RAMALLAH, West Bank — How can the Palestinians condemn the act of murdering an innocent Israeli, but label the murderer a martyr?
During his most recent interview on prime time Hebrew news, in April, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas set the stage for this question.
Speaking directly to Israelis, Abbas spoke out against the hundreds of attacks against Israeli civilians since a spike in violence began in October 2015. And yet, he also insisted on referring to these attackers as martyrs, which Israelis argue is incitement to more violence and terrorism.
“Once he is dead, he is a martyr,” Abbas said. But doesn’t that set a bad example for the next generation? the interviewer asked. “No, no,” Abbas answered, shaking his head — and they left it at that, with the question hanging.
The Times of Israel met recently with Dr. Mahmoud Habbash, the supreme sharia judge in the Palestinian Authority and Abbas’s adviser on religious and Islamic affairs, to see if he could answer this question, as well as get his opinion on other pressing religious matters central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The judge defined a martyr, or shahid in Arabic, as “anybody who has been killed in a war against non-Muslims.” He also said Palestinians are in an open “state of war” with the “Israeli occupation.” In the context of this state of war, he argued, any Palestinian killed as a result of it — whether directly or indirectly, whether an Israeli fundamentalist firebombed his home, or whether he attacked a soldier or a civilian, and yes, even if he was killed while stabbing to death a teenage Israeli girl in her bedroom as was the case of the murderer of 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel last month — is a “victim” of the conflict because his actions were a product of it. And therefore, said Habbash, he is a shahid.
What he called Israel’s obsession with the Palestinian use of the term martyr is a red herring, Habbash said. Israel, he said, using an Arabic phrase, is like one that “sees the wolf and looks for his tracks.” Meaning, Israel should focus on what he considers to be the main issue — the occupation — and stop what he regards as nit-picking over what terms the Palestinians use.
Habbash spoke mainly in English, though sometimes in Arabic, in his office in Ramallah. A tall though not imposing man, he speaks with a preacher’s gusto and at times his hands slap the table, for example when he says he wholeheartedly condemned the 9/11 attacks, but [bangs the table] “Here, we are fighting against occupation, to liberate our homeland.”
A former Hamas member, the PA’s supreme sharia judge sports a well-trimmed beard, though, he indicated, it was once longer — when he was a preacher in Gaza. In a rebuke of the Islamist group that seized control of the enclave in 2007, he says he left (in 1994) because he wants to “serve Islam” and not “use Islam.” But Habbash, after the official interview concluded, laughed (literally) at the idea that he might be a member of Hamas’s political rival, the secular Fatah party headed by Abbas. He says he is “totally independent” politically, and “wholly Palestinian.” His loyalty, besides to his people, is to Abbas the man, he said. When Abbas, 81, leaves office, he will leave too.
The Islamic tradition of martyrdom is mainly taken from the Hadith, a massive collection of sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad or his close companions. Each martyrdom-related Hadith expands on the concept. As this reporter has learned through many months of asking Palestinians what they think a martyr is, this much is clear: the concept of martyrdom is like a ball of yarn — the more you pull at it, the more it unravels. Habbash’s explanation of martyrdom as applicable to one who falls fighting non-Muslims is hardly the last word on the subject. For example, during the infighting between Hamas and Fatah in 2006-2007, each referred to only its own dead as martyrs. Even at Habbash’s level of scholarship, the concept demands fluidity.
Habbash further asserted that the entire land of historic Palestine is Islamic waqf — an inalienable religious endowment for Muslims — including, as he has insisted, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, known to Muslims as the al-Buraq Wall. How can he say it all belongs to Muslims while also saying he believes Jews have a right to their own state in the land? To that he answered: the reality of waqf does not forbid Muslims to share their land.
But regarding the holiest site in Judaism, the Temple Mount — known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif — Habbash said the idea that ancient Jewish temples stood where the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem stands today is a myth.
Habbash was unfazed by a 1925 pamphlet on the Temple Mount produced by the Supreme Islamic Council, the body in charge of Muslim community affairs during the British Mandate in Palestine from 1920 to 1948, that states that the Temple Mount is indisputably the former site of Solomon’s temple. While he respects the Jews’ right to their own narrative, Habbash said, there is a “reality on the ground.” The Palestinians, he said, are only asking for the status quo to be preserved — meaning that only Muslims can pray there, but Jews can visit.
