some of the men posted videos on Facebook accusing Abdulhadi and her friends of “desecrating” the Muslim religious site. The men claimed that they saw “naked women” and “alcohol” at the party, prompting widespread criticism from thousands of Palestinians. This claim, of course, was completely baseless.
Most of the criticism was directed toward the PA, whose Ministry of Tourism had given a written permit for holding the event. Alarmed by the furor, the PA immediately instructed its security forced to arrest Abdulhadi.
The last thing the PA wanted was to be seen as having been complicit in the “desecration” of a mosque. This is the kind of stuff that plays into the hands of the PA’s critics and political foes, particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The arrest of Abdulhadi and the PA government’s decision to form a commission of inquiry into the incident, however, did not put an end to the wave of condemnations and protests, which moved from social media platforms to the site itself. For several days after the party, hundreds of men from east Jerusalem and the West Bank converged on Nabi Musa to “save” the mosque and protest the alleged “desecration.” The message they sent to the PA leadership: “You care nothing for Muslim religious sites.”
Similar accusations have been leveled against the PA leadership regarding the Haram al-Sharif/Noble Sanctuary, or Temple Mount, in Jerusalem. East Jerusalem residents often boast that they stand alone in defending the compound, which includes the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, against Israeli “schemes to destroy the mosques and rebuild the Third Temple.”
Upon removing Abdulhadi and her friends, the protesters moved on to remove and destroy furniture from the guesthouse rooms. Asked why they were setting fire to the furniture and other equipment, one of the protesters, Ali Tamimi, claimed: “We heard the place was being used as a brothel. This is outrageous and an insult to our religion.”
“In its hasty response, the Palestinian Authority actually capitulated to Islamists and political activists who exploited the Nabi Musa issue to achieve their own goals,” said Jumana Salah, a political activist from east Jerusalem working for a nongovernmental organization in Ramallah. “The protesters first falsely claimed that the party was held by Christians to celebrate Christmas. Then they lied when they said that naked women were dancing and drinking inside the mosque. Their main goal: to incite against Palestinian Christians, the Palestinian Authority and women.”
Last Friday, however, Israel was added to the list. Hundreds of men from east Jerusalem and the West Bank who arrived at the site chanted anti-Israel slogans, including ones that remind Jews of the Battle of Khaybar, fought in 629 by Muslims against the Jewish residents of the oasis north of Medina in modern-day Saudi Arabia.
“The Islamists seized the opportunity to attack non-Muslims, the Palestinian Authority and women,” said a veteran female journalist from east Jerusalem. “Together with members of [the Palestinian ruling faction] Fatah, they also turned the protest into an anti-Israel demonstration, although they were well aware that Israel had nothing to do with the music party. What we saw was a combination of misogyny, Islamism, thuggery, intimidation and anti-Israel sentiments.”
The vandalism at Nabi Musa was seen as a huge embarrassment for the PA. In 2019, the European Union donated €5 million to fund a project aimed at renovating the site, which had been neglected for many years by the PA government. Scenes of Palestinian rioters rampaging through an EU-funded touristic and religious site would be very harmful for the PA government’s ongoing efforts to recruit funding from the international community, specifically the Europeans.
This explains why a spokesman for the PA Ministry of Interior rushed to announce this week that those responsible for the vandalism would be held to account. As if that were not enough, PA security officers phoned several Palestinians and asked them to delete Facebook posts condemning the Palestinian leadership for its handling of the Nabi Musa incident.
The incarceration of Abdulhadi, an internationally renowned musician, quickly caught the attention of many human rights organizations and individuals around the world. By the time she was freed (after eight days in a Jericho prison), more than 99,000 people had signed an online petition calling for her immediate release.
Even Palestinians who had denounced the female DJ and her friends for holding the party at Nabi Musa did not seem to be entirely satisfied with her arrest. In the eyes of those Palestinians, Abdulhadi was being scapegoated as part of the PA leadership’s attempt to avoid responsibility for the music event.
“By arresting the woman, the Palestinian government was trying to divert attention from its responsibility for the scandal,” said Essam Ma’rouf, an east Jerusalem resident who previously worked in a Palestinian cultural center. “Everyone knew that Sama [Abdulhadi] had received permission from the Palestinian government to hold the music party at Nabi Musa. Yet, she was the only person arrested. Those who gave her the permit are the ones who should have been arrested. The Palestinian government should feel ashamed of itself for throwing her into prison when she never broke the law. In fact, she acted in accordance with the law and regulations and asked for a license from the Ministry of Tourism. It’s important to point out that the party was not held inside a mosque, and that it was not the first cultural or social event of its kind at Nabi Musa.”
Ma’rouf and other east Jerusalem residents said this week that they are convinced that the PA government did not act out of concern for the historical and religious site as much as to protect its own image in front of the Palestinians. Nor was the PA’s response to the incident an indication of a generational gap – one where old-guard conservative veteran officials are in conflict with young, Western-oriented Palestinians rebelling against old traditions.
Indeed, the Palestinian prime minister and the majority of his ministers are hardly known as devout Muslims who oppose parties and various forms of entertainment. The PA government has long been encouraging and even sponsoring various cultural and social events that have often drawn criticism from Hamas and other Islamist groups. The PA-controlled cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem have many restaurants and bars where young men and women hang out together. Needless to say, there is no shortage of alcoholic drinks at these places, which are regularly frequented by senior PA officials and their family members.
“Many people in the West Bank are not affiliated with Hamas, but when they were told that the Palestinian leadership granted permission to hold a dance party inside a mosque, they got very angry,” said Palestinian political analyst Issa Mansour. “The way the Palestinian Authority handled the incident reminds me of the famous saying in Arabic: ‘He wanted to apply eyeliner to it [the eye], but he blinded it.’ The government thought it was doing something good by arresting the woman who organized the party, but ended up scoring an own goal. Now the Palestinian Authority appears as if it is against young people and entertainment, and that makes it look not much different than Hamas.”
IT’S NOT clear at this stage whether the PA will pursue its case against Abdulhadi, who has been released on bail and banned from traveling abroad.
On the one hand, if she is brought to trial on charges of “desecrating” a holy site and “insulting” a religion (Islam), the PA will again face a backlash from human rights organizations and many Western organizations, as well as secular Palestinians.
If, on the other hand, the charges against Abdulhadi are dropped, the PA will come under attack from its political rivals, first and foremost Hamas, for being complicit in the “desecration” of a Muslim holy site.
Many Palestinian Islamists, meanwhile, are praising the public outcry over the rave at Nabi Musa, calling it a sign of the increasingly growing bond between Palestinians living under PA-rule and Islam. The incident came at a time when the PA security forces were using force to stop Muslims from praying at several mosques in the West Bank as part of COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the Ramallah government.
“When the Palestinian Authority expels Palestinians from a mosque while allowing a dance party at Nabi Musa, that’s good news for Hamas,” remarked a veteran journalist from east Jerusalem. “The Palestinian government may succeed in renovating Nabi Musa, but it will take a long time before it manages to repair the damage it suffered as a result of its mishandling of this unfortunate incident.”•