A secular young man from the Ramallah area expressed his astonishment at how Jerusalem was unifying the entire Palestinian people, and compared the perpetrator of Friday night’s attack in Halamish, Omar al-Abed, to Saladin. A silly comparison, all would agree. Still, the need to bring up Saladin encapsulates all the fatigue among Palestinians about those they perceive as the new Crusaders.
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That young man can’t go to East Jerusalem and the Old City, which is less than 30 kilometers (about 18 miles) from his home, because even in ordinary times Israel doesn’t give entry permits “just like that” for people his age. And perhaps he is among those who consider it humiliating to have to request an entry permit to a Palestinian city. The last time he visited was when he was 13 – some 13 years ago.
And so this young Palestinian did not hear a few of the preachers in Jerusalem on Friday talk about their longing for Saladin. Because the Palestinians stuck to their prohibition on entering Al-Aqsa through the Israeli metal detectors, self-styled preachers spoke to groups of worshippers who had gathered in the streets of East Jerusalem and the Old City, surrounded by Border Police personnel aiming their long rifles at them.
One of those preachers said that if not for the positions and actions of various regimes in the world in the past and present, the Jews would not have overcome the Palestinians. Then he paused and added, “If not for the Palestinian Authority, the collaborator, the Jews would not have the upper hand.” He also wondered: “Is it possible that in all the Muslim armies in the world today, not one can produce a Saladin?” And then he promised that the day would come when armies from Jakarta, Istanbul and Cairo will arrive to liberate Palestine, Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa.
Another preacher made similar statements to a tourist from Turkey before the sermon. The content and style recalled the Islamist-Salafist party Hizb El Tahrir: There is no preaching for an armed struggle against the Israeli occupier, but strong faith in a day when the Muslim world mobilizes and brings down the “Jewish Crusaders.”
When the prayer was over, only a few joined the call warning Jews that “the army of Mohammed would return” – but no one protested the characterization of the PA as a “collaborator.” Anyway, its activities are forbidden in Jerusalem. Israel pushed out the PLO (to which the PA is theoretically subservient) from every unifying, cultural, social or economic role it had until the year 2000. A vacuum like that can only be filled with religious entities and spokesmen who will give meaning to a life full of suffering. The consistent position of the PLO and the PA that this is not a religious conflict and that Israel should not be allowed to turn it into one doesn’t sound particularly convincing in Jerusalem.
Since most Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank can’t go to Jerusalem, the city – and particularly the Al-Aqsa Mosque – are for them abstract sites, a “concept” or a picture on the wall; not a reality to be experienced. But this abstract place, Al-Aqsa, is doing what the siege of Gaza and its 2 million prisoners, the expansion of the settlements and the confiscation of water tanks and solar panels from communities in Area C, are not doing: It is unifying them. The anti-colonial discourse, which is essentially national, political and secular, is channeled to Facebook posts, to scholarly articles that do not reach the general public and to hollow slogans mouthed by leaders, the shelf-life of whose leadership and mandate has long since expired.
In other words, the national discourse and the veteran national leadership are no longer considered relevant today. While Al-Aqsa, in contrast, manages to create mass popular opposition to the foreign Israeli ruler – and that sparks the imagination and inspiration of masses of others who cannot go to Jerusalem. Not only nonreligious people came to places of worship in Jerusalem on Friday to be with their people. A number of Palestinian Christians also joined the groups of Muslim worshippers and prayed in their way, facing Al-Aqsa and Mecca.
Of course, this is first and foremost the strength of religious belief. The deeper the faith, the greater the insult to its sacred elements. The fact that Al-Aqsa is a pan-Islamic site is an empowering element. But not only that: Jerusalem has the highest concentration of Palestinians who rub elbows with the foreign Israeli ruler, with everything this entails in terms of the trampling on their rights and humiliating them. They don’t need “symbolic sites” of the occupation, like military checkpoints, to recall the occupation or express their rage. And the Al-Aqsa plaza, for its part, is where the largest number of Jerusalemites can gather together in one place to feel like a collective. And when this right to congregate is taken away from them, they protest as one – which also reminds the rest of the Palestinians that the entire public is one, suffering the same foreign rule.
But that same unified public can no longer express its oneness in mass actions. It is closed and cut off in ostensibly sovereign enclaves, and split into social classes with ever-widening social, economic and emotional gaps. Its road to the symbolic sites of the occupation, which surround every enclave, is blocked by the Palestinian security forces as well as by adaptation to life in the enclave.
This is the political and factual foundation for the continued presence of lone-wolf attackers, without reference to the outcome of their actions: First of all, the intolerable continuation of the occupation; then the inspiration of Al-Aqsa as a place that unifies, religiously and socially; the disappointing, weakened and weak leadership; and a willingness to die that is a mixture of faith in Paradise and despair at life.