Pressed on this point — wasn’t it once the Waqf’s own narrative that Solomon’s temple was on the mount? — Habbash’s response, in short, was this: forget narratives and concentrate on the status quo. “Please, please, don’t push us against the wall” and make this a religious war, he said, in which Israel would find “two billion Muslims as well as two billion Christians against you.” This unveiled threat was delivered in the calmest, nicest way imaginable.
Following the interview, Habbash asked for a copy of the pamphlet. In a statement to The Times of Israel, he questioned the document’s authenticity, saying he has “plenty of reasons to believe that some of the sentences were altered and new phrases and terms were injected in order to make it look like it endorses the Jewish narrative that the area where Haram al-Sharif stands used to be the site of the Temple Mount.”
What follows below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview with Habbash.
The Times of Israel: Let’s start off with simply defining our terms. How would you define a martyr?
Mahmoud Habbash: Martyrdom is a religious, Islamic term. It’s not a political issue. For example, in our traditional language, before Islam, before the Prophet Muhammad, Arabs did not use the term shahid. But Muslims began to use this term after the Prophet came. So it’s a religious issue. Don’t try to interfere in religious matters. Don’t try to push us to switch the religious term into a political term. We don’t use religion in politics. Religion is religion, but politics is changeable. A martyr means anybody who has been killed in a war against non-Muslims. So it is a religious issue. It is connected to the final day — Judgment Day.
To be a martyr is a positive thing. How can somebody do an action that you condemn and then be called martyr? It seems contradictory. Can you explain?
If you ask me how we consider somebody a shahid, the prophet Mohammad said [he quotes a Hadith here], “Whoever fights so that the word of God is the highest, he goes in the way of God.” This is a shahid. So anybody who fights to support good values, the interests of humanity, for the benefit of people or of the religion — if he is killed — he is a shahid.
If I understand you correctly, then, the intention of a person who is killed in action is an important part of whether he/she will be considered a martyr?
Of course. But I don’t know his intention. It is an internal issue, in his heart and mind, between him and God. We can’t be certain a person is completely a shahid. But we think, we believe, and we ask God to consider him as a shahid.
So far we have two parts to our definition of a martyr. Firstly, he must be a Muslim fighting a non-Muslim. And secondly, his intention is important, though we as humans cannot know it. Yet currently, in the modern context between Israelis and Palestinians, it seems that any Palestinian who is killed by an Israeli, in any context, no matter his intention, no matter what he did before, is a martyr. If, for example, he killed a little girl in her room, and then was killed by an Israeli, he is still a shahid. Can you explain?
For myself, I don’t ask about his intention. His intention is not my business. It’s between the person and God. From the outside, he is a shahid. But between him and God, I don’t know.
Our translator, a PA official, interjects: This hooks up with the fact that there is still a state of war between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Until there is real peace between the two sides, there is a state of war. So any Palestinian killed, this way or another, is killed in the line of duty, so to speak, because of the state of war, whether it is a cold war or a hot war. This is a conceptual issue.
Do you agree?
For the Israelis, they consider any person who was killed by the Palestinians as a martyr.
Our translator interjects again: They call them halalim [the Hebrew term used by Israelis for soldiers killed or victims of terror attacks].
And for us, we consider anybody killed by non-Muslims within the context of a conflict a shahid. Not a conflict between two persons or neighbors. The conflict between us and the Israelis is not a religious conflict. But anybody defending his homeland, his house, his body, his self, his family, his money, his land, his children, he is a shahid. Because, our Prophet said clearly [Habbash quotes a Hadith]: “Whoever is killed defending himself and his property is a martyr.” This is a religious concept.
One day maybe the Israelis or [Prime Minister] Netanyahu will come and ask us, don’t pray for the Palestinian victims because they were attacking Israelis. You know we have a prayer for the dead. Any person who dies, we pray for him. It’s called Salat al-Janazah (the Islamic funeral prayer). Maybe you will come one day and say this person was killed by Israelis while he was attacking Israelis, so don’t consider him a martyr. Don’t pray for him. Don’t bury him in an Islamic graveyard. What are you talking about?!
