Rafiq Husseini, one of President Mahmoud Abbas's closest advisors, discusses the recent tensions in Jerusalem -- and what it says about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
On Sept. 27, Palestinians hurled rocks at a group of visitors at the Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem; they thought the visitors were Jewish fundamentalists and wanted to ward them away from the holy site. Clashes escalated over the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, and Israel barred all male worshipers under 50 from entering the mosque. As happened during the first and second intifadas, violence spread throughout East Jerusalem, with Israeli police arresting dozens of Palestinian protesters. The paralysis over the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and continuing tension over Jewish settlement expansion in East Jerusalem added fuel to the flames.
As this tense situation unfolded, Foreign Policy interviewed Rafiq H. Husseini, chief of staff for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. They discussed how the conflict started — and where it might lead.
Foreign Policy: Could you describe the series of events that have resulted in the recent tensions in Jerusalem and how the situation has gotten as bad as it is today?
Rafiq Husseini: The tensions did not start last week. The tensions have been ongoing since this new Israeli government [took] over, with its aim to fulfill its objective of ensuring that East Jerusalem is never returned to Palestinian sovereignty. An active program of putting Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem has been progressing, including evictions of Palestinians.
But the tensions have now increased. … [N]ow groups of fundamentalists want to go inside the al-Aqsa mosque and the al-Haram al-Sharif, which is an Islamic holy shrine. Every day we fear that Israeli fundamentalist groups [will] declare that this area is the Temple Mount and that they want to build the third temple on the ruins of the existing Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
FP: Last week, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said, "[T]he battle is underway for sovereignty of Jerusalem and particularly over the Temple Mount." Do you see this as part of a struggle for Jerusalem between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
RH: Well, [the al-Aqsa mosque] is a Palestinian holy shrine. Why should there be a battle for it, or its sovereignty? This is a Palestinian, Arab, Islamic holy shrine that has been there for almost 1,500 years. Therefore, the battle is unfortunately not between the Palestinians and the Israelis over sovereignty. It is a battle by extremist Israeli groups backed by a government of extremists to try to re-create 2,000 years of history.
This is not acceptable. The issue has been turned by this Israeli government into a religious battle … not only a clash of nationalistic viewpoints.
FP: Can you describe the difference, from your perspective, between the current Benjamin Netanyahu government and the Kadima government which preceded it?
RH: First of all, I think the Kadima government … accepted that they want to put all the issues for discussion between us on the table, including Jerusalem. They also understood the sensitivity of the subject. Although they involved themselves in some settlement plans in East Jerusalem, they were much more receptive and understood the tensions and what these issues can bring — how they can damage both peoples.
Also, there were channels of communication between the two leaderships, so when an issue like what is happening in Jerusalem was about to take place, these issues were talked about and solved, most of the time. Today, these channels are completely blocked and closed.
FP: President Mahmoud Abbas called for a general strike to occur last Friday. What does the strike hope to accomplish?
RH: Well, it hopes to ensure that the message is heard by the world. Because [this tension] is now bringing us back to square one. It is bringing us away from a supposedly negotiated settlement over issues that are related to the two peoples, two nations. … Therefore, what we need to do is try to make sure that the world understands and the world then stops Israel from doing what it’s doing.
Because Israel, as you know, is the power on the ground. It is the one with the guns, the police, and the soldiers. It is the one that is allowing settlers and fundamentalist Jewish groups to claim East Jerusalem and especially the Muslim holy shrines of al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. [They] continue to say that there is no al-Aqsa mosque and that there is no Dome of the Rock, that there is only Solomon’s Temple. Unfortunately, this is what the Israeli municipality is saying officially in all its publications.
FP: Do you see a risk of this clashing getting much worse in the coming days?
RH: Well, I am not sure how bad [the situation will get]. We do not want these clashes to get any worse. All the intifadas in the later years have started with a clash around the mosque and around al-Haram al-Sharif. And we don’t want this to happen.
[W]e are asking the Israelis to restrain these people, to keep them away, so that we do not go into another cycle of violence and then there is the total collapse of the peace process. Today, the peace process is in intensive care, and it is struggling.
FP: Do you accuse the Netanyahu government of wanting the destruction of the al-Aqsa mosque, like you accuse some of these "fundamentalist groups" of trying to do?
RH: The Netanyahu government is a weak government based, unfortunately, on fundamentalist groups. And therefore, they are taking the counsel of these groups, and this is why these groups can do anything they like and not fear any restrictions by the weak and incapable Israeli government of today.
FP: Is there any difference between the position of Hamas and the position of the PLO on the al-Aqsa issue?
RH: Well, I don’t know if there is any difference on the al-Aqsa issue. But I can tell you that there is a big difference between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on all the political and social issues concerning the Palestinian-Israeli question. And therefore, whereas there could be similar positions [on this issue], that does not mean that we agree on how to resolve the difference. We want peace, we want coexistence, and we want a two-state solution. We want Jerusalem to be the capital of two states and three religions. This is what we want. And we are advocating diversity and tolerance. I am not sure that Hamas is advocating the same thing.
Rafiq H. Husseini is chief of staff of the office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.