A group of Jewish worshippers at the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem, Nov. 7, 2016. Photo by Sebi Berens/Flash90.

Temple Mount saw record number of Israeli visitors, despite tensions

July saw the largest number of Jewish Israelis visiting the Temple Mount  in any single month since it came under Israeli control in 1967.

Some 3,200 people visited the site, which is holy to both Jews and to Muslims, who refer to the compound as Haram al Sharif, Army Radio reported Friday.

This was slightly higher than the total number of visits recorded during the High Holy Days last year – the busiest period of the year in terms of traffic by Israelis. In previous years, approximately 11,000 Israelis visited the site annually.

The surge coincided with tensions and a deterioration in the security situation around the Temple Mount – which was the site of both of Judaism’s ancient temples and houses the al Aqsa mosque — following the slaying of two police officers by three Arab-Israeli terrorists outside the compound.

Israel placed metal detectors at all the entrances to the Temple Mount in reaction to the attack, triggering rioting amid further acts of terrorism by Palestinians.

To protest the measure, which Israel reversed earlier this month in an apparent bid to defuse the situation, the Muslim custodians of the Temple Mount refused to enter it until the metal detectors were removed.

The custodians, belonging to the Waqf Muslim religious authority under Jordanian control, have jurisdiction to administer worship at the site. They allow Jews and others to visit, but prevent Jewish worship or religious activity at the site.

Because the precise site of the Temples’ “Holy of Holies” has not been identified, religious Jews were often hesitant to visit mount and inadvertently step on hallowed ground. In recent years, some prominent Orthodox rabbis have relaxed their objections to Jews visiting the site, and a growing movement of Jewish Temple Mount activists have encouraged visits on religious and nationalist grounds.

During the protest strike of the Waqf custodians, many Israeli Jews came to the Temple Mount to pray there.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party during a meeting at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey July 25, 2017. Photo by Yasin Bulbul/Reuters.

Turkish president accuses Israel of trying to take Al-Aqsa mosque from Muslims

President Recip Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey accused Israel of attempting to take the Al-Aqsa mosque from Muslims using security as the excuse.

Erdogan made the accusation during a meeting of his AKP party.

“Everyone who knows Israel is aware that restrictions on Al-Aqsa mosque are not due to safety concerns,” he said during a speech in the Turkish Parliament in Ankara, according to reports. “When Israeli soldiers carelessly pollute the grounds of Al-Aqsa with their combat boots by using simple issues as a pretext and then easily spill blood there, the reason is we have not done enough to stake our claim over Jerusalem.

“From here I make a call to all Muslims: Anyone who has the opportunity should visit Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa mosque. Come, let’s all protect Jerusalem.”

Erdogan said he had heard that Israel had removed the metal detectors from the entrances to the Temple Mount for Muslim worshippers and hoped that “the rest will follow.”

“We expect Israel to take steps for the peace of the region,” he added.

Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement issued Tuesday called the remarks “absurd, unfounded and distorted.”

“He would be better off dealing with the difficult problems facing his own country,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said.

“The days of the Ottoman Empire have passed. Jerusalem was, is, and will always be the capital of the Jewish people. In stark contrast to the past, the government in Jerusalem is committed to security, liberty, freedom of worship and respect for the rights of all minorities. Those who live in glass palaces should be wary of casting stones.”

The Prime Minister’s Office in Israel also responded, saying in a brief statement: “It would be interesting to see what Erdogan would say to the residents of northern Cyprus or to the Kurds. Erdogan is the last one who can preach to Israel.”

Erdogan also decried two anti-Israel attacks in recent days on an Istanbul synagogue over the metal detectors, calling for a halt to such demonstrations.

“We have no issues with the houses of worship of Christians or Jews,” he said. “We have taken the necessary measures against the attacks planned on synagogues and temples in our country.”

Over the weekend, Erdogan called on the international community to intervene to get the metal detectors removed from the site.