‘He sees the wolf and looks for his trace’ [Meaning, you see the problem directly, but continue to look for signs of it elsewhere].
If we have peaceful relations between the two peoples, then you can come and talk to us about those things. But while we are in a state of war, don’t try to minimize the importance of the conflict, or the main issues. Don’t [nitpick] between the issues and tell us not to use this word here or there. This is not the right track. Go right to the point, which is that there is a situation of conflict, a national conflict between two peoples, between the Palestinian people and the Israeli occupation. When you put an end to the occupation, you will not see those types of behaviors from the Palestinian side. So you will not be in need to ask about this term or that term. Go directly to the point. This is our message to the Israelis. The issue is not how to use this term here or there. The issue is: Are you ready to put an end to the conflict, to remove all these bad issues from our relations? Or do you want to continue the occupation? In which case you will find us against you.
Before you ask about these terms, whether to use or not to use, ask a certain question: Why are young Palestinians who grew up during the period of the Oslo agreement now changing their behavior toward Israelis and starting to attack them? Why does hatred grow in their hearts, in their minds? Why? Ask Netanyahu himself. Ask the Israeli army. If I am a young Palestinian, and every morning I open my eyes to the presence of Israeli soldiers, on the checkpoints, on the crossings, on the roads, the settlers, the settlements that swallow up our land — put your feet in their shoes. Can you imagine your life under all of these conditions?
At this point the power goes out in the building for a few moments. The room goes dark and everyone laughs.
No electricity! You start to imagine what you can do to change the condition of your life.
Our translator interjects: [Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak said, “If I were a Palestinian, I would have done more (terror) than what the Palestinians do.” Do you remember?
Of course. Of course.
You are an Israeli and I am receiving you in my office. You are not my enemy. The Israelis are not our enemies. But the occupation is our enemy. And we will continue fighting the occupation. We are not fighting against the Jews. There is no conflict between Judaism and Islam. We are not in a war with Judaism as a religion, or the Jews as a nation. But with the occupation, yes, we are in a state of war.
Everybody fighting against the occupation, whether I agree with him in his way or not, he has a reason to fight. So anybody fighting against injustice, against the occupation, against the aggression and was killed, he is a shahid, of course. And any victim killed by the occupation is a shahid.
Have you ever heard any Palestinian, whether he is from the leadership or the ordinary people, say that those people who carried out the 9/11 attacks were martyrs? Of course not! Never! During 9/11 I was in Gaza. And I was a sheikh of course [he strokes an imaginary beard]. I stood up in the mosque and condemned the attacks, and said by all means, we send our condolences to the American people and leadership. We don’t consider any Palestinian or Muslim who attacks the Europeans or the Americans as martyrs. But here [he bangs on the table], we are fighting against occupation, to liberate our homeland.
I share President Abbas’s view that there are parties that deal with Quranic verses very selectively. They ignore the fact that the Quran bars killing innocent people. Instead they concentrate on whatever may serve the anti-Islam agenda. As Abbas said in his latest interview with the Israelis, the Quran is clear: “Whoever kills a person — unless it is for murder or corruption on earth — it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and whoever saves it, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind.”
All of Palestine is waqf, but two-state solution still valid
You’ve said before all of historic Palestine is an Islamic waqf, and religiously speaking belongs to Muslims. At the same time you say you accept the two-state solution. Isn’t this a contradiction?
No. What does waqf mean? It means that this land belongs to God, not to the people. We cannot sell it, we cannot buy it, we cannot do anything against the will of God with this land. Waqf means any Muslim has the same right in this land as I do, as the Palestinians do. Any Muslim has the right to pray in the Al Aqsa Mosque freely, or in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.
‘Waqf means it belongs to God. Not to anybody. So, we can get used to sharing it with the non-Muslims.’
