Hugh Fitzgerald: The Palestinian Slough of Despond, Or, “How is Jerusalem Different From Ramallah, Really?”


Recently the New York Times carried an article about the muted reaction of Arab states to President Trump’s announcement about the American embassy move. Among its piquant details was that an Egyptian army lieutenant, Ashraf al-Kholi, had contacted  talk show hosts in Cairo and urged them to downplay the story. He was reported as having asked them “how is Jerusalem different from Ramallah, really?” While the Egyptian government is apparently furious that the story ran, and is denying parts of it, that denial is only to placate the Egyptian Arab street. For the rulers of Egypt certainly do not want to agitate the masses over the embassy matter, don’t want to have to deal with another intifada that could have the effect of resuscitating the fortunes of Hamas — the Muslim Brotherhood group that is the El-Sisi regime’s greatest enemy. There is much more for the Egyptians to worry about, and the embassy move is far down the list. A branch of ISIS recently attacked a Sufi mosque in the northern Sinai, killing 305 people, the worst terrorist attack in Egypt’s history. Attacks on Coptic churches, Coptic pilgrims in buses, Coptic priests, Coptic families, by ISIS, and by other Muslims too, are ever more frequent. Hamas continues to launch attacks in the Sinai on Egyptian soldiers and police, sometimes collaborating with ISIS, with which it is officially at odds, and sometimes on its own, with weaponry smuggled in through Gaza. And there are other kinds of worries, too, seldom mentioned in the foreign press, such as the effect on the Egyptian economy if Ethiopia completes its Grand Renaissance Dam, which would involve diverting waters of the Nile that until now Egypt has considered entirely its own.

Meanwhile, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have told the “Palestinians” to simmer down, and in effect, to accept the embassy move which, they know, will not be changed no matter what Mahmoud Abbas threatens. And there’s not much he can threaten; it’s Trump who has not only done the threatening, but followed through, in freezing $125 million in aid to UNRWA, with more cuts possible in American funding for the Palestinian Authority, depending on what Abbas now does.

Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, has its own set of  worries having nothing to do with the “Palestinian.” It is most alarmed about the state of its proxy war with Iran in the Yemen, a war that has been going on for three years. The Shi’a Houthis have managed to hold onto the capital, San’a, despite Saudi air attacks, and the Houthis have even managed to lob Iranian missiles Riyadh-wards, so far without hitting any major target. But it is not only in Yemen that Iran’s Shi’a worry the Saudis. In Riyadh, they see the Iranians strengthening the Shi’a forces in Iraq against the Sunnis, who refuse to acquiesce in their loss of power. In Syria, they are alarmed at  the victory of the Alawites (considered by Sunnis to be Shi’a), a victory owed in large part to the help Assad received from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and from the Shi’a militia (and terrorists) of Hezbollah. In Lebanon, the strongest military force is not the Lebanese army, but Iran-linked Hezbollah; Saudi efforts to replace the Sunni Saad Hariri as Prime Minister, because they deemed him too weak to stand up against Hezbollah, came to naught. Meanwhile, tired of the “Palestinians,” now seen as diverting attention from the Iranian threat, on social media Saudis have been complaining about all the money they give to the “Palestinians” and otherwise mocking them; some have even dreamed of “vacationing in Israel.” The “Palestinians” have responded in kind, attacking the Saudis on social media, and proclaiming them “untrustworthy.”

Saudi Arabia sees Israel as a useful ally in the conflict with Iran. The Saudis are well aware that Israel has managed over the years to slow down Iran’s nuclear project, by such spectacular feats as the cyberweapon Stuxnet — apparently a joint American-Israeli undertaking that played havoc with Iran’s centrifuges — as well as feats of derring-do, in assassinating their nuclear scientists. The Israelis have already been providing intelligence information about Iran to the Saudis. The Israeli chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, has publicly declared his willingness to cooperate with his Saudi counterparts. The “Palestinians,” on the other hand, offer nothing of value in the Saudi war with Shi’a Iran.

Mahmoud Abbas may assume the Saudis will make up for any cut in American aid. If so, he has another think coming. The Saudis have other ways to spend their money closer to home. Their soon-to-be-king, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, is preparing to spend $650 billion on a gigantic building project. It will consist of three cities. The first, dubbed Qiddiya, will be located 25 miles from the capital, Riyadh, and is planned to be an entertainment megaplex with everything from indoor ski slopes to roller coasters to a zoo. A second city will be a Red Sea tourist resort, a place where Arab families can frolic in islamically acceptable conditions. A third city, Neom, is envisioned as a place for high tech businesses to be built, a place that aims to have more robots than humans. It is Neom that, the Crown Prince hopes, will become an economic powerhouse for a country that needs to be weaned off its reliance on oil revenues.

