Al-Jazeera / April 23, 2023
As Israeli violence against Palestinians at Islam’s third holiest site escalates, we, Muslims, need to reconsider how we do travel to Jerusalem.
As Muslim communities around the world celebrate Eid al-Fitr and the end of Ramadan, Palestinian Muslims in occupied East Jerusalem are reeling from yet another holy month in which Israel decided to unleash brutal violence on them. Yet again, Israeli security forces raided Al-Aqsa Mosque – Islam’s third holiest site – to brutalize praying Palestinians.
Israel does not have jurisdiction over Al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), where Al-Aqsa is located. Under the internationally recognized status quo, Jordan and the Jordanian-appointed Jerusalem Waqf Council have the right to decide what happens on its premises.
Nevertheless, Israeli authorities imposed a ban on overnight worship in Al-Aqsa compound, preventing Palestinians from freely practicing their faith, which was met with Palestinian resistance. Israeli authorities also once again banned many Palestinians from visiting the holy site, violating not just their right to free worship but also their rights to move freely within their own homeland.
By now, the international media has moved on from the story of Israeli violence in occupied East Jerusalem, but the Muslim community should not. It is time we reflect on how we should address Israeli violations of Islam’s holy site and Israeli brutality against our Palestinian brothers and sisters.
One important question is how Muslims should approach pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa and travel to occupied Palestine.
Understanding the occupation
When considering this issue, it is crucial to have some understanding of the Israeli occupation and the apartheid system that Palestinians live under.
For decades now, the Palestinian people have faced a range of ruthless Israeli policies, including land confiscations, segregation, economic dispossession and illegal Jewish settlement building. Israel regularly violates Palestinians’ human rights, not sparing even Palestinian children, who are intimidated, beaten, arrested and even killed by Israeli forces.
Israeli soldiers frequently carry out raids against Palestinian communities, murdering Palestinians with impunity. Israel has also imposed an illegal blockade on Gaza, turning the area into an open-air prison, which it regularly bombs in its mass murder campaigns.
Even Palestinians with Israeli citizenship face the consequences of Israeli apartheid, being discriminated against in all aspects of life, including education, healthcare and other essential services.
Palestinians are also denied freedom of movement within their own homeland. A series of checkpoints, roadblocks, segregated roads, an apartheid wall and an arbitrary system of permits prevent them from travelling freely between Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem.
This means that Palestinians – both Muslims and Christians – are often denied access to their holy sites while foreign tourists are free to visit and walk around as they please.
Palestinians are also regularly prevented from travelling abroad. In 2021, Israel imposed travel bans on more than 10,000 Palestinians.
Even Palestinian people from the diaspora are often not allowed into occupied Palestine and Jerusalem. Israeli border police collect information on who is of Palestinian descent, who has refugee status and what their aim is when they visit. And in many cases, foreign nationals of Palestinian descent who want to visit, live or work in Palestine are arbitrarily turned away at ports of entry controlled by Israel.
Even if you have a privileged passport that does not require a visa to enter Israel, you can still be denied entry. For example, although I am an American citizen and my spouse and son are German citizens, the fact that they have Palestinian IDs from Gaza prevents us from entering Jerusalem together as a family.
Those who are residents of occupied East Jerusalem have nominal access to Al-Aqsa, but even they face restrictions. For example, Muslim pilgrims are allowed to enter the compound through the Mughrabi Gate, but Palestinians are not. The Israeli authorities also regularly and arbitrarily close Al-Aqsa “for security” reasons.
Israel’s claim that it recognizes and abides by the status quo at the holy sites is blatantly false. Israeli authorities violate Jordan’s and the Waqf’s rights every day by imposing their own security measures and deciding who gets to enter Al-Aqsa and who does not.
These violations have long fed debates, especially in the Arab world, about avoiding travel to Jerusalem. In 2012, the late Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi issued a fatwa arguing that it is forbidden to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem because it is a form of normalization of the Israeli state.
Israeli profits and the erasure of Palestinians
Apart from Israel’s attacks on Al-Aqsa and Muslim worshippers, another issue to consider is how travelling to the holy places actually benefits Israel financially and inadvertently supports its propaganda.
Tourism is an important part of Israel’s economy, accounting for 2.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and 6 percent of its employment.
In 2019, Israel estimated that more than 127,000 tourists arrived from Muslim majority countries. Add to that Muslims from various diasporas, and you get a significant chunk of the 4.5 million tourists who visit Israel/Palestine annually.
