Israel red-flags Pranab's mosque visit

Clashes raise security fears

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 7.10.15
The Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. (Getty Images)

New Delhi, Oct. 6: Israel has turned down a request from President Pranab Mukherjee to visit the Al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam's holiest shrines, during an unprecedented visit to Jerusalem next week, citing security concerns following a recent spate of violence at the compound.

India had proposed a visit by Mukherjee to the mosque, a part of the Temple Mount compound that also houses some of the most revered shrines of Judaism and Christianity, during his trip from October 13 to October 15, two senior officials independently confirmed to The Telegraph.

But a visit would be impossible, Israel communicated to India, amid daily clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters that have triggered fears of a wider uprising or intifada of a kind that in the past has claimed thousands of lives, the officials said today.

Mukherjee will visit Israel after a brief trip to the Palestinian city of Ramallah on October 12, and a two-day trip before that to Jordan. No Indian President has ever before visited Israel, Palestine or Jordan.

The visits, especially the much greater time Mukherjee will spend in Israel as compared to in Palestine, signify the prominent role Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assigned to ties with his counterpart in Jerusalem, Benjamin Netanyahu. No previous Indian government has so visibly celebrated in public its relations with Israel, worried about criticism that New Delhi was giving up its traditional support to Palestinian statehood.

But the culling of the President's proposed visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque captures how the Israel-Palestine conflict has cast a shadow on Mukherjee's trip even before he departs from India, despite New Delhi's attempts to portray the three legs of his journey as largely unrelated.

"Our position on the Palestinian cause has not changed," Anil Wadhwa, secretary (east) in the ministry of external affairs, said today. "But we have excellent relations with both Israel and Palestine."

The visits - to each of the three countries - will be loaded with symbolism. In Amman, Mukherjee will witness the renaming of a street after Mahatma Gandhi, and will inaugurate a fertiliser plant set up as a joint venture between India and Jordan.

In Ramallah, where India has a small diplomatic mission, the President will visit the mausoleum of Yasser Arafat, the leader and face of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, described by Wadhwa as a "great friend" of India.

Mukherjee will attend the naming of a road and a roundabout after India, and will formally inaugurate an already functioning boys' high school funded by New Delhi and named after Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister who isn't a favourite of the current government.

In Jerusalem, Mukherjee will address the Knesset, Israel's parliament. "It is an honour for us that Israel has invited the President to speak at the Knesset," Wadhwa said. "It isn't something they invite everyone for."

Mukherjee, who has made it a practice to take university vice-chancellors and Indian Institute of Technology directors with him on overseas visits, is again taking a clutch of higher education dons with him. India has lined up a series of agreements between these institutions and their counterparts in Jordan, Palestine and Israel.

True to past form, Mukherjee will collect honorary doctorates from each of his stopovers - Jordan University in Amman, Al Quds University in Abu Dis (a part of the Palestinian Authority's territory) and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Mukherjee has brought home honorary doctorates from most countries he has visited as President.

But the President's emphasis on education ties as a key component of his diplomatic initiatives has hit a roadblock in Ramallah, an example - like Israel's rejection of the Al-Aqsa visit - of the region's conflict impacting his trip.

Mukherjee is expected to inaugurate an India-Palestine Centre for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Ramallah, a project New Delhi has worked on for the past three years.

Pranab Mukherjee

But 30 computers India is handing over to the Palestinians for the ICT centre were stuck, on Tuesday evening, at Haifa port, Israel's main maritime gateway from where they are to be transported to Ramallah.

Israel has cited concerns over customs clearances, and India, officials here said, is trying to press for an early release of the consignment.

If the computers aren't released by October 12, Mukherjee will not be able to inaugurate the ICT hub, taking away some of the sheen from his brief visit to the Palestinian territories.

It is in Jerusalem, however, that Mukherjee will face the fullest impact of the fresh spurt of violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict, officials conceded.

The Temple Mount, which Jews the world over consider their holiest shrine, also hosts the Al-Aqsa mosque at its centre. The compound was also home to what was known as Herod's Temple, where a 12-year-old Jesus was believed to have astounded Jewish religious experts with his knowledge of the Torah.

But the compound, which houses shrines to all three major Abrahamic religions, has also been the site that has sparked some of the bloodiest phases of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Then Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit in 2000 to the Temple Mount, viewed by Palestinians as provocative, had sparked protests and a backlash. Protesters threw stones at Israeli police, who hit back initially with rubber bullets.

But the incident set off what became known as the Second Intifada, a five-year-long chain of Palestinian suicide bombings, Israeli tank and gunfire and air assaults, leaving an estimated 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians dead.

In September, Indian officials said, when the two countries were drawing up an itinerary for Mukherjee's trip, India proposed a visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque. A visit would help symbolically temper perceptions in West Asia that India was leaning too heavily towards Israel, Indian officials argued.

But the mosque has over the past three weeks emerged as the site for a fresh round of violence with Palestinian protesters accusing Israel, which controls the territory, of preferentially allowing Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount while barring Muslims.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who will host Mukherjee in Ramallah, has warned that the Al-Aqsa clashes could spiral into a Third Intifada against Israel.

Netanyahu has vowed to clear the compound of protesters. And Haaretz, one of Israel's most respected English dailies, has reported that Jordan's King Abdullah - who will host Mukherjee in Amman - isn't willing to take Netanyahu's phone calls, upset over the escalating violence.