To: (Friends of Sabeel--North America)

The Refugee and the Pope

By Gideon Levy

Abd al-Raouf al-Mabhoah is a 71-year-old Palestinian who lives in the
Jebalya refugee camp in Gaza. He has probably not heard about the Pope's
visit to the region this week; John Paul II has certainly never heard of
him. The two would seem to have nothing in common, apart from one fact:
they are both pious men who in their twilight years want to uphold the
precept of the pilgrimage. The Pope's wish was granted without question,
but al-Mabhoah is not being allowed to fulfill what may be the last such
wish of his life. A few weeks ago he was taken off the bus that was
supposed to take him from the airport terminal in Gaza to a plane that
would fly him to Mecca. "If they had shot me with 10 bullets it would not
have been as painful as it was to be sent back," he told Najib Abu Rokaya,
a fieldworker for the B'Tselem human rights organization, last week. With
two sons sentenced to lengthy prison terms in Israel (one took part in the
killing of two soldiers) and another son barred from leaving Gaza, the
father has no prospect of getting to Mecca. According to the criteria of
Israeli justice, he too deserves punishment - without a trial, of course.
The sins of the sons are visited upon the fathers.The widow of a shepherd,
Fatma al-Redaida, a near-blind elderly woman from the village of
Al-Ubeida, also wanted to travel to Mecca this year. For years she dreamed
of going on the hajj, but Israel prevented it - as it also did in the case
of another elderly woman, Sara Abu Hameida, from the Aeida refugee camp in
Bethlehem. In each case, it seems that the reason is the sins of the
children. When I visited the women at their homes a few weeks ago, they
were both distraught. "You do not see the suffering of anyone, you do not
see the pain," al-Redaida said, referring to the Israeli authorities. "You
only know how to say: get back to your house." "Perhaps you do not
understand what the hajj means for these old people," said Imad, Abu
Hameida's son.

Every year Israel prevents dozens of Palestinians from going to Mecca,
removing them roughly and carelessly from the buses that take them on the
first leg of the pilgrimage, which every Muslim is enjoined to make at
least once in his life. So while Jews can pray at Joseph's Tomb in the
heart of Palestinian Nablus, Palestinians are prevented from going on
pilgrimage to their holiest site. Most of those removed from the buses are
old people whose world falls apart when they are sent back home. Driven by
an unlimited sense of lordship, Israel continues to infringe on the
freedom of religion of two and a half million people.

Israel spent NIS 26 million on preparations for the papal visit - and that
is fine. Israel wants to tell the world that the Holy Land is in good
hands. But Israel is constantly making proud declarations that it
maintains, for all faiths, freedom of worship and freedom of access to the
holy places. Freedom of worship? Free access? Palestinians consider that a
joke. A state where the "Ministry of Religious Affairs" is actually the
ministry of religion - the Jewish religion, of course - and in which, week
after week, thousands of Palestinians are blocked from praying at their
third-holiest site, Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque - such a state cannot
rightfully claim to uphold those freedoms.

An observer need look no further than Israel's treatment of Muslim holy
places within Israel. The country is strewn with cemeteries and mosques
that have been desecrated or wiped off the face of the earth. For years,
no one has bothered to erase the Hebrew inscription "dog pound" on the
great mosque of the destroyed Syrian city of Hishnaiya on the Golan
Heights, and worse abuse has been scrawled on what remains of the mosque's
walls. Imagine what would happen if Jewish synagogues in Europe were
desecrated in a similar manner. And what about the sanctity of the
cemetery in the village of Yalu, where Israel razed all the houses to the
ground in 1967? A few months ago I saw cows dropping their dung among the
headstones. Not far from there, in the cemetery of another village, Beit
Nuba - also leveled to the ground by Israel - a fence and security men
from the settlement of Mevo Horon deny entry to relatives of those buried
in the cemetery.

In the front yard, Israel is welcoming the Pope with all the respect due
him, while in the back yard, cows leave droppings in Muslim cemeteries.
Israel demands that those who victimized Jews apologize and ask
forgiveness, but it forgets the victims of its making.