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As if time stands still

It is as if time stands still. Monday, 25th February was the anniversary of the massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque, gunned down by Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein as they stood in prayer; more than 120 others were wounded in the attack. Nineteen years later little appears to have changed in the occupied Palestinian territories. The Oslo process remains stuck in a rut; the settler movement is still firmly entrenched and as armed and dangerous as ever; and the ideology which bolstered Goldstein's murderous act is still very much in currency.

Goldstein, an immigrant follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane's Kach Movement from New York, believed that he was on a mission to cleanse the land of Arabs. He wanted to destroy as many Arab "demons" as possible. In the illegal Kiryat Arba settlement where he lived, Rabbi Dov Lior described Goldstein as a righteous man, "holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust".



So appalling was the massacre that, in a rare move, the moribund UN Security Council condemned it "strongly". More specifically, it called upon Israel, the occupying power, to implement measures which included the confiscation of arms from, and prevention of violence by, its settlers. That demand has gone unheeded by Israel, as have so many other UN demands and resolutions.

Violent settler attacks against Palestinians doubled from 200 in 2009 to 400 in 2011. According to Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem, these ranged from shootings to beatings with clubs, the poisoning of water wells and the destruction of fruit trees.

Mass murderer Goldstein, it would appear, has realised his ambition, albeit posthumously. Since 1994, thousands of Palestinians have been forced out of Hebron's Old City in a process that can only be described as ethnic cleansing. Between 1994 and 2010, some 1,829 businesses were shut down. Viewed from this perspective, Palestinian author Ghada Karmi was right to describe Hebron as one of the greatest casualties of the Oslo Accord.

After physically splitting the Ibrahimi Mosque in two to allow Jews to worship there, the settler movement, backed by Israel's military and political establishment, has turned its attention to another Islamic sanctuary. This week's mosque massacre anniversary came amid increased violations of the sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Like Hebron in the mid-1990s, there are now growing calls to divide Al-Aqsa, either in terms of time allocations for Jews to worship therein or a physical barrier, as is the case in the Ibrahimi Mosque. Reports that President Barak Obama will visit the sacred mosque during his trip to the Holy Land have, inevitably, sparked tension and alarm among Palestinians.

Many view this is as a devious ploy by Israel to gain legitimacy for its Judaisation policies. The Jerusalem Foundation for Islamic Antiquities, the senior imam of Al-Aqsa, Shaikh Ekrima Sabri, and the leaders of Palestinian Islamic movements, including Shaikh Raed Salah, have all expressed serious concerns. Their common sentiment is that Al-Aqsa represents the last bastion of Arab and Muslim dignity that must be protected at all costs.

When President Obama meets his Israeli hosts later this month he will surely be reminded by them of Israel's "exceptionalism" and America's apparently "sacred duty" to support Israel come what may, even if it means violating international law and offending world opinion.

Now that the word is out, all eyes are upon the leader of the free world to see whether he will indulge the far-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu by visiting Al-Aqsa Mosque. If he does, the regional and international repercussions are unpredictable. The world's Muslims will no doubt recall with a shake of the head Obama's Cairo speech in June 2009 when he called for a new start in US relations with the Muslim world and a departure from the indiscretions of the Bush administration. His predecessor not only launched his so-called war on terror in order, many believe, to demonise and victimise Muslims, but he also collaborated with the "Butcher of Beirut", Israel's ex-prime minister Ariel Sharon, to usurp ever more Palestinian land. In an April 2004 exchange of letters Bush called on Palestinians to accept the "new realities" on the ground.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with President Obama visiting Al-Aqsa Mosque. The problem lies in how he goes about it. If he enters in the company of Israeli political and military leaders, that would be an endorsement of their claim to the revered Islamic sanctuary and the ultimate insult and provocation. If, however, he is genuinely interested in visiting Islam's third holiest mosque then he must do so with the consent of its guardians and according to their customs and protocol. Al-Aqsa Mosque is clearly not a piece of disputed real estate, either in part or in totality; its guardianship resides with Muslims and Muslims alone.

When Mr Obama arrives in Palestine later this month he will come face to face with the enduring consequences of the Hebron massacre. His visit coincides with another 19th anniversary, that of the UN Security Council adopting Resolution 904, which affirmed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the territories occupied by Israel in June 1967, including Jerusalem, and Israel's responsibilities thereunder. The last thing the American president should do is give any support, even tacitly, for the supremacist policies promulgated by Baruch Goldstein and his ideological heirs, who include members of successive Israeli governments. Palestine and the Middle East have had enough of Israel's racism, expansionism and aggression; Obama of all people should be aware of that. It's time for him to show true leadership and show that on this occasion, at least, time has not stood still.

Commentary & AnalysisIsraelMiddle EastPalestine
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