The new security measures had been put into place after three Arab-Israelis shot and killed two Israeli police officers at the holy site on July 14. Once the metal detectors were put in place, Muslims refused to enter the Temple Mount, instead praying outside its gates, leading to clashes and the deaths of at least five Palestinians in recent days.

Despite the removal Tuesday morning of the metal detectors, Muslim worshippers have continued to stay away.

Changing the status quo in Jerusalem?

This article first appeared on The Media Line.

After more than a month of violent Palestinian attacks that have killed 11 Israelis, and the deaths of at least 75 Palestinians in both attacks and clashes with Israeli troops, Palestinians insist that Israel wants to change the “status quo” at the Jerusalem holy site that Jews call the Temple Mount, and Palestinians the Noble Sanctuary. Israeli officials insist there has been no change in the “status-quo.”

That status quo allows non-Muslims to visit the site, but not to pray there. However, many Palestinians believe that the recent increase in the number Jewish visitors to the site is meant to pave the way to allow Jewish prayer there. The site is run by the Jordanian Waqf, or Muslim religious trust, but Israel is responsible for the overall security at the site.

Speaking at a PLO Executive Committee meeting this week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that Israel must preserve the status quo that prevailed before the year 2000, when few Israelis visited the site. September of that year is when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the site, accompanied by hundreds of Israeli policemen. His visit set off rioting that became known as second Palestinian intifada.

After that visit, Israel closed the site to visits by non-Muslims for almost three years, but then reopened it after public pressure. Recently, the number of visitors has grown to 12,000 Jews annually, many of them activists with right-wing organizations that seek to rebuild the Jewish Temple at the site that is holy to both Judaism and Islam. To Judaism, it is the site of the First and Second Temples; to Muslims it is the site where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.

The increase in the number of Jewish visitors came after more mainstream Orthodox rabbis ruled that it is permissible for Jews to visit the site, and there is no fear of entering the “holy of holies”, a part of the original Temple off-limits to anyone except the High Priest, and only on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

Israeli security officials say that the increase in Jewish visitors, along with claims from prominent Israeli Arabs such as the head of the northern branch of the Islamic movement Raed Salah that “al-Aqsa is in danger” sparked the current wave of violence. Israeli officials insist there has been no change, and the original agreement worked out between Israel and Jordan in 1967 when Israel acquired the area, remains in force.

“This claim is not true and it is dangerous,” Knesset member Mickey Levy, who was also a former Jerusalem police chief told a conference at Hebrew University. “This man endangers the security of Israel, and even the Middle East. A war that begins over water or borders will eventually end. But a war over religion may never end.”

Salah is due to start an 11-month prison term for remarks made in 2007 that an Israeli court has called “incitement.”

Levy said that Israel must make work hard to end the current wave of violence and must make sure that there are no Palestinian deaths at the holy site itself.

“When I took over in 2000 I took away the police officer’s guns and left them only with riot gear,” Levy said. “Since then not one Palestinian has died at the site, and that is in our interest.”

Levy, who left the job in 2004, and is today a Knesset member for the centrist Yesh Atid said that he sometimes felt like “the boy in Holland with his finger in the dam trying to stop the violence from exploding.”

In September, Israeli cabinet minister Uri Ariel visited the site and called for the building of a “third Temple” there, sparking angry Palestinian reactions. Netanyahu soon prohibited both Jewish and Arab Knesset members from visiting the site.

“The main cause (of the current violence) is the provocative visits by settlers and right-wing activists to the al-Aqsa mosque with a clear plan to control this area and declare that it belongs to the Jewish people,” Youssef Jabarin, an Israeli Knesset member from the Arab Joint List told The Media Line. “These visits have been supported by Israeli government ministers and the plan is basically to divide al-Aqsa so that for some of the time only Jews can enter while keeping Muslims outside the gates.”

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that Israel has no intention of changing the status quo at the site. But police say they have occasionally kept Muslim worshippers from entering the area, if a large group of Jews were visiting and they feared violence.

Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry held separate talks with Israeli and Jordanian officials on how to tamp down the violence. He announced that 24-hour surveillance cameras would be set up. Palestinian opposed the idea saying that Israel would use the cameras to “arrest Palestinians on the pretext of incitement.”

