Photo illustration: Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Ultra Orthodox Jewish men pray at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's old city on Sunday.
Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday.

Religious trash talk goes mainstream in Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Religious fundamentalists are gaining greater influence on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, complicating peace efforts.

With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process suspended, religious fundamentalists on both sides of the conflict are gaining wider influence. Palestinian and Israeli analysts alike warn that the trend could further complicate prospects for a resolution by turning a nationalist clash over territory into more of an absolutist religious war.

The typically secular Palestinian Authority (PA) has joined the militant Hamas movement in using Islam as a rallying point, while Israeli settler groups, citing Scripture and backed by one of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history, are gaining unprecedented(?) momentum in their drive to take control of Arab East Jerusalem.

''On both sides, religious fundamentalist elements are on the rise politically,'' says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Hani Masri, director of the Badail think-tank in Ramallah, agrees: ''The religious factor in the conflict was always there but it has become stronger,'' he says.

The change in the nature of the conflict is due in part to the failure of the peace process begun in 1993 when the two respective leaderships were both secular, according to Ghassan Khatib, director of the PA's media center. Religious and ideological radicalism has grown on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide, as evidenced by Hamas's victory in parliamentary elections in 2006.

''The failure of the secular leaderships ... in achieving the objectives of their respective publics weakened them and allowed a shift in the balance of power ... in favor of those forces and groups and sectors against the peace process that are more radical politically and ideologically,'' says Mr. Khatib.

But that's just one of the root causes, says veteran Palestinian journalist and blogger Said Ghazali, who also cites "the failure of the PA to build a good society, economic problems, and Islamists gaining power in the Arab world."

'There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him'

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has publicly stated his willingness to accept a two-state solution and territorial compromise. But the charter of Hamas – the Islamist movement that runs Gaza – considers the entire area encompassing Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip sacred Islamic territory ''consecrated for future Muslim generations until judgment day."

It was an Abbas appointee, perhaps in an effort to outbid Hamas, who recently deployed Islam to radicalize the conflict. Earlier this month, the senior PA cleric, Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammed Hussein, invoked a hadith that says that the resurrection – when pious Muslims will go to paradise – will not take place until the faithful kill Jews.

''The hour will not come until you fight the Jews," said Mr. Hussein, quoting the saying attributed to the prophet Muhammad. "The Jew will hide behind stones and trees. Then the stones and trees will call: O Muslim, servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.''

Hussein later denied that the sermon, delivered Jan. 9 at the 47th anniversary of the establishment of Mr. Abbas's Fatah movement, was a call to kill Jews. But the fact that it did not prompt a condemnation from the PA, which aired the speech on its TV channel, is a telling sign of poisoned relations as Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jordan were trying to revive peace talks.

'Descendants of apes and pigs'

The moderator at the Fatah rally said explicitly that the conflict is a religious one. ''Our war with the descendants of the apes and pigs is a war of religion and faith,'' he said.

But Palestinians do not have a monopoly on incendiary invective. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the religious Shas party – part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition – has said over the last decade that Arabs should be attacked with missiles, that they are ''vipers,'' and that God should ''smite them with the plague."

At the time of the "plague" comment in 2010, Mr. Netanyahu said the rabbi did not speak for him, but stopped short of condemning the message.

Likewise Mahmoud Habash, the PA's Religious Affairs minister, steered clear of condemning the mufti. Habash himself has at times described the conflict with Israel as a ribat, or sacred struggle in defense of Islamic land. The term appeared in PA-approved high school textbooks in 2007.

An East Jerusalem storekeeper, who asked not to be identified, terms the mufti's use of the hadith "natural."

"He didn't make it up. The mufti simply took a famous hadith from the time of the prophet. Ovadia Yosef opened the door for this," the storekeeper says.

Throwback to the days of Begin

Khatib argues that speeches by Netanyahu reflect the replacement of secular discourse with hard-line nationalist and religious motifs. Of particular note is Netanyahu's September address to the United Nations last year, when he noted that his own name dates back to the the son of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob.

"Jacob and his 12 sons roamed these same hills of Judea and Samaria 4,000 years ago, and there's been a continuous Jewish presence ever since," he said. He also demanded that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state – a demand never made of Egypt or Jordan, the only two Arab states that have peace deals with Israel.

Such strident biblical invocations mark a throwback to the speeches of Menachem Begin, the prime minister from 1977-83 from Netanyahu's Likud party who oversaw Israel's shift toward intensive settlement of the West Bank.

One of Netanyahu's coalition partners, the HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party, presses for the expansion of the Jewish settler presence in the West Bank flashpoint city of Hebron by harkening back to the biblical patriarch Abraham's purchase of land there.

And with the government's backing, the hard-line settler group Elad oversees a popular national archeological park that disseminates the message that the East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan is actually the City of David, which belonged to the biblical king – and thus should belong to the Jews today.

"The government uses Elad and other groups with a messianic redemptive religious vision as its long arm,'' says Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University 

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev denies the government is fueling the religious aspect of the conflict.

''The government is trying to solve the conflict, not exacerbate it,'' Mr. Regev says.

How religion could help

With the religious dimension of the conflict further pronounced, the prognosis for peace is more unfavorable, says Wadie Abu Nassar, director of the International Center for Consultations in Haifa.

''This started as a dispute between two national movements over the same piece of land, but it has become multidimensional and more complicated. The more complicated it is, the less chance it will be solved.''

However, some say religion itself is not the problem, but rather its misuse. If taught properly, it can actually boost Israeli-Palestinian coexistence by promoting love of one's fellow human being, according to Ron Kronish, director of the Inter-religious Coordinating Council in Israel, an affiliate of the international NGO Religions for Peace.

''There are problematic texts in all the traditions and some people pick texts to enflame,'' says Mr. Kronish, a rabbi. ''But ... it is possible to create more compassionate understanding using religious texts, the Bible and rabbinic teachings, the New Testament and later teachings, the Quran and Hadith. The rabbis, imams and ministers can be a force for peace if they decide to be so.''

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