Middle East Monitor / August 21, 2023
On 21 August, 1969, an arson attack targeted Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, resulting in substantial damage to a section of the mosque. The incident ignited widespread outrage and prompted protests among Muslims globally. This event exacerbated the already strained relations between Israel and Muslim nations, further distancing Muslims from recognizing Israel. To date, over half of the total 57 Islamic countries have extended recognition to Israel.
But does Israel’s recognition by Muslim countries hold significance? While the answers might be subject to debate, in straightforward terms, yes, it does matter due to various political, diplomatic and regional considerations; but likely not for defence and economic reasons, considering its formidable defence capabilities and solid economic foundation.
In spite of the significant resistance from the Muslim world, Israel has successfully evolved into a developed nation and is now a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). With a population exceeding nine million people as of 2021, Israel ranks as the 29th largest economy globally in terms of nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 13th in nominal GDP per capita.
Conversely, the geographical landscape of Palestine has undergone significant contraction in size, accompanied by a marked decrease in its population. For instance, in 1948, the area of Palestine covered approximately 26,320 square kilometres, but this has gradually diminished over the decades to encompass the West Bank (5,640 square kilometres) and the Gaza Strip (365 square kilometres). Ironically, these two areas are separate territories, with Israel positioned between them.
Hence, Palestine has undergone a poignant transformation, transitioning from a land of abundance to a land of scarcity. Even in its reduced state, Palestine’s sovereignty has not been acknowledged by Israel and its allies. It has encountered numerous constraints, from tax collection to limitations on defence spending. The financial stability of the Palestinian Authority (PA) hinges heavily on international contributions and aid, which are essential for maintaining operations and delivering vital services.
Undoubtedly, the collective stance of the Muslim world, refraining from recognising Israel, has not proven advantageous for the Palestinian cause. Nevertheless, this stance has exerted a profound impact on the national and regional political dynamics within the Muslim Ummah. It would not be an exaggeration to assert that the Israel-Palestine conflict has played into the hands of various religious parties across the globe. The conflict has effectively become a pivotal instrument in the arsenal of these parties, allowing them to sway public sentiment and assert their influence within domestic politics.
The show of solidarity with Palestinians has largely been confined to verbal expressions, flag burnings and the non-recognition of Israel. Unfortunately, this approach has thus far proven ineffective and is unlikely to yield substantial results. It is evident that alternative avenues need to be explored in order to provide meaningful support for the Palestinian cause.
My perspective on this matter shifted significantly following a recent trip to Israel and Palestine. Prior to my visit, I held a viewpoint aligned with that of my fellow Muslims. However, the experience was a revelation. I directly witnessed the harsh realities faced by disadvantaged Palestinians at the hands of Israeli security forces. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is marred by systemic racism, discrimination and what can only be described as apartheid practices. This first-hand encounter shed light on the gravity of the situation and the urgent need for change.
During my visit to Palestine, I journeyed to Al-Khalil (Hebron, West Bank). Upon entering Palestinian territory, I was struck by the realisation that I had stepped into an underdeveloped country, a stark contrast to the situation in Israel. The main roads leading to the city were lined with makeshift structures, scrapyards, heaps of discarded tires and everything one might envision when thinking of an economically disadvantaged nation. The city centre, though modern, was disorderly. Horns blared, overtaking was common and footpaths were taken over by shops, with pedestrians on the roads—an obvious sign of mismanagement.
In Hebron, I had the opportunity to meet a man named Khaled. In his forties and operating a shop, he had never encountered a Pakistani before. He posed a question to me: “Why are people hesitant to come to Palestine?” Initially, I did not fully grasp the intent behind his question, but after some discussion, I was surprised to realize that he was not aware that it was not Muslims, but their respective governments, that were imposing travel restrictions. He expressed shock upon learning that a Pakistani passport does not grant access to Israel and that I had entered using a British passport.
I cannot forget his words when he said: “The only thing we need is money. We need it for everything from food to health. This is the only support we need.” Osama shared with me that there is a scarcity of Muslim-owned hotels in the Old City of Jerusalem. He particularly enjoys accommodating Muslim guests, while non-Muslims only approach him when they cannot find rooms elsewhere. This implies that a higher influx of Muslim visitors to the city would greatly benefit his business.
As he spoke, I looked at his shop, hoping to buy something. But there was nothing sellable. Each item was distinct and covered in layers of dust. It was not just Khaled facing economic hardships; poverty-stricken faces were evident everywhere I went. Palestinians were not only battling Israeli occupation; they were also confronting an unseen adversary—poverty.
Osama, the proprietor of the Jerusalem hotel where I stayed, shared: “We’re waging our own battle against Israeli aggression. This is our struggle. Despite our suffering, we’re dedicating our lives to this land and will keep doing so. But we require funds to support our hospitals.”
Another emotionally charged Palestinian remarked: “Donate to others, not to Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Waqf manages it and they have ample resources. It’s the people in Gaza and the West Bank who are in need of funds.”
Palestinians have endured generations of hardship. According to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor report, Israeli forces claimed the lives of 204 Palestinians in 2022, equating to four lives lost each week due to Israeli aggression. Yet, the often invisible adversaries of hunger and poverty are less recognised. The United Nations (UN) estimates that 36 per cent of the Palestinian population lives below the poverty line.
A worshipper at Al-Aqsa Mosque shared with me: “Some Palestinians joined the Israeli police, becoming apostates solely for better employment and money. Yet, they continue to identify as Muslims.”
Let’s set aside the debate on recognising Israel and consider how Muslims worldwide can offer substantive aid to Palestinians beyond flag burnings. This year, approximately 1.5 million Umrah pilgrims and local devotees gathered at Haram Sharif on the 27th night of Ramadan, with a considerable number attending Masjid Nabawi in Madinah. In contrast, despite being a record number, it is reported that nearly 280,000 worshippers were present at Al-Aqsa Mosque on the same day.
In situations where recognizing Israel remains unfeasible, considering an interim solution to aid Palestine becomes crucial. Opening the borders and permitting Muslims to travel to Palestine could serve as a potential option. This approach could provide support to Palestine without necessarily necessitating the recognition of Israel.
A powerful expression of solidarity with Palestine lies in opening our borders and immersing ourselves in their land. This involves staying at their hotels, engaging in commerce at their shops, contributing to their charitable initiatives and symbolizing our backing by standing shoulder to shoulder at Al-Aqsa. While navigating the intricate path toward resolving territorial conflicts may prove challenging, our immediate focus should prioritize fostering stability and ushering in economic prosperity for the Palestinian populace, who bear the brunt of suffering.
Obaid Shah is a management consultant, researcher and author of Beyond the Walls: My Journey in Jerusalem, is slated for release later this year (forthcoming)