This current wave of violence, which some are calling “the third intifada” or Palestinian uprising is characterized by stabbing attacks, often by teenage perpetrators. A few of the attackers have been as young as 13, with a significant proportion falling between 15 and 18, at least a third of them from east Jerusalem.

“They are little boys, not even young men,” Amir Cheshin, a former advisor on Arab affairs to the Jerusalem municipality told The Media Line. “They are responding to Israel’s long-time neglect of Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. The youth there feel a deep sense of despair and that they have no future.”

Israel detains former Palestinian hunger-striker

Israeli police detained a Palestinian militant leader on Monday for questioning over his travel to Jerusalem, a police spokeswoman said, a day after he was freed from prison in a deal ending an almost two-month-long hunger strike.

Khader Adnan of the Islamic Jihad faction was taken into custody near al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed as part of its capital – a move not recognised abroad – and where Palestinians seek independence.

A police spokeswoman said he lacked an Israeli entry permit.

“He has been detained, not arrested,” she said. “Whether he will be formally arrested or released will be decided when his questioning is completed.”

On Sunday, Adnan was released from an Israeli prison after staging a 56-day hunger strike in protest at being held without trial under so-called administrative detention, a method Israel says it employs as a security measure to prevent violence.

Israel arrested Adnan, 37, last July for the 10th time. Both sides had feared that his death from starvation would hurt a shaky Gaza truce or spur further violence.

Adnan is a known Islamic Jihad figure in the West Bank. Like Islamist Hamas, Islamic Jihad opposes peace deals between the Palestinians and Israel and advocates the destruction of Israel.

Jordan to send ambassador back to Israel as tensions ease

Jordan will return its ambassador to Israel, the government said on Monday, three months after withdrawing the envoy in protest at Israeli restrictions on access to Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque.

For the first time since making peace with its neighbor in 1994, Jordan announced in November it was pulling its envoy out ofIsrael following growing tensions over the sacred compound housing Al Aqsa mosque – the third holiest site in Islam.

Government spokesman Mohammad al–Momani said that since then, Israel had taken significant steps to ease the friction and was allowing many more Muslims to access the site, which is also the holiest place in Judaism.

“We noticed in the last period a significant improvement in Haram al-Sharif with numbers of worshippers reaching unprecedented levels,” Momani said. Haram al-Sharif, known in Judaism as Temple Mount, is where the mosque is located.

Israel welcomed the move.

“This is an important decision that reflects the shared interests ofIsrael and Jordan, chief among them being stability, security and peace,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said in a statement.

Israel shut the Al Aqsa compound for one day last November after a far-right Israeli-American activist, who had spoken out against a ban on Jews praying at the ancient compound, was shot and seriously wounded in Jerusalem.

Jordanian officials said the mosque complex was swiftly reopened after the personal intervention of King Abdullah, whose custodianship of the holy site was recognized in the 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

The compound, which also houses the Dome of the Rock, the gold-plated shrine from where the Prophet Mohammad is said to have ascended to heaven, is run by several hundred Jordanian government employees.

Momani said the ambassador would be returning to Israel later on Monday, adding that the government hoped the relative calm around the holy site would continue.

Jordan blamed Israel for the tensions, saying it had not moved to restrain Israeli far-right nationalists who sought to overturn the Jewish prayer ban.

“The message was delivered and reached the Israelis and on this basis we have asked our ambassador to go back to his work in the embassy this evening,” Momani said.

Jordan is one of only two Arab states to have made peace with Israel. But this has never won much domestic favor, given Israel's continued occupation of the neighboring West Bank.

Cartoon: After hell freezes over and pigs fly

Yehuda Glick shooting reignites holy war over Temple Mount

Snaking around the top right corner of the 2,000-year-old Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City is a rickety wooden structure called the Mughrabi Bridge — an awkward tube of scaffolding that leads to the most contested holy site in the world.