With the signing in 2020 of a number of normalization deals with Arab states, known as the Abraham Accords, Israel has sought to tap into new pools of potential Muslim tourists to boost its tourism sector.
In 2021, former US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said he will work to bring Muslims to Jerusalem so they can “see for themselves the way Israel protects holy sites”. Meanwhile, the tourism ministry has prioritized marketing Israel as a tourist destination to Muslim travelers, managing its own tour services and coordinating with travel agencies.
The top result on Google when you enter “pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa” is the website of an Israel-based agency named Tourism of the World. The landing page for its Muslim pilgrimages to the “Sacred Land” quotes the Quran and lists various religiously significant places, such as Al-Aqsa, Omar Mosque and Jericho’s Nabi Musa Mosque. Of course, it makes no mention of Palestine or the Palestinians.
The problem is that it is not just Israeli-run travel agencies that erase the Palestinian people and their suffering. A quick look at tour operators for Muslim travel reveals that many of them also employ the same erasure.
One German agency, for example, offers a trip to Jerusalem that also includes visiting Bethlehem, Jericho and Hebron. Not once is “Palestine” or “Palestinians” mentioned in the advertisement of the tour on its website even though those are Palestinian cities on the itinerary.
One agency based in the UK not only makes no mention of Palestine, but it also discourages tourists from interacting with the “locals”. Another one even asserts that the tour it offers “is strictly a historical and spiritual trip” and it does “not associate with any political groups”.
There are even tour organizers who claim Al-Aqsa is safe for families with children, thus covering up the Israeli occupation’s deadly violence against Palestinians.
Emphasizing the spiritual significance of the land while turning a blind eye to the plight of its Indigenous people normalizes Israel’s occupation and apartheid and reinforces its campaign of erasure against the Palestinian people.
The Palestinians have made clear how they feel about such acts of complicity. In October 2020, local worshippers asked a business delegation from the United Arab Emirates that visited Al-Aqsa accompanied by Israeli security forces to leave the compound. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, also spoke up against Emirati Muslims visiting Al-Aqsa, citing a 2014 fatwa prohibiting prayer at the holy site that involves the normalization of Israel.
Boycotting Israel, embracing Palestine
Palestinians, of course, do not feel they have the exclusive right to decide who from the Muslim community may visit Al-Aqsa and who cannot. But they have asked for solidarity with their cause.
Since 2005, this appeal has emerged in the form of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls on “people of conscience” around the world to express their solidarity with the Palestinian people by boycotting Israel.
Heeding the call and deciding not to travel to Jerusalem is one option. But there is another: a pilgrimage to Jerusalem can instead offer tourists an opportunity to promote international solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
Israel employs tourism to whitewash its crimes, and it is incumbent on anyone who visits to resist these tactics that help exploit and brutalize the Indigenous population.
The BDS guidelines can help Muslims who want to visit Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa do so in a way that does not harm the Palestinians and their cause. They can heed the call by avoiding tourist sites in occupied Palestine that are run by Israel, boycotting all Israeli products and businesses, and not attending Israeli cultural events.
Choosing a travel agency or a group trip that does not violate the tenets of BDS is crucial. While some travel agencies incorporate interacting with local Palestinians as part of their tours, they do not adhere to BDS. There are even cases of travel agencies actively violating it by advertising tourist attractions such as the Tower of David Museum run illegally by the Israeli occupation authorities.
But BDS should be the bare minimum for every Muslim travelling to Jerusalem. Arguably, what is more important than doing no harm is in fact going to Palestine to learn about the entrenched Jewish settler colonialism, interact with Palestinians and strive to become their global ambassadors after returning home.
Through delegation trips, such as those done by groups like Eyewitness Palestine, travelers can undertake not only pilgrimage to the holy sites but also work towards building transnational solidarity and become advocates for justice and liberation within their own communities.
Fulfilling a sunnah does not have to go against the Palestinian cause. Struggling against injustice and standing up for the oppressed are key tenets of Islam. In this sense, it is only natural to support the Palestinian struggle by reimagining religious tourism to Jerusalem as a form of resistance to the occupation.
Muslims have to understand that the political and the spiritual are deeply intertwined. They should reject Israeli propaganda that dissociates Al-Aqsa from the Palestinian plight, help expose Israel’s settler colonial project and amplify Palestinian voices that narrate their oppression and liberation.
Hebh Jamal is an advocate against education inequality, Islamophobia and the occupation of Palestine