In an unprecedented show of solidarity with Palestine, in a conference titled "The First Annual Conference of the League of Parliamentarians for Al-Quds (Jerusalem)," 450 Parliamentarians from 40 countries, including speakers of Parliament from 15 national assemblies, met in Istanbul, Turkey, November 29 and 30, 2016. They discussed their serious concerns about Israeli control of Muslim cultural and religious sites and erasing of the history of these landmarks, particularly in Jerusalem. The group was particularly disturbed by the Israeli treatment of the Al Asqa mosque.
Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories and the head imam of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, told the conference that Jerusalem "remains in the hearts and minds of all Arabs and Muslims" and commended the "steadfastness" of the people of Jerusalem in the face of the Israeli occupation's ongoing "Judaization" of the city.
Sheikh Hameed al-Ahmar, head of the Parliamentarians for Al-Quds Association, strongly criticized Israeli policies in Jerusalem, which "serve to uproot the city's original inhabitants, confiscate homes and properties, and arrest and exile Jerusalem-based Palestinian lawmakers." He added that "Jerusalem is the cradle of the heavenly messages and civilizations; it has been hallowed by the three holy books, the Torah, the New Testament and the Quran."
The current Israeli Ministry of Tourism's map of Jerusalem's Old City omits key non-Jewish holy sites -- both Muslim and Christian -- and marks historically unimportant sites. The al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Nobel Sanctuary, a 14-hectare compound that comprises Islam's third holiest site, al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as the Dome of the Rock, is only referred to by the "Temple Mount" not reflecting the important sites of other religions.
The al-Aqsa Mosque is illustrated on the official tourism map of the Old City but is not named, while the Dome of the Rock is named. Dozens of sites of questionable historical importance, many of them Jewish settlements in the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City, are highlighted by the mapmakers in an "Old City Legend" numbered guide. Among 57 numbered sites, almost half are buildings occupied by Jewish settler institutions in the Muslim quarter of the city, many unknown to licensed tour guides.
Betty Herschman, director of international relations and advocacy at Ir Amim, an Israeli human rights NGO that gives tours of East Jerusalem to diplomats and other parties, spoke of the controversy around the official Israeli tourism map:
"This map, in addition to erasing important Muslim and Christian holy sites in the Old City, completely erases entire neighborhoods around the historic basin, supplanting them not only with Hebrew names but with the names of settlements. There are many sites on the map that are not only historically unimportant, but that are run by settlers. That is to the detriment of historically relevant Christian and Muslim sites, which you would think would be far more prioritized on a map of the Old City, the hub of the three major monotheistic religions...
"The map is legitimizing private settlement around the historic basin. This is a form of consolidating Israeli control of arguably the epicenter of the most critical point of Jerusalem -- which is itself the epicenter of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. So there are extremely important political consequences involved."
Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem are viewed as an attempt to disrupt Palestinian territorial contiguity in East Jerusalem in order to upset Palestinian plans to have East Jerusalem as its capital city. Maintaining the Palestinian identity of East Jerusalem is an important element in the "two-state solution."
The conference was attended by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and chaired by Turkish Parliament Speaker Ismail Kahraman. In his opening address to the conference, President Erdogan said the defense of Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque and support for the Palestinian national cause were obligations for Muslims around the world. "The only way to guarantee lasting peace in the Middle East is to establish an independent and sovereign state of Palestine based on 1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem. In order to achieve this the international community must increase its support for Palestine."
No members of the U.S. Congress attended the Parliamentary conference as the Israeli lobby, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other supporters of the discriminatory policies of the Government of Israel, would follow through on their threats to withhold campaign donations and actively work for the defeat of the member of Congress solely on the issue of Palestine.
Recognizing that no U.S. Congressperson would dare attend the conference and because of my solidarity work on behalf of Palestinians following my resignation from the U.S. government in 2003 in opposition to the U.S. war on Iraq, conference organizers invited me to attend and to give a short presentation on the role of international non-governmental organizations in support of Palestinian rights.
I spoke about various international events organized by non-governmental groups that have called media attention to the difficult situations in Gaza and the West Bank, including the very successful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) with local organizations in many countries of the world. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu repeatedly called BDS a "strategic threat to the State of Israel" his 2015 keynote address to the annual meeting of AIPAC in Washington, DC.
I also mentioned events that generated a substantial amount of media coverage of the horrific conditions in Gaza caused by Israeli reductions of food, water, electricity, maintenance parts for the sewage system. Some of those events include:
--"Viva Palestina," the 2009 land caravans of many vehicles filled with supplies from Europe to Gaza;
--the 2009 Gaza Freedom March that brought 1,300 activists from 35 countries to Cairo in hopes of getting to go into Gaza in solidarity with people of Gaza one year following the Israeli attack that killed 1,417, including 313 children and wounded over 5,000;
--the Free Gaza Movement that sailed five boats in 2008 to break the illegal naval blockade of Gaza;