Today, that site — called the Temple Mount by Jews and Al-Aqsa by Muslims — is owned by Israel but regulated by a Jordanian trust. And its wooden entryway, erected in 2007 as a temporary path for non-Muslims to enter (but not pray at) the site, has become a permanent and symbolic eyesore at the epicenter of the fight over Jerusalem, a city considered by both Israelis and Palestinians to be their rightful capital.

Although Jews are not legally allowed to pray at the Temple Mount, an expanding core of Jewish activists now regularly ascend the Mughrabi Bridge and pray silently at the site as an act of protest.

“I go up to Temple Mount almost every single day, and I’ve been doing it for 25 years,” Yehuda Glick, 48, a figurehead for the crusade to restore Jewish prayer rights at the Temple Mount, said in a TV news debate last spring. “I don’t do that for any other reason than just going to the holiest place in the world where a Jew is obligated to go.

“We are talking about sharing, tolerance, respecting one another,” he said. “In what world could these things have anything to do with aggravating and igniting?”

But Glick did ignite Palestinian fury: He became a widely recognized face and a wanted man around the Old City for his activities at Temple Mount.

Around 10:15 p.m. on the night of Oct. 29, as the tall American-Israeli redhead emerged from a conference at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center titled “Israel Returns to the Temple Mount,” witnesses told the Israeli press that a man on a motorcycle with an Arabic accent asked Glick to identify himself before shooting him multiple times in the chest.

“Any one of [the bullets] could have killed him if they moved a half an inch either way,” Glick’s father, Shimon Glick, said in an interview days later outside the emergency room at Shaare Zedek Medical Center. His son was inside, hooked up to a respirator in a medically induced coma.

“Thank God,” he said. “It did damage him, but it didn’t cripple him. It didn’t kill him.”

Shimon Glick — a renowned physician who moved his family from New Jersey to Israel in 1974 to help found a medical school at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev — said that although his own politics fall farther left than his son’s, he knows Yehuda to be a nonviolent advocate of coexistence who envisions a Temple Mount where Muslims and Jews can pray side by side.

“The reason he was most successful is because even left-wing people can’t argue with that,” Shimon Glick said. “In many respects, he’s unified many different people who are involved in this thing, and he’s emerged as sort of a natural leader. He gets along with everybody.”

But the attempt on Glick’s life has also revived a movement larger than one man — a movement some say has the power to undo Jerusalem.

“We’re all sitting on a volcano, and that volcano is the Temple Mount,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of a book on the 1967 Israeli capture of the Temple Mount.

A highly publicized visit to the Temple Mount in 2000 by Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon was widely blamed as the spark that ignited the Second Intifada. And still today, Halevi said, “The Temple Mount is ground zero” of the greater Israeli-Arab conflict.

In 1967, Halevi said, “At the height of our victory, we did not let the victory go to our heads. And to do so now risks destroying our ability to maintain control over Jerusalem.”

The attempt on Glick’s life on Oct. 29 prompted Israeli police to block off Al-Aqsa to all worshippers the next day, for the first time in years — setting off a fresh round of rioting in the West Bank and majority-Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Then, fanning the flames in an act of defiance against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call to show “responsibility and restraint,” Israeli politician Moshe Feiglin — deputy speaker of the Knesset and a member of Netanyahu’s own party — tried to enter the Temple Mount on Oct. 30, the day it was closed.

“The assassin achieved his aim,” Feiglin told a swarm of reporters after he was blocked by guards. “There are no Jews on Temple Mount.”

As soon as the Temple Mount was reopened to the public on the morning of Nov. 2, Feiglin and a group of supporters climbed the wooden ramp into the compound.

“Zionism always knew that when our enemy is using violent acts or bullets to destroy us, to take us away from our land, Zionism always knew the right reaction is exactly the opposite,” Feiglin told the Journal in an interview. “If the assassin is trying to take us away from Temple Mount, this is the right reaction.”

Israel’s rabbinate has banned Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount because, by religious law, a Jew must be “ritually pure” to set foot on temple grounds — a contributing factor to the current “status quo” allowing only Muslim prayer.

