When the United Arab Emirates agreed to normalise relations with Israel, most Palestinians decried the move as a "betrayal" of both Jerusalem, where they hope to establish the capital of their future state, and the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the city's holiest Muslim site.
But with Israel now courting wealthy Gulf tourists and establishing new air links to major travel hubs including Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Palestinians in east Jerusalem could soon see a tourism boon after months of lack of business.
“There will be some benefits for the Palestinian tourism sector, at least that is what I'm hoping for," said Sami Abu-Dayyeh, a Palestinian businessman in east Jerusalem who owns four hotels and a tourism agency.
Palestinian leaders have sharply criticised the recent decisions by the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan to normalise ties with Israel because they claim that such moves severely weakened a longstanding Arab consensus that such a recognition only be extended in return for Palestinian statehood.
Palestinians hope to establish a state, which will include territories of east Jerusalem and the West Bank--areas occupied by Israel after the 1967 war. Arab support, seen as a key form of leverage in decades of on-and-off peace negotiations, now appears to be evaporating, leaving the Palestinians arguably weaker and more isolated than ever before in recent history.
In a striking development last week, a delegation of Israeli settlers visited the UAE to discuss business opportunities. The Palestinians view settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as the main obstacle to peace, and most of the international community considers them to be illegal.
But the prospect of expanded religious tourism could end up benefiting Israelis and Palestinians alike, as wealthy Gulf tourists and Muslim pilgrims from further afield take advantage of new air links and improved relations to visit Al-Aqsa and other holy sites.
Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its capital, and its Jerusalem Municipality is organizing conferences and seminars to help tourism operators market the city to Gulf travellers. “I'm very excited because I think it opens us up to a new era of Muslim tourism that we never really had," said Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem. "Even though we have been at peace with Jordan and Egypt, I've never really seen any Egyptian tourists or Jordanian tourists because the peace wasn't a warm peace,” Hassan-Nahoum said adding that the municipality is reaching out to local Arab tour operators to ensure the benefits extend to all.
Other Palestinians appear to be more sceptical. More than a dozen Palestinian shop owners in Jerusalem's Old City, which has been largely shut because of the coronavirus, declined to comment on the push for Gulf tourism, saying it was too politically sensitive. There are also concerns that an Israeli push to promote tourism to Al-Aqsa could heighten tensions.
The hilltop esplanade in the Old City, home to the Al-Aqsa mosque and the iconic Dome of the Rock mosque, is the third holiest site in Islam. It is also the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount because it is claimed to be the location where two biblical temples existed during ancient times. The site is a raw nerve in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and tensions have soared in recent years as religious and nationalist Jews have visited in ever-larger numbers, escorted by the Israeli police.
Last month a delegation of Emirati officials visited the site, entering through a gate normally used by Israelis and under an Israeli security escort. A small group of Palestinians heckled them. In August, Palestinian demonstrators burned a portrait of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan near the Dome of the Rock.
Officials from the Waqf, the Jordanian religious body that oversees the mosque compound, declined to comment on Israel's efforts to promote Gulf tourism to the site, underscoring the political sensitivities.
Ikrema Sabri, the imam who leads Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa, said any visits must be coordinated with the Waqf so that they do not advance any Israeli claim to sovereignty over the site. The Palestinians have long feared that Israel intends to take over the site or partition it. The Israeli government says it is committed to the status quo.
“Any visitor from outside Palestine must coordinate with the Waqf. But any visitor from the side of the occupation, we do not welcome or accept them,” Sabri said. He acknowledged that the visiting Emiratis may have been unaware of the complex arrangement and said the heckling was a “reaction” by individuals to them entering the site along with Israeli security.
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