The refugee and the PopeBy Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz 03/19/2000
Abd al-Raouf al-Mabhoah is a 71-year-old Palestinian who lives in the Jebalya refugee camp in Gaza. He has probably not heard about the Pope's visit to the region this week; John Paul II has certainly never heard of him. The two would seem to have nothing in common, apart from one fact: they are both pious men who in their twilight years want to uphold the precept of the pilgrimage. The Pope's wish was granted without question, but al-Mabhoah is not being allowed to fulfill what may be the last such wish of his life. A few weeks ago he was taken off the bus that was supposed to take him from the airport terminal in Gaza to a plane that would fly him to Mecca. "If they had shot me with 10 bullets it would not have been as painful as it was to be sent back," he told Najib Abu Rokaya, a fieldworker for the B'Tselem human rights organization, last week. With two sons sentenced to lengthy prison terms in Israel (one took part in the killing of two soldiers) and another son barred from leaving Gaza, the father has no prospect of getting to Mecca. According to the criteria of Israeli justice, he too deserves punishment - without a trial, of course. The sins of the sons are visited upon the fathers.The widow of a shepherd, Fatma al-Redaida, a near-blind elderly woman from the village of Al-Ubeida, also wanted to travel to Mecca this year. For years she dreamed of going on the hajj, but Israel prevented it - as it also did in the case of another elderly woman, Sara Abu Hameida, from the Aeida refugee camp in Bethlehem. In each case, it seems that the reason is the sins of the children. When I visited the women at their homes a few weeks ago, they were both distraught. "You do not see the suffering of anyone, you do not see the pain," al-Redaida said, referring to the Israeli authorities. "You only know how to say: get back to your house." "Perhaps you do not understand what the hajj means for these old people," said Imad, Abu Hameida's son.
Every year Israel prevents dozens of Palestinians from going to Mecca, removing them roughly and carelessly from the buses that take them on the first leg of the pilgrimage, which every Muslim is enjoined to make at least once in his life. So while Jews can pray at Joseph's Tomb in the heart of Palestinian Nablus, Palestinians are prevented from going on pilgrimage to their holiest site. Most of those removed from the buses are old people whose world falls apart when they are sent back home. Driven by an unlimited sense of lordship, Israel continues to infringe on the freedom of religion of two and a half million people.
Israel spent NIS 26 million on preparations for the papal visit - and that is fine. Israel wants to tell the world that the Holy Land is in good hands. But Israel is constantly making proud declarations that it maintains, for all faiths, freedom of worship and freedom of access to the holy places. Freedom of worship? Free access? Palestinians consider that a joke. A state where the "Ministry of Religious Affairs" is actually the ministry of religion - the Jewish religion, of course - and in which, week after week, thousands of Palestinians are blocked from praying at their third-holiest site, Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque - such a state cannot rightfully claim to uphold those freedoms.
An observer need look no further than Israel's treatment of Muslim holy places within Israel. The country is strewn with cemeteries and mosques that have been desecrated or wiped off the face of the earth. For years, no one has bothered to erase the Hebrew inscription "dog pound" on the great mosque of the destroyed Syrian city of Hishnaiya on the Golan Heights, and worse abuse has been scrawled on what remains of the mosque's walls. Imagine what would happen if Jewish synagogues in Europe were desecrated in a similar manner. And what about the sanctity of the cemetery in the village of Yalu, where Israel razed all the houses to the ground in 1967? A few months ago I saw cows dropping their dung among the headstones. Not far from there, in the cemetery of another village, Beit Nuba - also leveled to the ground by Israel - a fence and security men from the settlement of Mevo Horon deny entry to relatives of those buried in the cemetery.
In the front yard, Israel is welcoming the Pope with all the respect due him, while in the back yard, cows leave droppings in Muslim cemeteries. Israel demands that those who victimized Jews apologize and ask forgiveness, but it forgets the victims of its making.