Temple Mount activists, however, believe they have the right to choose their own spiritual path. “We’re talking about the right of Jews to go whenever they want, in a peaceful way, to the holiest site of the Jewish nation and pray — just as that right is given to the Arabs,” Feiglin said. “I feel more and more Jews understand what I’m talking about.”

During Temple Mount visiting hours on the afternoon of Nov. 3, two Jewish Israelis entered the spacious, park-like compound — a middle-aged woman from the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Michmash and a young man in a kippah. For the next hour, they were followed closely by three security guards as they circled the grounds.

Nizanit, 47, who did not wish to give her last name, said none of the guards stopped her when she began to pray aloud at the foot of the golden Dome of the Rock — and that one guard even said, “Amen.”

Nizanit told the Journal that her dream would be to see the site opened to all religions.

“Yehuda was very good at helping us feel holy,” she said of praying at the Temple Mount with shooting victim Glick. “He wasn’t against anyone — he didn’t hate anyone. He knew that we were all connected by God.”

However, Kifa Abu Maher, 30, a Palestinian shopkeeper in the Old City who watched Nizanit exit the Al-Aqsa compound, said it made him angry to see Jews praying in the only place left in the Old City exclusively for Muslims.

“Aqsa is a very holy place for us,” he said. “This is the place where Mohammed went to heaven. We feel like we’re with him when we’re there. … Jewish people can already pray at the Western Wall, but they want everything.”

Abu Maher pointed to a sign above his souvenir shop directing tourists to enter the Temple Mount through the Western Wall plaza. “So the only way to the mosque is through the Western Wall?” he asked. “What the f— is going on here?”

The Al-Aqsa mosque is generally understood to be the third holiest site in the world for Muslims — but for Palestinian Muslims, by all accounts, Al-Aqsa is tops.

“Al-Aqsa is not just stones,” said Nihad Siam, co-founder of a community center in Silwan, an East Jerusalem neighborhood that begins just a few hundred yards from Old City gates. “When I’m there, I feel like I’m flying. I imagine myself in the past. It’s something you feel in your bones.”

Siam said of the Temple Mount movement: “If I want to come to the Western Wall, they won’t let me pass. Why should I allow them to pray at my mosque?”

Another Silwan resident named Sami Kharani, a father of four, said he suspected that the dozens of Jewish settlers who’ve bought up homes in the neighborhood in recent weeks — including Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel — might be in on the plan to destroy nearby Al-Aqsa and take back Temple Mount.

“I know some very good Jewish people in West Jerusalem. I live with them, I work with them, and they’re not like the settlers,” he said, smoking a cigarette in front of his home as he kept an eye on a house across the street where a Jewish couple had just moved in. “They come to make problems with the Arabs.”

Tension between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in Silwan and the neighboring Abu Tor area reached its peak on Oct. 30 — the same day Al-Aqsa was closed — after Glick’s alleged shooter, 32-year-old Mutaz Hijazi, was gunned down on his Abu Tor rooftop by Israeli police. For hours, clouds of tear gas billowed up from the steep hillside and the sound of rubber bullets echoed through greater Jerusalem.

Israeli police claim Hijazi opened fire at officers first; friends and family who witnessed the shootout deny the suspect had a gun. Either way, posters of Hijazi’s face — along with that of Silwan resident Abdel Rahman al-Shaludi, shot to death a week earlier after he plowed his car into the Jerusalem light rail, killing two — are now plastered on homes and businesses throughout the area.

The owner of a produce shop in nearby Ras al-Amud who was afraid to give his name said he was fined 500 shekels by Israeli authorities for hanging one such “martyr” poster in his window.

“Things have gotten a lot worse after Hijazi,” the shop owner said of the recent police crackdown in the area. “As we say, the situation is on the stove. If they continue to forbid prayers at Aqsa, we will have another intifada in Jerusalem.”

Palestinian Diaspora discover their roots

The participants gather outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s old city for a group photo. They look like any group of college students visiting Jerusalem on a summer trip.

The photographer counts to three. “Free Palestine!” they yell in unison, and laugh.

