Al-Haram al-Sharif, Al Quds, and Ramallah
and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another
without a memory to guide me.
The prophets over there are
sharing the history of the holy.
(Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian poet, died 2008)
The golden dome of the Dome of the Rock on the Al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) is the most prominent feature of the Jerusalem skyline, glistening in the sun and visible for miles. This morning, we were the honored guests of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, permitted to tour the magnificent Dome and the Al-Haram al-Sharif (known to Jews as the Temple Mount). Virtually unchanged for 1,500 years, the massive building is covered with mosaics and lined with quotes from the holy Qur'an, standing on the traditional site of Mt. Moriah, where in the Old Testament Abraham binds Isaac for the sacrifice as God commanded (Genesis 22). For Muslims, it is where Mohammed ascended into heaven to receive instruction from Allah concerning the five daily prayers. We were permitted inside the Dome and down the staircase where faithful Muslims come to pray in front of the rock on which sacrifices were made in early biblical times.
We were next escorted into a private audience with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, two other Muslim clerics, and a secular leader of the Muslim community. As with so many of our other meetings with Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike, they decried the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, the restrictions of movement, and the harassment of Palestinians, themselves included, as a matter of course in daily life.
Shedding our head coverings and extra clothing provided the women prior to entering Al-Haram al-Sharif, we walked just a short distance to a very secular Al-Quds University. We met with Dr. Sari Nusseilbeh, President of Al-Quds, author and respected academic. Also there to speak with us was Huda Al-Imam, Director of the Centre for Jerusalem Studies at Al-Quds. This may be the only university in the world offering a master’s degree in the study of a single city! Students may also learn Arabic at the Centre. Because movement is so restricted among Palestinians, major projects have included creation of a virtual library of all Jerusalem-related resources owned by Al-Quds and producing virtual tours of Jerusalem. Field trips are arranged to bring children to the Old City because, once they turn 15, children are not allowed in by Israeli authorities.
After a 45-minute bus ride north of Jerusalem, passing through Bet El (Bethel), we arrived at St. Joseph’s Catholic Parish in Jifna, where the community had prepared a fabulous lunch for us. Father Firas Aridah, a Jordanian-born priest, provided his commentary on the Palestinian situation and described his ministry efforts in this largely Muslim town. A representative from Catholic Relief Services outlined that organization's efforts to assist projects such as those under way in Jifna, although American aid (through USAID) was cut off after Palestine requested statehood recognition at the United Nations in November.
Backtracking from Jifna, we arrived in Ramallah to meet the Rev. Mark Brown, regional representative for Lutheran World Federation, who provided us a tour of the settlements springing up in this seat of the Palestinian Authority. We stopped at the tomb and shrine of the late chairman of the PLO and first president of the Palestinian Authority, Yasir Arafat, who is revered throughout the West Bank and Gaza. We also visited the almost-completed shrine of a poet who was the closest thing to being a poet laureate in Palestine, Mahmoud Darwish. One could not help noting the size and elegance of his shrine when compared with Arafat’s. (In fairness, the latter’s burial place in Ramallah is assumed to be temporary, as his wishes were to be buried at the al-Aqsa mosque on the Al-Haram al-Sharif.) Still in Ramallah, we were treated to a fabulous dinner at the Movenpick Hotel, where Dina Nasser, a public health nurse and consultant to the Palestinian Authority’s health program on infectious disease, spoke to us of her difficult personal circumstances. She is married to an American, a West Bank citizen with no rights to live in Jerusalem where she works. So he lives in Ramallah, and she lives in Jerusalem so as not to lose her residency there for herself and their three children. We also met a representative responsible for communications from the negotiating team of the Palestinian Authority who presented a slideshow detailing what he described as a deliberate process on the part of the Israelis since 1967 to systematically expropriate Palestinian land, shutting Palestinians off from each other and the Jordanian border, stealing their water supplies and farmland resources, and erecting checkpoints not just between the West Bank and Israeli territory but within Palestinian land itself. Even the Israeli Foreign Minister lives in a settlement, he claims.
It was a very long day with a lot of information and discussion about the issue of Palestine. The organizer of this trip for YDS has tried for months, up to and including this week, to have Israeli leaders speak with us, too, but they were unable to do so, especially in light of the Obama-Netanhayu dialogue and the violence in Gaza.
Elaine Ellis Thomas