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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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"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.

In the past, this role was occupied by Faisal Husseini, who since the 1993 Oslo Accords was the Palestinian Authority's Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, based in East Jerusalem's Orient House. Mr. Husseini died in 2001, and during the height of the intifada, Israeli authorities shut the Orient House and did not allow it to reopen.

"East Jerusalemites are experiencing the worst situation economically, politically, and socially," says Rasem Abaidat, an East Jerusalem writer and activist. "In the 1980s we tried to adapt to the Israeli way of life. But this turned to disappointment that they felt during the late 80s and early '90s, in terms of house demolitions, imposing of heavy taxes along with lack of services, and this has made them realize that the Israeli occupation is not a fair ruler."

At the same time, he says, the Palestinian Authority headed by Yasser Arafat was incapable of assisting East Jerusalemites, in part because of the amorphousness of their situation. They hold Israeli-issued identity cards, but vote in elections for Palestinians.

"Arafat was not able to fill the vacuum. On the contrary, East Jerusalemites watched as the West Bank and Gaza got international help to flourish, while no one gave them any attention in terms of aid and funding," Mr. Abaidat continues. "Therefore their only hope was God."

Meanwhile, there have been disagreements over which Islamic Waqf, or religious body, controls Jerusalem's holy places. Both a Jordanian one and a Palestinian one claim to have ultimate authority over the Harem es-Sharif, or Noble Enclosure, which includes Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock.

"Sheikh Salah has managed to fill the vacuum left by the internal fighting between the Jordanian Waqf and Palestinian Waqf, and has succeeded in highlighting the conflict over the Al Aqsa Mosque locally, regionally, and internationally," he says.

The result, he says, is an increasing identification with an Islamic agenda. "The people of East Jerusalem have been swept into this wave of Islamicism and are enjoying the attention given to them by such activities."

The trend comes against a backdrop of an upswing in attacks on Israeli perpetrated by East Jerusalemites, who had not been particularly active in the midst of the last intifada. This week, a 19-year-old from East Jerusalem ran over a group of Israeli soldiers outside the Old City, injuring 17 of them before being shot to death. It was the third such attack since July.

Taher Ghbarieh, who works for Salah's organization in Umm el-Fahm, says he is worried about a flare-up in violence after a right-wing Jewish group opened a synagogue this week in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

"Our institution has been following up on this building and drilling under the synagogue, and we consider this latest situation as one of the most dangerous the Al Aqsa Mosque has been put in," says Mr. Ghbarieh. "This is the straw that breaks the camel's back. People are fed up with the way Israel is dealing with Palestinians."

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