Abu Ghosh, Arab town known for warm ties to Zionism, to get Yasser Arafat center
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Abu Ghosh, Arab town known for warm ties to Zionism, to get Yasser Arafat center

Cornerstone to be laid Wednesday; Munib al-Masri, billionaire Palestinian peace advocate and ex-minister under late PLO leader widely reviled in Israel, seen behind initiative

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

People ride horses near the new mosque, partially funded by Chechnya, in the Arab town of Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem, March 23, 2014. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
People ride horses near the new mosque, partially funded by Chechnya, in the Arab town of Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem, March 23, 2014. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

The Arab Israeli town of Abu Ghosh, known for a history of friendly relations with Jews and Zionism, is to initiate construction on Wednesday of a cultural center in honor of a Palestinian figure revered among Arabs but deeply unpopular among many Jews, Yasser Arafat.

Located 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem and with a population of around 7,000 people, Abu Ghosh is well known for its beautiful churches, classical music festivals, hummus restaurants, brand-new megalith mosque, and its uniquely friendly relations with the majority Jewish population in its surroundings.

On Wednesday, a large ceremony is scheduled to take place in the town to celebrate the laying of a foundation stone for a cultural center in honor of Arafat, the late PLO chief and Nobel peace prize laureate.

Arafat, who died in 2004, remains a venerated figure among Palestinians, but is seen by many in Israel as an unreformed terrorist who doomed the 2000 Camp David attempt at peacemaking, orchestrated the suicide bombing onslaught of the Second Intifada that followed, and disseminated a still-prevailing narrative among Palestinians that denies Jews’ history and legitimacy in the Holy Land.

Yasser Arafat in 2002 (photo credit: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Yasser Arafat, 2002 (AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The press release for Wednesday’s event, sent out by the Jerusalem Endowment Fund — an organization that says it works to strengthen the economic and educational fields of Palestinians in Jerusalem and bolster the city’s Arab identity — states that Abu Ghosh has been chosen to commemorate the legacy of Arafat due to its perseverance against the Israeli “occupation.”

“Abu Ghosh is a town that survived the Nakba [Catastrophe],” says the release, referring to the defeat and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arabs in the 1948 war in which Israel gained its independence.

Abu Ghosh, which chose to stay neutral during the war in 1948 and therefore remained untouched by Israel’s army, is cast in the press release as a symbol of unity and steadfastness for the Palestinian national movement and its desired future capital, Jerusalem.

The cultural center is apparently the initiative of Palestinian billionaire and energy mogul Munib al-Masri, who is the chairman of the Jerusalem Endowment Fund. According to Israel’s Channel 10, in a report on May 1, the center is intended to serve as “an Arafat cultural heritage center.”

Munib Al-Masri at his home, Beit Falasteen, overlooking Nablus, April 8, 2014 (photo credit: Suha Halifa/Times of Israel)
Munib a-Masri at his home, Beit Falasteen, overlooking Nablus, April 8, 2014. (Suha Halifa/Times of Israel)

Masri has been a strong advocate of a two-state solution, denounced violence and has taken much flak from the Palestinian boycott movement for trying to improve relations between the two sides, including meeting with Israeli businessman Rami Levy at one of Levy’s supermarkets in the West Bank to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative in August 2012.

Yet Masri, also known as the Duke of Nablus, remains a steadfast admirer of Arafat, for whom he served as a minister and close confidant. In an op-ed published in The Times of Israel in 2014, entitled “Like Arafat, I recognize the Jewish tie to Israel,” he described the former PLO chief’s relationship to Israelis and the Jewish people as “complex,” but said he “wholeheartedly” agreed with Arafat’s approach.

When Masri was asked about the cultural center by The Times of Israel, he said it was “none of your business where I build,” and refused to answer questions about the matter over the phone.

On Saturday, the Palestinian businessman visited Abu Ghosh and met with a number of local officials. The meeting was documented in a Facebook post published by a local news source.

A day earlier, Masri’s Jerusalem Endowment Fund sponsored a meeting in the capital about strengthening cooperation between Arabs within Israel and Arabs in the Palestinian territories, which was attended by Masri himself, mayor of Abu Ghosh Issa Abu Ghosh, Palestinian and Arab Israeli leaders and foreign dignitaries.

According to the Palestinian news site Knooznet.com, attendees at the meeting included the head of the High Monitoring Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, Mohammad Barakeh; member of Knesset for the Joint (Arab) List Osama Sa’adi; former mayor of Nazareth Ramez Jaraisy; the president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in the Palestinian Territories Omer Saleh; French Consul General Hervé Magro; and Turkish Deputy Consul General Hossam El Din Arslan.

In an interview with Knooznet, Barakeh said that the aim of the meeting was to “find ways to deepen the work between Palestinians within Israel and the city of Jerusalem in the economic, cultural, social and educational fields, the preservation of holy sites, and the development of practical plans for the advancement of the status of Jerusalem, in the shadow of Israel’s prevention of our people from reaching the city from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

Abu Ghosh is no stranger to large projects funded from outside donors that challenge the status quo.

People pray in a new mosque, partially funded by Chechnya, in the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Sunday, March 23, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
People pray in the new mosque in the Arab town of Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem, March 23, 2014. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

The small town, where religion has played a minor public role until relatively recently, now hosts the second-largest mosque in Israel — known as the “Mosque of Peace.” The mosque, which was inaugurated in March 2014, was largely paid for by the government of Chechnya, which contributed $6 million out of the total cost of $10 million.

Only the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is bigger. The 3.5 dunams (0.86 acres) of land on which the prayer space is built was donated by the Israel Land Administration.

The four clans that dominate the Abu Ghosh populace trace their origins to the Caucasus, from which they claim to have emigrated in the 16th century.

* This article was updated on May 2, replacing an earlier sentence on the intended purpose of the center with a reference to a Channel 10 report on the intended purpose.

Elhanan Miller contributed to this report.

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