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The Islamization of East Jerusalem

In Arab East Jerusalem, Islamist groups are gaining more of a foothold through charity, such as free iftar meals during Ramadan, opening schools, and offering services.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 26, 2008

: Palestinian Muslims broke their fast at a charity after a day of fasting outside the Dome of the Rock in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem on Sept. 11.

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Newscom



Neat rows of white lay across the courtyard's stone floors like carpeting for an honor guard ready to receive a president or king.

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Upon closer look, these lines are rolls of plastic tablecloth, and in minutes, workers will place hundreds of hot meals along the ground that will, when Yusuf Hamaze gives the signal, be paired with hungry people breaking the day's Ramadan fast.

"If you have kids, share yours with them!" Mr. Hamaze yells as scores of women rush into place to make sure they get meals of lamb and rice, pita, yogurt, and sweet dates.

"I eat here every day on Ramadan, because with the checkpoints, it would be impossible to get home anyway," says Imm Iyad, a woman who lives in Bethlehem, beyond the security barriers around Jerusalem, but spends her days in the Old City market, selling couscous to support her family. "I'm here because this is the only place I know where they do this," the mother shrugs. "All of the people who come here to eat are in need."

This phenomenon of serving free iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast, to the economically strapped – as well as those unable to get home to break the fast with family – is relatively new here. It comes at the munificence of several Islamic groups, but most notably, it's a project of Sheikh Raed Salah, the head of the Islamic Movement of the North, based in Umm el-Fahm, Israel.

To the growing numbers who appreciate and admire Sheikh Salah's work, he is not only providing a handout, but is also providing a framework for Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who feel the lack of leadership in Jerusalem.

To the Israeli authorities, however, Salah is a firebrand who inflames emotions, making repeated calls to Muslims that the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, is in danger. He's also adding, many say, to a growing Islamization of East Jerusalem.

Last month, Israeli security forces raided the offices of the Islamic Movement in Umm al-Fahm under suspicions that it was aiding Hamas. Dozens of police entered the offices of the Al Aqsa Heritage Institute, the new name of Salah's organization. They confiscated documents, computers, and close to $100,000 held in a safe, according to officials and news wires.

In August 2007, Salah was indicted for inciting racism and violence after he called for a "third intifada," or uprising, his response to an Israeli archaeological dig in the Old City that he says is endangering the foundations of the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Salah himself has been barred by Israel from coming to Jerusalem. But the reach of his organization continues to make an impact here, most prominently in the form of this iftar that feeds up to 5,000 people a day.

He is filling in where secular Palestinian leaders have left a vacuum, as other Islamic institutions have across East Jerusalem. There are a growing number of Islamic private schools, as well as a whole host of services provided by Muslim organizations to meet the many needs there.