An electrical fire recently broke out at the historic Al-Jazzar mosque, located in the northern Israeli city of Acco. The damage to the centuries-old structure was extensive, but the community’s show of unity in dealing with the blaze’s aftermath is heartening.
Such unity in the wake of this tragedy casts a glimmer of hope illuminating a potential path to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Acco is one of the most religiously diverse cities in Israel, and perhaps in the entire Middle East. About a quarter of the population are Muslims, two-thirds Jews, and the remainder Christian Arabs, Druze Arabs and Bahá’í. In the Old City sector of Acco, 95 percent of the residents are Arabs.
Yet in a region where religious pluralism can itself be combustible, something special happened after this fire. There were no accusations that Jews set the blaze. No calls for jihad. No stabbing attacks. No riots. Sadly, none of these events would have been shocking. After all, anti-Israel incitement is a daily feature of Palestinian media, school curricula and government propaganda. Just a few days ago, a shocking video showed a Palestinian father pushing his young son toward Israeli soldiers and challenging them to murder his son. Instead, the Israeli soldiers extended a high-five to the toddler.
Who can forget the recent wave of stabbings and cars plowing into people on crowded sidewalks because Palestinians falsely claimed that the Jews were trying to take over the Temple Mount? This, despite the reality that Israeli police enforce exclusively Muslim prayer at the site. Just this week, Fatah, the party of the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas, proudly announced as one of its crowning achievements that it has killed 11,000 Israelis.
Not only did calm prevail after the fire, but as one Arab resident observed, “There is no way that someone set the mosque on fire … this is a place in which Arabs and Jews live together and have good relations.”
What explains the stark contrast between the harmonious relations of Jews and Arabs in Acco and the Palestinian violence on daily display in the West Bank. The answer is that Arab leaders in Acco are willing to build bridges with their Jewish neighbors, sometimes even at great risk to themselves. The answer is also Sheikh Samir Assi, the imam of the Al-Jazzar mosque.
The Sheikh is known for his efforts, along with Jewish clergy, of maintaining coexistence between Muslims and Jews in the mixed city. He helps prevent friction between the two communities, and he even joined with Israel’s former Chief Rabbi in making a condolence visit to the site of an infamous terrorist massAcco of Jews in 2015. The Sheikh’s efforts have come at a steep price, however. He was the victim of an attack in 2014 when a masked individual threw acid at his car.
Compare Sheikh Assi to Palestinian President Abbas, who declared in 2015: “Al-Aqsa (mosque on the Temple Mount) is ours, and so is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They (Israelis) have no right to desecrate them with their filthy feet. We won’t allow them to do so, and we will do whatever we can to defend Jerusalem. … Each drop of blood that was spilled in Jerusalem is pure blood as long as it’s for the sake of All-h. Every shahid (martyr) will be in Heaven, and every wounded person will be rewarded, by All-h’s will.”
In 2015, Palestinian Liberation Organization Executive Committee member Mahmoud Ismail said that the killing of Israelis Naama and Eitam Henkin in their car in front of their four children was not merely legal but was fulfilling Palestinian “national duty.” Fatah Central Committee member Mahmoud Al-Aloul stated: “Fatah … accepted responsibility for the Itamar operation (i.e., murder of Eitam and Naama Henkin) carried out against settlers, leading to their deaths.” The official Palestinian Authority daily newspaper has encouraged Palestinians to continue throwing rocks at Israelis and to sacrifice themselves to defend Al-Aqsa from imaginary threats.
Acco is a shining example of how peace can be accomplished. Unfortunately, current Palestinian leadership is unwilling to take meaningful, serious steps to achieve peace. Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority would do well to emulate Sheikh Samir Assi instead of proudly declaring that they murdered 11,000 Israelis and offered 170,000 martyrs.
Israel has compromised mightily in many attempts to achieve peace, but to no avail. As an example, in return for evacuating Gaza, all it received were thousands of rockets fired at its civilians, terror tunnels, and a constant stream of terrorism. This conflict is not about Israel’s willingness to cede land for peace. It is about the failure of the Palestinian leadership who have brainwashed an entire generation to glorify the murder of Jews. But courageous leaders like Sheikh Assi do exist.
Acco shows that peace is possible, if only Palestinian leaders seek it. (Sun Sentinel/TNS)