Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel Friday not to allow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to turn into a religious war.
In an address in Ramallah, three days after two Palestinian terrorists killed five Israelis in an attack on a synagogue, and amid swirling tensions surrounding the contested Temple Mount, Abbas said, “There is a political struggle between us, so let’s talk politics. Don’t turn it into a religious struggle, because once struggles like that start, they don’t end.”
The PA chief, blamed by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for inciting recent acts of terror with anti-Israel speeches and propaganda, went on to urge: “You mustn’t come close to our mosques, to our churches. And we mustn’t come close to your synagogues.”
Israel’s Shin Bet security chief Yoram Cohen on Wednesday told legislators that Abbas is not directly or indirectly encouraging terrorism, but said some of his comments may be interpreted in some quarters as a call to arms. Some PA officials and members of Abbas’s Fatah faction have charged that Israel is threatening the safety of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, encouraged “days of rage” to “protect” Al-Aqsa, posted anti-Israel cartoons, and broadcast anti-Israel messages, including endorsements for several recent terror attacks.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Friday that Abbas was indeed not fostering terrorism in the West Bank, because “he knows it could rebound against him and bring him down” — a reference to Hamas efforts to oust the PA chief. However, Abbas was guilty of incitement regarding Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, Ya’alon said.
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, echoing this theme Friday night, said the PA’s own official website carried incitement to terrorism and that Abbas has spoken recently of the imperative to prevent hordes of settlers descending on Al-Aqsa. “That’s what we have to counter,” he said.
Israel was facing “deliberate Islamist incitement,” said Hanegbi, and the culprits were falsely alleging that “the Jews are seeking to rebuild the Temple” in place of the mosques atop the Temple Mount. He called such allegations a “blood libel.”
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down in the spring amid mutual recriminations.
Abbas’s call to avoid a religious war followed comments by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, who said on Wednesday that Israel is not at war with Islam and that the conflict should not be allowed to become about religion.
“These are difficult days for Jerusalem for the simple reason that the political struggle over Jerusalem, the nationalist struggle, the Israeli-Arab conflict, has turned into a Jewish-Muslim conflict, and to my sorrow both sides understand this — understand this but are not doing anything about it,” Rivlin said.
“We have no dispute with Islam, we did not have, we will not have, and today, too, we don’t have,” he declared. “We need to make it clear to everyone.”
The president, unlike some other Israeli leaders and security officials, did not hesitate to label the current surge of violence an intifada.
“We are on the brink of an intifada or even at the start of one with a religious dimension and this is very dangerous for us and the whole region. For Abu Mazen [Abbas] no less than the state of Israel. I’m sure that everyone wants to avoid inter-religious flare-up between Jews and Muslims,” he said.
“It has never been a religious war. But fundamentalism and incitement always found their way in, even when we did not allow them to do so.”
The president urged Israelis to avoid taking steps that would potentially heighten tensions surrounding the Temple Mount compound, the holiest spot in Judaism that also contains the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.
“We have always realized, as Israelis and as Jews, that we are not fighting Islam and thus avoided turning the Temple Mount issue into a war of Jews against Muslims,” he said. “This is the way things were, but it is currently fading.”
“It would be best if [Israeli] leaders realized that they should not raise the issue of control over the Temple Mount.”
Tensions have flared in the capital over calls from some activists, backed by a few hawkish parliamentarians, to permit Jewish prayer in the Temple Mount compound where it is currently forbidden. The Israeli government has said it has no intention of changing the status quo.