Israel shuts mosques, spurs furor Links to terrorism cited

Muslims claim harassment

February 11, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Authorities acting against Islamic groups they consider terrorists recently closed at least seven mosques in an action that appears to contradict Israel's assertion that it protects the freedom of all religions.

The recent closings, though not unprecedented, have become more numerous and have come just as Muslims are preparing to celebrate Ramadan, a one-month observance of fasting and prayer that begins this month and is centered on the mosques.

Muslim officials say the Jewish state is embarked on a campaign against Islam and is harassing its religious institutions.

Israeli authorities reply that they have acted only against mosques where they have found propaganda promoting violence against Jews and espousing anti-Semitism.

"We're not against Islam," said Uri Dromi, the government's chief spokesman. "When you have good evidence that the mosques exceed their role as a house of prayer and become a place where they incite and instigate people to go and kill Jews . . . you have to take action to stop it."

Adnan Husseini, the director of the Islamic Waqf, which administers Muslim activities in the occupied West Bank, met last week with Israeli army officials to protest the closings.

"They want to show the people of the world that Islam is terrorism," he said. "They are making a battle against Islam and Muslim places."

One of the closed mosques is in Bir Nabala, a working-class town just north of Jerusalem. The minaret of the mosque is a tall, graceful spindle that dominates the sky. On Fridays, the Islamic sabbath, the call to prayer from the minaret draws up to 700 people to services under the mosque's blue dome.

"It's bad to be closed in Ramadan," said Tawfeq Hajeh, the mayor of Bir Nabala. "I don't know what people will do. If they are not allowed in God's house, they will be angry. They know it's unjust."

The main Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is just five miles south, but Israel's system of passes for Palestinians prohibits most residents of Bir Nabala from entering Jerusalem, he said.

Israeli officials acknowledge that any action intruding on religious practices prompts uncomfortable questions. During Jordan's occupation of Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967, Israel persistently complained that Jews were barred from shrines in the holy city and that the shrines were desecrated.

The guarantee of freedom for all religions in the places it occupies is central to Israel's claims to a legitimate occupation of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.

"We know it's very sensitive," said Hanan Rubin, an official of the Israel civil administration in charge of the occupied territories.

"If any synagogue in the world was attacked or shut down, the Israelis would cry very loud," said Abdul Wahab Darawshe, one of the six Arab members of Israel's parliament, the Knesset. He demanded in the Knesset last week an explanation for the

closings but got no reply, he said.

"We must be very careful not to damage holy places," said another Knesset member, Yitzhak Levy of the Orthodox Jewish National Religious Party. "Unfortunately, mosques have been used for incitement. We have always maintained freedom of religion . . . [but] they must know not to take advantage of that, not to do things that promote terrorism."

Israel deported 415 Palestinians to southern Lebanon Dec. 17, saying they were members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Stung by international condemnation of the deportations, Israel has sought to portray itself as a bulwark against a dangerous spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

Growing fundamentalism

The 2 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are predominantly Muslim, and, as in many countries of the Arab world, Islamic fundamentalism is growing there.

In Egypt, hundreds of mosques have been closed or taken over by the government in its fight against Islamic fundamentalism. Israel reportedly considered such a widespread action before the deportations and rejected it, fearing worldwide criticism.

"It's an established policy, politics aside, that we make sure when it comes to the practice of religion, we respect the integrity of the religious sites and leaders," said Mr. Dromi, the government spokesman.

"It's a nice slogan, but since the intifada began they have violated it more and more times using the excuse of security," replied Mr. Darawshe, the Arab Knesset member.

Closings linked to Hamas

Mosques in the occupied territories have been closed occasionally since the start of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 1987. But Mr. Dromi said the current closings "are connected with the attempt to deal a blow to Hamas, no question."

Ori Orr, head of the Knesset security committee, said the closings are necessary. "We have to defend our lives. We are at war," he said.

The number of closed mosques is unclear. Mr. Rubin of the civil administration said seven mosques have been closed and that "one or two" may have been closed and reopened since the Dec. 17 deportations.

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