The invitation by the Palestinian president to Arabs and Muslims to visit Jerusalem is long overdue. But it is better late than never.
Jerusalem’s 300,000 Palestinians badly needed this visit, which comes at a time that their natural hinterland (the rest of the West Bank) has been cut off from them.
For years Arabs and Muslims have shied away from visiting Jerusalem and other Palestinian lands for a variety of reasons. Most have no opportunity to go even if they want to. With the exception of Egypt and Jordan (the latter only since 1994) no other Arab country has diplomatic relations with Israel.
Non-Arab states with substantial Muslim populations can visit, and some have in the past decades, mostly through one-off tourism junkets. I saw Muslims, from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, South Africa and Bangladesh, among others, crossing into Palestine over the King Hussein Bridge. Some said that it was emotionally difficult for them to see the holy city under a foreign military rule.
Religious leaders, and for different reasons, have also trickled in. Egyptian Copts were ordered not to visit Jerusalem because of Israel’s unilateral decision (before the peace with Egypt) to give the keys of a Jerusalem convent near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to rival Eritreans (at the time Israeli allies). Egyptian-born Doha-based Islamic leader Yosef Qardawi also issued a fatwa against visits to Jerusalem; it was not challenged until recently.
Some people, with loud rhetoric, have publicly called for a boycott, claiming that such a visit only encourages Israelis to continue their occupation, as it shows that the occupation and annexation of Jerusalem is normal. These individuals, opposed to normalisation, have at times terrorised and politically punished anyone who goes against their point of view. Professional unions in Jordan and Egypt have publicly adopted these positions although in discussions with many of them they show they understand that there is a difference between shows of solidarity and visits that legitimise occupation.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ position calling on all to show solidarity with Jerusalem by coming to the city is not new, although it has never been uttered so clearly at so high a forum.
Faisal Husseini often made the same plea and often repeated that it is unfair to equate the victim with the aggressor. His argument was that by boycotting Jerusalem, those individuals hurt fellow Palestinians –” whom one assumes they support –” rather than Israel, which does not really care that much whether people from Arab and largely Muslim countries come or not.
A year ago, Abbas made a similar plea speaking on Dubai TV. Since then, this illogical position of indirectly boycotting Palestinians has been broken by sports teams, largely from Gulf countries, who visited Palestine upon invitations from the Palestinian Sports Union and via permits obtained by and through the Palestinian Authority, even if those permits were made only after Israel agreed with the PA request.
The latest call by Abbas takes the issue one step further. One reason why sports teams were able to get away with the visit was that they entered Palestine using permits issued by the Palestinian Authority. Anyone wanting to visit Jerusalem today has to cross the 8-metre-high wall and dozens of checkpoints, and therefore this requires Israeli approval.
Individuals in some of the leading anti-Israel countries such as Syria and Iran are not able to come even if they want to. The rest of the world, including the Gulf and Asian countries, can come by obtaining a visa through an Israeli embassy or one of Israel’s ally countries that are charged to handle such issues.
Still some might object saying that they cannot accept to have an Israeli visa on their passports because they travel to countries like Syria and Lebanon (although some countries allow one to obtain a second passport and it is possible –” though not guaranteed –” that the Israeli visa is not stamped on the passport but on an external document).
The fundamental issue, however, remains that as Israel tightens the physical and political choke on Jerusalem’s Palestinian population and holy places, help is needed from external powers and peoples. Nothing brings home the issues of Jerusalem more than a visit.
Israel and its supporters have not stopped one day their solidarity visits. It is time for those who believe in justice for the Palestinians and who wish to see the holy city of Jerusalem remain a vibrant multiethnic, multireligious city to organise visits to it.
Local political, social or religious groups are more than happy to invite friends and supporters and host them, give them tours and first-hand information about what is happening in and to Jerusalem.
Muslims are called to saddle up and go to Al Quds Al Sharif.
Palestinian citizens of Israel from the Galilee and from the Negev have begun a strong campaign to stand by fellow Palestinians in Jerusalem.
The plight of the people and the importance of the city should not be felt only by the Palestinians. Muslims, Christians and people of all faiths should heed the call and support the embattled city and its Palestinian population.