Israelis are used to hearing hateful speech from some of their neighbors. On Friday, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred to the Jewish State as a “cancerous tumor.” But a recent speech from another Muslim leader – much closer to the Israeli heartland – has drawn criticism from the highest levels of the Israeli government.
The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem is the top Muslim official for the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem and the Palestinian areas. That includes the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest place. The current mufti was appointed by the president of the Palestinian National Authority, which is dominated by the Fatah party. Last month, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein spoke at a Fatah anniversary ceremony. And he quoted from a well-known hadith, or saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammad.
“The hour will not come until you fight the Jews,” Hussein said into the microphone. “The Jews will hide behind rocks and trees. And the rocks and trees will call out, ‘oh Muslim, servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me. Come and kill him!’”
“The hour” is a reference to the end of days.
So, what was the mufti trying to say exactly, by citing this particular hadith at a political meeting right now? I met with Sheikh Hussein at his home in Jerusalem and asked him to explain.
“The hadith, the statements by prophet Mohammad that I quoted, was a statement that talked about the after-life,” Hussein said. “It was not talking about the practical relationship between Muslims and Jews.”
Hussein said there was nothing wrong with using the quote and he doesn’t apologize for it.
But the Israeli government is taking offense. The mufti is said to be the subject of an investigation and he could be charged with incitement. Government spokesman Mark Regev said the Palestinian Authority should have condemned the speech.
“I would argue that the Palestinian leadership has both a legal and moral obligation to condemn this sort of hate talk,” Regev said in an interview. “If they say they want peace, they shouldn’t tolerate this sort of language.”
“In the signed agreements between Israelis and Palestinians,” Regev said the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas has “a legal obligation to prevent this.”
Palestinian Media Watch, a watchdog group based in Jerusalem, first called attention to the Sheikh Hussein’s speech. Director, Itamar Marcus pointed out that the hadith quoted by the mufti of Jerusalem is the same one found in the charter of Hamas, the Islamic militant group devoted to Israel’s destruction. Marcus says the mufti’s speech is just part of a growing problem of Palestinian incitement against Jews and Israel.
“The mufti’s call for violence is an isolated call from the mufti, but it’s not an isolated call from the Palestinian Authority,” Marcus said during an interview in his office.
Marcus showed me a series of videos on his group’s website. He said they were recorded from the Palestinian Authority’s official TV channel. And they add up, Marcus believes, to a media environment that aims to stoke hatred of Israelis and Jews, and to glorify violence.
Another Israeli who has spent a lot of time studying statements from Palestinians is Matti Steinberg. He worked for more than 30 years with the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence agency. He’s also an expert on Islamic fundamentalism.
Steinberg said he probably knows the hadith quoted by the mufti of Jerusalem by heart. It has been used by Islamists going back to the early of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1920s. The fact that the mufti has quoted the hadith again, Steinberg said, is worrisome and dangerous. But it is not surprising.
Steinberg said, the West Bank leadership is opposed to violence. But in the current climate, the Palestinian Authority is utterly stuck. Fatah leaders have been trying to seel the Palestinian public on the idea of a negotiated two-state solution with Israel since the early 1990s. But the peace process is going nowhere.
“It is a sign [of] the total disappointment and frustration of a real political process,” Steinberg said in an interview at his home. “There is a world of difference between, let us say, innate extremism and radicalization, which is caused by the failure of a pragmatic political settlement.”
Steinberg said there is another reason to worry. When pragmatism fails, he said, it becomes much easier for extremists to frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in religious terms. And that goes for either side, he added. The problem is, in a religious conflict, there’s no room for political compromise.