Mahmoud Abbas has had a very big week. On Tuesday, the Palestinian president met with President Obama and reiterated his commitment to securing a peace deal within the nine months allotted to him by Secretary of State John Kerry. Abbas received a pat on the back and a hearty handshake from POTUS who, in return, reiterated his commitment to turning a blind eye to Israel’s compulsive settlement building. Then on Thursday, Abu Mazen had the unenviable task of following up his famous 2011 UNGA appearance, where he stole the show by declaring Palestinian statehood. It was a tough act to follow but his cheering section was there to support him, including Rami Hamdallah and Saeb Erekat, who both resigned but are still representin' at the United Nations General Assembly.
This has also been a difficult week for Abbas and the never-ending peace process. On September 21, 20-year-old Israeli soldier Tomer Hazan was killed by his co-worker in Qalqilya. Before Israel could collectively punish the encircled city, the culprit’s father came forward to condemn his own son and denounced his offspring's act as criminal. He was quoted in The Times of Israel as saying, “I am telling you this from the bottom of my heart… if the military would today give me an M-16 [assault rifle], I would go and shoot my son in the head.” One day later, an Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper in Hebron and all hell broke loose. Clashes at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians reached a crescendo this week, making matters even worse.
Abbas, who many consider yellow-bellied, jumped head first into controversy during his UNGA 2013 spot. He called out Israel’s daily incursions of the Al Aqsa compound, which houses the recognizable golden Dome of the Rock as well as its lesser-known counterpart, the black-domed Haram El Sharif. The repeated attacks on worshippers in Jerusalem were condemned by Abbas, who timidly shared that if the near-daily attacks on the Al Aqsa compound continued, there could be “dire consequences” for the not-yet-dead peace talks and the region as a whole.
The Second Intifada is said to have been sparked by Ariel Sharon and his army entourage's visit to the Al Aqsa compound on September 28, 2000. What set off an uprising 13 years ago is now just your average Friday. I know it confuses people but the Abrahamic religions share a common origin story and therefore often share religious sites like the Patriarchs Tomb in Hebron or Jerusalem's Al Aqsa, also known as the Temple Mount. Those who argue that Al Aqsa is not that important to Islam and that Muslims only cared about it when Israel gained control are not well-read people. It is Islam's third holiest site. The Dome of the Rock protects the rock that Abraham didn’t sacrifice his son on and that Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven from. That big gold dome graces posters, postcards, and cable news backdrops set in Jerusalem—much to the chagrin of the Israeli extremists who insist on storming the compound and shouting about rebuilding the Temple and bringing on Armageddon. These are not folks coming to solemnly worship during the several visiting hours open to non-Muslims. This is incitement.
Why shouldn’t the Al Aqsa compound be open to all faiths? The answer is that it is, except during times of prayer and religious holidays. Israeli soldiers control who enters the compound, and then the Islamic guardians of the holy sanctuary, known as the Waqf, get their chance to reject visitors. I have often had to do the chicken dance to prove to the soldiers that I am Muslim so they will allow me to enter. I have never been asked to prove my religion by the Islamic Waqf. Only the IDF has questioned my faith. During visiting hours I have entered with friends of all faiths, no questions asked. Just take off your shoes and cover your hair if you identify as female. This is not about banning Jews from visiting, but about stopping incitement by zealots. Violence is being wrought upon Muslims worshipping in the Old City by extremists who believe it is their divine right to shout and shoot in this sacred space and the Israeli government is complicit in the daily harassment. The IDF protects those storming the compound by firing off sound bombs, tear gas, rubber bullets, and even live ammunition to clear the way. They have also trapped people praying inside the houses of worship for hours on end during these clashes. Protests against the Israeli incursions of Al Aqsa popped up everywhere, from the tens of thousands who took to the streets in Umm Al Fahm to those who marched in Gaza.
Israel controls who enters Muslim, Christian, and Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem and is known to ban access to Palestinians if it happens to be one of their holidays. Passover and Easter often overlap and Palestinian Christians wanting to walk the Stations of the Cross suffer the consequences when the checkpoints are closed. This week, Israel decided to ban men under the age of 50 from attending Friday prayers at Al Aqsa. The daily incursions, permit restrictions, and random closures do nothing to support the notion that Israel is serious about peace, the two-state solution, or religious equality in the Holy Land.
Abbas also addressed in his speech Israel’s continued policy of house demolitions and settlement building. This year alone, Israel has torn to pieces 850 Palestinian homes. Palestinians living in Jerusalem continue to be denied building permits while thousands of illegal settlement units are sprouting up throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem. One of the most controversial settlements is the Israeli enclave that houses a couple of hundred settlers protected by a mini army nestled in the heart of Palestine’s second largest ’hood, Hebron. Following the death of an Israeli soldier at the hands of a Palestinian sniper in Hebron, Netanyahu announced, "Anyone who tries to uproot us from the city of our patriarchs will achieve the opposite. We will continue to fight terrorism … with one hand, while strengthening the settlement with the other."
How can Bibi pretend to be dedicated to reaching a peace agreement based on a two-state solution when he is determined to fortify settlements in the heart of what is meant to be the land of the second state? Are the settlers occupying the enclave in Hebron that Netanyahu wishes to solidify willing to become Palestinian citizens? Or are they yet another insurmountable obstacle in the path of the road map that supposedly leads to two states living side by side like ebony and ivory, in somewhat perfect harmony?
As Obama and Abbas shook hands for the paparazzi and doubled down on their commitment to seal a peace deal before summer vacation, the Mayor of Nazareth Illit gave the world a glimpse of what the future holds for Muslims, Christians, and the godless living in the future Jewish state. Mayor Shimon Gafsou said in a recent interview, “I would rather cut off my right arm than build an Arab school.” Mr. Mayor is also adamantly against mosques, churches, equality, and Christmas trees even though 18 percent of the residents in Nazareth Illit are not of the Jewish faith. Mayor Grinch, an Israeli government official, is publicly stating that he would rather have his arms gnawed off by a ferret than allow the citizens he governs to have the freedom to deck the halls with boughs of holly—and the leadership of this self-proclaimed democracy is silent. Chew on that.
On Monday, the Israeli Prime Minister will take his turn at the podium in an institution he has often condemned. During his address, Abbas recognized Israel's right to exist and spoke of his determination to finalize the two-state solution despite the facts on the ground. Netanyahu will try to convince the world that he, too, seeks peace. This is going to be a challenge because he no longer has Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to kick around to distract from Israel's ever-expanding illegal settlements. Luckily Bibi doesn't care who agrees with him. He's got the U.S. and their almighty veto backing him up at the U.N. That’s all he really needs.