RAMALLAH — The Palestinian Authority (PA) is using West Bank mosques as a new battleground in its political offensive against its opponents within Hamas as well as critics from its own Fatah party.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas
The confrontations broke out after dozens of worshippers hurled abuse — in one case shoes were thrown — at imams reading a prepared sermon attacking critics of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
The sermon, which was authored by the PA's Ministry of Religious Affairs, was given to the imams who were then ordered to read it by PA officials prior to Friday prayers.
The PA has been dictating the imams' speeches for about a year but Friday's controversial sermon followed an attack on Abbas by the Egyptian-born but Qatar-based Sheikh Youseff El-Qaradawi who is sympathetic to Hamas.
َQaradawi launched his blistering attack on Abbas after an increasing number of foreign and local media reports alleged that the PA president had colluded with Israel's military onslaught on Gaza at the beginning of last year.
Qaradawi also condemned Abbas' attempts to thwart a U.N. vote on Justice Richard Goldstone's report on Gaza which largely criticized Israeli war crimes committed during the war. However, the cleric denied issuing a fatwa against Abbas.
"I did not issue a fatwa. I am not a judge or investigator. What I said is that the Arab League should investigate the matter, and if it was proved that Abbas instigated Israel against Gaza, he deserved to be publicly stoned in Mecca because this would be a betrayal on his part," said Qaradawi.
Abbas' retaliation was swift as his media outlets were instructed to launch a vitriolic smear campaign against Qaradawi who is considered a prominent scholar on Islamic law.
Qaradawi was called an "ignoramus" and "a puppet of the government of Qatar," amongst some of the less offensive epithets.
Despite the controversy stoked by the newly appointed and pro-PA imams, on PA orders, some braver West Bank imams simply refused to read the propaganda sermon while others edited the text thereby threatening their future employment.
"There is a strong possibility that these imams will lose their jobs. The PA has been targeting imams who are critical of the PA for some time now," said Mahmoed Ramahi, the Palestinian Legislative Council secretary-general.
"The PA has been carrying out a political arrest campaign against Hamas and trumping up charges against political opponents for some time now," Ramahi told IPS.
The PA charges that Hamas is doing exactly the same in Gaza. But it is not only Hamas that the PA has to contend with.
Of significance is the fact that many of Friday's protesting worshippers included Fatah members who had walked out on the imams' sermons in disgust and protest at the politicization of religion by their own party. They were not arrested.
On Saturday the smear campaign ratcheted up a level when a giant photographic mural of Qaradawi kissing a Jewish rabbi was plastered on a building near the center of Ramallah.
The mural was courtesy of Tarek Abbas, president Abbas' son who runs an advertising company. The idea was to paint Qaradawi as an agent of Zionism.
However, the fact that the rabbi in question was actually a member of the anti-Zionist Naturei Karta movement, which advocates that the current State of Israel is illegal and that a Jewish state can only be established once the Messiah returns, was not lost on the Palestinian street.
"We are not stupid. The PA insults our intelligence assuming that we are unaware who the real agent of Zionism is and who is really colluding with Israel," Yasser Aboud (name changed) told IPS.
While the PA may have not succeeded in fooling Ramallah residents with regard to Qaradawi's credentials, it appears to have succeeded in silencing dissent and criticism amongst ordinary Palestinians — at least publicly.
The fear on the street was palpable as IPS tried to speak to a number of people outside the Gamal Abdul Nasser Mosque in Ramallah, one of the mosques where PA security forces were seen beating up and arresting worshippers.
Several people refused to talk or just shook their heads and claimed ignorance of the whole affair.
One young man who started talking to IPS stopped when a police car drew up and a PA security man armed with a two-way radio spent an inordinate amount of time examining the clothing the young man was selling.
Another young man, Saleh Amin (not real name), told IPS, "The only reason I'm talking to you is because you are foreign. If you were Palestinian I'd be suspicious immediately."
"There are mukhabarat (detectives or plain-clothed security agents) listening and watching people in the street all the time. Anybody who is critical or suspected of dissenting is arrested and investigated," said Saleh.
Samir Awad, a political scientist at Birzeit University near Ramallah, said that people in positions of power or influence, including himself, had some immunity from arrest but that this didn't apply to the man in the street.
"There is little doubt that people are being persecuted for their political beliefs here in the West Bank," Awad told IPS.
Meanwhile, in a subsequent development, Ramahi informed IPS that after the PLC held a press conference on Sunday, one which the PA had tried to prevent from taking place, members of the PLC staff were arrested by PA security.