Hamas Fans Flames of Islamic Anger Following “Day of Rage”

Gloria Center- 19/03/2010

Hamas leaders are seeking to escalate Palestinian unrest over the supposed Israeli threat to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. In addition to reflecting the movement’s ideological goals, this effort makes good political sense.

Hamas seeks to supplant the West Bank Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. It knows that by returning the focus of the conflict to the explosive issue of Islamic pride and outrage over the loss of holy places, it can present itself as the natural leader of the Palestinians, and its opponents as irrelevancies or, worse, collaborators.

For this reason, Hamas spokesmen and leaders in the West Bank, Gaza and beyond have been busily fanning the flames of Arab and Muslim anger since the “Day of Rage” in Jerusalem on Tuesday. The main focus, notably, is the supposed threat to the Aksa Mosque represented by the rebuilding of the Hurva Synagogue, rather than that of construction in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood or broader Palestinian grievances.

Speaking at a conference organized by the Hamas authorities in Gaza City on Wednesday, Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told his audience that “what is happening now exposes the reality of Jerusalem’s future and the Jews’ plans.”

He urged Palestinians not to fear a “religious or nonreligious war” and declared that Jerusalem will “always remain Islamic.”

Haniyeh went on to call for an emergency session of the Islamic Conference Organization countries to support Palestinian protests in Jerusalem. He castigated the PA for preventing protesters from “defending their lands and holy sites.”

This basic message was repeated in statements by other senior Palestinian officials in the last days. In Damascus, Hamas Political Bureau head Khaled Mashaal announced the launching of an “open-ended campaign for Jerusalem and the Islamic and Christian holy sites in Palestine.”

Mashaal praised the role of ‘1948’ Palestinians (that is, Arab citizens of Israel) in the protests so far. He said that Israel was “playing with fire” and risked triggering a region-wide war.

The movement’s ambassador in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, told the Al-Jazeera satellite channel that the opening of the Hurva Synagogue formed part of a larger Israeli attempt to “invent” a Jewish history for Jerusalem. Hamdan asserted that no landmarks unambiguously indicating an ancient Jewish presence in the city had been found, so Israel had instead chosen to focus on the Hurva, built at the time of the Ottomans.

Izzadin Kassam, the armed wing of Hamas, said in a statement on its Web site that the latest events in Jerusalem would lead to “dire explosions.”

Abu Obaida, spokesman for Izzadin Kassam, predicted that the opening of the Hurva (ruin) Synagogue would itself lead to Israel’s ruin, and that any tampering with al-Aksa would mean Israel’s demise.

The flood of rhetoric from Hamas leaders and spokesmen in the last days derives from a concerted attempt to regain the political initiative on the Palestinian side. With the split in the Palestinian movement showing no signs of being healed any time soon, Hamas is seeking to foment a new uprising, based on Islamic fury, in which it can wave the banner of the Aksa Mosque. Since Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Hamas has been mainly engaged in rebuilding and reconsolidating its power in the Strip. Its failure to secure the release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners in a deal for the return of St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit represented a significant setback.

The rival PA in the West Bank has been making the running in the last months. Its tactics of diplomatic agitation and isolation of Israel appear to be delivering results. Hamas would like to switch the focus, back to the area in which it is able to excel – namely, the use of religious symbols to foment political violence.

The nervous response of the PA – with some spokesmen supporting the protests and others warning against a renewed intifada – indicates that it is aware of the challenge. Some in Fatah would like to try and turn the protests to their own advantage. But the more shrewd among them are aware that renewed open confrontation will benefit Hamas, not the PA.

Will Hamas succeed?

The mobilizing of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish opinion on the basis of an imaginary threat to the Aksa Mosque has a long history in this conflict. The most recent example was the decision to trigger the second intifada in 2000 after Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount. But as far back as 1929, agitators used arrangements for prayers at the Western Wall to incite country-wide attacks on Jews.

The results have been middling this time around – so far. Burning tires and rock-throwing youths offer attractive front page images for media outlets. But observers of the events in Jerusalem noted the relatively small number of participants in the current protests, and a heavy preponderance of activists of Islamist organizations. Much will depend in the coming days on whether the Israeli security forces can contain the unrest without providing Hamas with new martyrs around whom it can mobilize.

But whether or not the next months see heightened unrest, the fact that the “moral high ground” in Palestinian politics can still be achieved by furious opposition to the reopening of a synagogue in the heart of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City offers a sobering lesson as to the true nature of the forces driving the conflict.

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