How one West Bank mosque is reconnecting with local Palestinians

By encouraging Hebron's Palestinian residents to hold weddings and other celebrations in the Ibrahimi Mosque, officials and activists hope to restore their connection to the sacred site.

al-monitor Muslim men pray near the Ibrahimi mosque, also known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in the West Bank city of Hebron during the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, Aug. 5, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma.
Daoud Kuttab

Daoud Kuttab

@daoudkuttab

Topics covered

west bank, palestine, muslims, mosques, jews, israeli settlements, israeli-palestinian conflict, hebron

Aug 24, 2015

Azmi Shuokhi has been on a mission for some time now. As the head of the local popular committees for Hebron, he has been trying to convince fellow Hebronites not to abandon the Ibrahimi Mosque. His idea is simple and peaceful: He wants all the Palestinians of the city to hold their social events — especially weddings — on the mosque’s grounds.

Shuokhi, who is also the head of the consumer protection committee in the city, doesn’t just talk about his idea, he practices it. Speaking to Al-Monitor, Shuokhi explained that he has applied his theory in his own family.

Shuokhi held his own son’s wedding at the Ibrahimi Mosque and invited the local boy scouts to participate in the celebration with their drums and bagpipes. The wedding celebrations were filmed and posted on YouTube May 2. Even the his grandson’s circumcision was celebrated at the mosque Aug. 14. 

Shuokhi’s call for increased visits to the mosque aims to stem the tide of Jewish settlers trying to isolate Muslims from the mosque.

Hebron, with a population of over 250,000 people, is the largest Palestinian city and competes with Nablus as the commercial capital of the West Bank. Its population generates about 30% of the West Bank’s economy.

The old city of Hebron is the site of the Tomb of Abraham, the spiritual father of Israelis and Arabs. Abraham's grave, as well as those of his wife and children, make up what is called the Cave of Machpelah, an ancient double cave revered since at least 1,000 BCE as the burial site of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives.

Hebron was the first Palestinian town to be pocked by Jewish settlements. It all began with a radical rabbi, Moshe Levinger, who checked in at the local Palestinian Park Hotel in April 1968 to celebrate Passover with his wife Hanan and other radical Jews. He then claimed a divine right to stay in the old city of Hebron. Levinger died in May 2015, but since then, hundreds of Jewish settlers along with thousands of Israeli soldiers protecting them have wreaked havoc on the old city, terrorizing the local population and forcefully taking over properties they claim used to belong to Jews.

The Jewish settlements in the heart of Hebron were followed by a 1994 attempt to retake the Ibrahimi Mosque, sacred to the Palestinian population. Unable to totally oust the local worshipers, the Israeli authorities along with the settlers devised ways to share the mosque between Jews and Muslims. Over the years, efforts to increase the Jewish presence at the mosque have led to a deterioration in Palestinian attachment to the mosque, as many grew to avoid it rather than go through the harassment and checkpoints of the Israeli military. The busy Shuhada Street — a key road leading to the mosque and connecting it to the bustling old city of Hebron — has been closed to Palestinians since 1994, while Jewish-only roads have been designed for settler use alone.

The situation at the mosque took a tragic turn for the worse on the dawn of Feb. 25, 1994, when a Jewish American settler named Baruch Goldstein entered the mosque dressed in an army uniform. He mercilessly killed 29 kneeling Palestinians as they prayed. While at the mosque, Goldstein was ultimately killed by surviving Palestinians. 

As Palestinians became less willing to come to the mosque, settlers grew even bolder, regularly adding layers of checkpoints and metal barriers. Something had to be done to bring back the large numbers of Palestinian worshipers to the mosque, and thus Shuokhi and others came up with the creative idea to use the mosque as the prime location for important activities.

It took a while; but Palestinian officials finally took notice of this call. On Aug. 11, chief Islamic judge Mahmoud Habash ruled that a permanent Islamic official would be stationed at the Ibrahimi Mosque to carry out weddings. Hafith Abu Snenieh became the first Islamic religious official to be permanently stationed at the mosque.

Munther Abu Falat, the manager of the mosque, explained the need for people to come to the mosque at all times. “The mosque needs help from all,” he told Al-Monitor. “When we have weddings in the mosque, large numbers of people come and this is extremely important to strengthen the connection between Palestinians and their sacred site.”

Abu Falat, who works for the Palestinian Islamic Waqf, recalled the Goldstein massacre. “We paid a heavy price with our blood for this connection. This is our mosque and the occupation will one day end. One day, the injustice we are enduring will be over.”

While Shuokhi would like to see every single Hebron marriage certificate signed in the mosque area, Abu Falat understands that this goal is a tall order at present. He said, “In the past all marriages were conducted here, but the occupation has slowed down this process and some people were afraid to come. But in the last few months, we have seen a movement back to the mosque.”

Abu Fallat concedes that for technical reasons it is impossible to accommodate all who want to hold their wedding ceremonies at the mosque. “Some conservative families insist on the separation of men and women, and we don’t have the ability to do that because we don’t have separate rooms,” he said.

For now, the manager of the mosque is very satisfied that the Palestinian government has appointed a permanent official at the mosque. “We have been registering one or two weddings every day. I am certain that the numbers will double as more and more people come to attend their relatives and friends’ weddings,” he told Al-Monitor.

Shuokhi’s mission is still ambitious, but he feels confident that things are finally on track to begin the process of connecting the lives of Palestinians in Hebron to their holy mosque.

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