“Waqf means it belongs to God. Not to anybody. So, we can get used to sharing it with the non-Muslims. Perhaps you know that when the Muslims came and liberated Palestine from the Romans, the Muslim caliph, Omar ibn al-Khattab, allowed the non-Muslims to stay, to remain in Jerusalem and in all of Palestine. When Salah-a-Din came and liberated Jerusalem, he brought some Jews with him and some Christians as well. The military leader of the Salah-ad-Din’s army was Issa al-Awam, a Christian.
I don’t think Jews are worried about the fact that they could stay in a Muslim country. Rather, they are talking about owning their own land, having an independent state.
How to deal with this situation on the ground is a political issue. But in our faith, it’s waqf.
In the Quran there is a verse, “Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes — from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly.”
‘Preserve status quo on Haram al-Sharif, or face religious war’
You say the idea the ancient Jewish Temples once stood where Al Aqsa now stands is a myth, or at the very least you must doubt it. However, in an Islamic Supreme Council pamphlet about al Aqsa from 1925, it is written: “Its identity with the site of Solomon’s temple is beyond dispute.” Today, it seems it has become the official Palestinian response to dispute this. What happened?
Regarding al Aqsa there are three narratives: the Christian narrative, the Jewish narrative and the Islamic narrative. I don’t accept your narrative, but I respect your right to believe in your narrative. And I accept that you don’t accept my narrative. But I don’t accept from the Israeli side not to respect my narrative. There are three narratives. Three religious-historic narratives. My narrative is that this place is a mosque since God created the world. It’s my narrative, it’s my faith; you don’t accept it, it’s up to you. But I believe in this. It is a religious issue in my heart, in my mind. However, the issue is not a clash of narratives. There is a reality on the ground right now. But both of us can agree since the Islamic liberation of Palestine, of Jerusalem, 1,300 years ago, this place is a mosque called Al Aqsa.
Hold on. You are talking about different narratives. But I didn’t quote to you a Jewish scholar who said the temples were there. I specifically quoted the Islamic Supreme Council, the Muslim narrative.
As I mentioned, it is not an issue of historical or religious narratives. There is a reality. There is a status quo on the ground at least since 1724 [when an Ottoman decree ratified the status quo of holy places in Palestine, according to Habbash]. The right of prayer inside the Al Aqsa Mosque belongs just to Muslims. Any non-Muslim who wants to visit inside the mosque is allowed. This remained the status quo until 2000, until the terrible visit of [then opposition leader Ariel] Sharon to the Al Aqsa Mosque.
We are asking for this historic status quo: prayer is just for Muslims and everyone can visit. But if you want to put us face-to-face in a religious conflict — religious narratives against each other — we will not reach anywhere. It will just put us in a religious war. And in this religious war, you will not just find us Palestinians, you will be facing more than two billion Muslims and two billions Christians as well. So please, please, don’t push us against the wall. The conflict is a political conflict between the Palestinian people and the occupation. Put an end to the occupation and everything will be peaceful.
Sometimes the word occupation becomes obscured. It’s not always clear what you mean. Does it mean only the West Bank and Gaza, or also Haifa and Jaffa?
The Palestinian leadership always says we are asking for the end of the Israeli occupation that started in 1967, through a two-state solution along the 1967 borders. You don’t want? You want to talk about Haifa and Ashkelon? By the way, I’m from Ashkelon.
Weren’t you born in Gaza?
My parents were born in Ashkelon. My grandfather is buried there. If you want us, or push us to re-think about Ashkelon, I will not ever forget that I am from Ashkelon.
But politically, we are asking for a two-state solution on the 1967 borders. You want it or not? Take it or leave it. If you leave it, you will find yourself facing the other option, the one-state solution. If you want that, we welcome it. You want two states, we welcome it. You want the continuation of the conflict, it’s up to you.
Hamas ‘uses’ Islam
You left the Hamas movement in 1994. Why?
Many reasons. Political reasons. Religious reasons. Many reasons.
Look, I am a Palestinian, and I am a Muslim. I am working for the benefit of Palestine. This is the main issue of mine. In my mind, Palestine is the first issue. Palestine is the most important issue in my life. Hamas is a part of the Muslim Brotherhood. When I found myself asking whether I want to be purely Palestinian or not purely a Palestinian, I prefer to be purely a Palestinian.
Secondly, I am serving Islam. I don’t want to use Islam.