Given these expensive plans, the Saudis are in no mood to replace the Americans in the permanent care and feeding of the recalcitrant “Palestinians.” Had the “Palestinians” been willing to discuss the Saudi peace plan conveyed to them in early December, instead of denouncing it, had Mahmoud Abbas ever followed any of the advice the Saudis gave him, including that to keep negotiating with the Trump administration despite the embassy move, had the “Palestinians” not continually had their hands out for more, as if Saudi aid were theirs by right, perhaps things would now be different. But it’s too late for Palestinian-Saudi relations to be repaired.

The “Palestinians” are now discovering, to their surprise and dismay,  that they do not command the endless support of other Arabs. In such an atmosphere, there may well be Arabs, disenchanted with the “Palestinians,” who will be willing to consider seriously a recent, and potentially explosive development, that is Egyptian Professor Youssef Zieden’s argument about the Al-Aqsa mosque. It deserves to be better known. This December he  repeated — on an Egyptian talk show — an argument that he first made in 2015. Ziedan, a respected scholar of Sufism, of medieval Arabic philosophy, of Islamic medicine, and of Islamic manuscripts, the author of more than 50 books, a novelist and winner of the “Arabic Booker,” cannot be dismissed as a poor scholar or “Zionist stooge.” Ziedan denies that the “farthest mosque” mentioned in the Qur’an (17:1) is to be found in Jerusalem. He points out that there were no mosques in Jerusalem during Muhammad’s lifetime, that the mosque known as “al-Aqsa” was not completed until 705 CE, 73 years after Muhammad’s death. The reason it began to be identified with the al-Aqsa mosque in the Qur’an is that the Umayyad caliph in Damascus, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, who built the mosque, wanted to have his own “holy site,” because his main political rival, Abdallah bin al-Zubayr, already controlled the mosques in Mecca and Medina. And he created that site himself, identifying the mosque he built in Jerusalem as “Al-Aqsa Mosque” — the “farthest mosque” mentioned in Qur’an 17:1. But if the “Al-Aqsa” mosque could not possibly have been in Jerusalem in Muhammad’s lifetime, then where is that “farthest mosque” to be found? Professor Ziedan argues that it was located between Mecca and Ta’if, on a road with which Muhammad was familiar. Ziedan found  mention of its location, between those two cities, in the writings of the historian and early biographer of Muhammad, al-Waqidi.

In other words, if Professor Ziedan is right, he is not denying that there is a “farthest mosque,” but arguing that it is to be found in….Saudi Arabia. Wouldn’t that realization excite the imaginations and pride of Saudis, not to mention everyone connected to the Saudi tourism industry, to find that if we accept Professor Ziedan’s argument, which is exceedingly plausible, all three of Islam’s holiest mosques would then be in Saudi Arabia?

Since it is now clear to many Arabs that the Israelis are never going to willingly give up any part of Jerusalem, they have two choices. They can prepare for yet another  war with Israel, at some time in the future, a war that, given the high-tech advances that the Israeli military continue relentlessly to make, the Arabs cannot win and that would cost them a great deal. Or they can do something else, which is to downgrade the religious significance of Jerusalem for Muslims by accepting Professor Ziedan’s argument, which is in any case hard to refute, that the “farthest mosque” was never in Jerusalem, but rather, outside Ta’if. If the Saudis, so very powerful and so very rich, then begin to promote their own claim to the “farthest mosque,” which Arabs, especially the present or potential future recipients of Saudi largesse, would wish or dare to oppose them, other than, of course, the “Palestinians”? In one fell swoop, the Arabs and other Muslims would no longer have to make excuses for their own inaction over Jerusalem, for they could now point to the downgrading of its religious significance, given that false “al-Aqsa” mosque, even while they become excited at the prospect of finding the precise location, between Mecca and Ta’if, of the true “Al-Aqsa” mosque. The rebuilding of that mosque, in what might not be exactly the right location (unless the ruins of such a mosque can be found by archaeologists), but at least would be on the Mecca-Ta’if road, could be one more of those projects on behalf of Islam that the Saudis would eagerly undertake. No Arab would be more delighted than Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman — hardly a friend to the “Palestinians” — to be able to lay legitimate claim to all three of the holiest mosques, and sites, in Islam.

As for the “Palestinians,” as they see Arab states offering only tepid support for their cause and,  still worse, see the Saudis revel in their possession of the site of the true Al-Aqsa mosque, they will likely fall into a permanent slough of despond which, given the last six decades of their terrorism, many might think they richly deserve.

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