Several weeks ago, at a Doha conference promoting solidarity with occupied East Jerusalem, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas encouraged Arabs and Muslims to visit the occupied city as a form of support for Palestinians under occupation. This call generated a great debate, one simultaneously enflamed by a series of controversial visits to Jerusalem holy sites by prominent Arab personalities. Among these visitors were the sheikh of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo (one of the top religious leaders in the Muslim world), a high-ranking member of the Jordanian royal family, and a number of prominent Egyptian Copts.
There have been three main positions adopted in this debate. The first was to criticize and attack these visits because they might be considered normalization of relations with Israel. (Visiting Jerusalem requires an Israeli visa or permit or other facilitation and Israel controls the borders of the Palestinian territories and is in direct control of occupied East Jerusalem.) The most prominent figure leading the criticism of the Palestinian president’s request that supporters of the Palestinian cause visit Jerusalem and of the actual visits that took place was Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is based in Doha and appears regularly on the al-Jazeera satellite channel. He is known as being supportive of Islamic political movements in the Arab world and he is also a critic of the Oslo agreements and the Palestinian Authority.
On the other side of the fight was the Palestinian Authority’s minister of Islamic Waqf, Mahmoud al-Habbash, who was very vocal and articulate in defending the idea of Arabs and Muslims visiting East Jerusalem. He argued that these visits support the Palestinian right to Jerusalem, constitute a form of solidarity with Palestinians in the city, and boost the Arab and Islamic presence at Arab and Christian holy sites in East Jerusalem.
The main slogan used first by Abbas and later by others in promoting this initiative is that "visiting the prisoner should not be considered normalization with the jailer." Out of loyalty to the original author of this famous saying, it should be said that the first person to come up with this expression was the late Faisal Husseini, one of Jerusalem’s most important political leaders.
There is a third view–perhaps the most popular–that became apparent during this debate. This view states that the pertinent question is not whether visiting Jerusalem is correct or not, but rather that one should ask, what are the circumstances of the visit? Those people who support the idea of Arabs and Muslims visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem believe that such visits can be useful and helpful to Palestinians if they are done in the open, in a transparent manner, and if those visitors are able to interact with Palestinians and express their solidarity and support. Visits that are carried out in secret and without the knowledge of or interaction with the Palestinian public do not serve the required purpose and instead allow Israel to claim that it is the one facilitating pilgrimage and visitation to the city.
In all cases, it is important to say–and hopefully such visits would highlight this reality–that Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian holy sites in the city are subject to terrible discrimination and oppressive treatment by the Israeli occupiers, even in comparison with how this occupation treats the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories. As such, those who care about the fate of the city and its people need to redouble their efforts to end Israel’s occupation and allow for the creation of the Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is a precondition for the two-state solution and a peaceful settlement.