Ben Lynfield: Religious radicalism growing on both sides of Middle East conflict

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WITH the peace process in deep freeze, religious fundamentalism and extremism are growing on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The trend is threatening to turn a dispute over conflicting claims to the same territory that could be resolved through compromise into a more absolutist religious war.

The normally secular Palestinian Authority (PA) has joined Hamas in using Islam as a rallying point, while on the Israeli side, religious settler groups, backed by the government, are using scripture in their drive for control in Muslim areas of East Jerusalem.

Even secular ministers in prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government are adopting the discourse of fundamentalist settlers, who believe in a God-given Israeli right to possess Judea and Samaria, the biblical names for the occupied West Bank.

On Wednesday, education minister Gideon Saar announced he was expanding a programme for Israeli high school students to visit the tomb of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron. At the same time, he ruled out the idea of evacuating settlers as part of a peace deal.

On the Palestinian side, the struggle against occupation has morphed into dehumanisation of Israelis. Incitement has gained legitimacy, with the chief cleric appointed by normally moderate president Mahmoud Abbas rhetorically outbidding Hamas, the Islamic movement committed to Israel’s destruction. Last month, at a Fatah rally, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, invoked a hadith, or saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, that the resurrection at the end of days in which pious Muslims go to paradise will not take place until the faithful kill Jews. This evoked no condemnation within the PA.

Introducing Mr Hussein, the moderator of the rally said: “Our war with the descendants of the apes and pigs is a war of religion and faith”.

Incendiary invective is by no means a monopoly of the Palestinian side, with Israeli rabbi Ovadia Yosef saying two years ago that Arabs should be “smitten with the plague” .

Ghassan Khatib, director of the PA’s media centre, while declining to refer to Mr Hussein’s sermon, says there has been a significant change in the nature of the conflict in recent years. Religious and ideological radicalism has grown on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide, with the victory of Hamas in legislative elections in 2006 a telling indication.

In contrast to Mr Abbas’s espousal of a two-state compromise, Hamas’s charter states that all of the territory encompassing Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip is sacred Islamic territory and that none of it can be relinquished in a peace agreement

Mahmoud Habash, the PA religious affairs minister, has at times also cast the conflict with Israel as a ribat, or struggle for Islamic land. In 2007, the term appeared in PA high school textbooks.

On the Israeli side, with the government’s backing, the hard-line settler group Elad oversees a popular national archeological park that disseminates the message that the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan was – and is – the City of David, the biblical king

With religion being deployed in a way that further inflames an already seemingly intractable conflict, the prognosis for Israelis and Palestinians alike is bleak indeed.