The 41 delegates, half of them Christian and half of them Muslim, all between the ages of 18 and 25, are here on a two-week trip called “Know Thy Heritage,” sponsored by the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation.

Most are from the US, but a few are from Australia, Canada, England and France. All but seven are women, says Rateb Rabie, president and founder of the sponsoring group.

“This is good because they are the ones who are going to raise the children, and this will help them understand their roots,” he told The Media Line.

The participants pay for their airline tickets and the Foundation, with additional sponsorship from the Bank of Palestine and the Palestinian telephone company, Paltel, picks up the other costs.

“They see how the Palestinians are living here,” Rabie said. “They see how Palestinians are building a state under occupation. An agreement is coming regardless of what we hear on the news and we will be ready to run this state.”

Many of the participants have visited relatives in the West Bank before, and speak at least some Arabic, but they say this trip is strengthening their Palestinian identity.

“I’m getting to know who my people are and what I want for the future,” Noor Diab, 23, a recent college graduate from San Diego told The Media Line. “It’s given me a sense of pride but I’m also saddened by the situation here and by the (Israeli) occupation and the separation between Israelis and Palestinians. Throughout the trip, you feel happy, frustrated and sad but at the same time you’re experiencing the reality of the holy land.”

Diab is wearing a sky-blue head covering or hijab, which she put on when she went into the mosque, and decided to keep on for a subsequent visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. She said she found the visit to the mosque inspiring, but was angered by the Israeli security checks before she reached the site.

“When I’m in the mosque, I feel like I’m home,” she said. “But the journey there was a little difficult because going through metal detectors and checkpoints really takes away from the spirituality of the land. I would like to come here one day without being asked my race or my religion.”

To reach the mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, visitors must pass through an Israeli-controlled security checkpoint. They then walk up a narrow bridge onto the large plaza where both the Al-Aqsa mosque and the gold-cupola Dome of the Rock stand. On the plaza, the independent Muslim Waqf Trust is in charge of security, although Israeli soldiers are allowed to patrol and conduct searches in the plaza.

An uncomfortable moment for the group ensued when Muslim guards refused to let the Christian delegates inside the mosque, saying entry was restricted to Muslims. Western tourists were also excluded. Several group members, including Rabie’s wife Rocio, who is an Ecuadorian citizen, went to the administration and complained. Most of them did eventually manage to enter.

“It was very disappointing,” said Mohammed Iftaiha, a financial advisor and the group leader from Virginia. “This was the first time the issue of religion had ever come up. What made it worse was we saw Israeli security escorting a group of Israelis into the mosque. So the Christians thought, why are we being singled out?

The students stay in Bethlehem but they are also warmly welcomed in Ramallah, the Palestinain financial capital. Hashim Shawa, the chairman and general manager of the Bank of Palestine, tells the young people that they should consider what they can do to help build a future Palestinian state.

“The country should not just be built from American aid – what’s really needed is investment from our own people,” he said. “Doing good is investing in bricks and mortar. Consider working here for a year or two.”

He also said that Visa and Master Card used to consider the West Bank part of Israel, but the Bank of Palestine convinced them to consider the West Bank as a “separate country” and now all processing of credit cards goes through the Bank of Palestine, the largest bank in the West Bank.

Several students complained that the Israeli security forces detained them for seven hours as they crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Israel. The Christian Ecumenical Foundation’s Rabie seconded their frustration.

“We all have Western passports and instead of helping us out, the Israelis hold us and question us,” he said.

Shawa urged the students not to let these kinds of incidents frustrate them.

“You’re always going to be held up – is that going to stop you from visiting?” he asked them. “In Israel these days, you get stuck in a traffic jam. Let’s not use that as an excuse.”

The delegates also visited Paltel, where Kamal Abu-Khadijeh, the Deputy CEO, described the difficulty his company faces.

“We can’t service Area C,” he says, referring to the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under sole Israeli administrative and military control. “If we can’t install our own towers, we can’t provide service. You have to be part of an Israeli network to operate from one place to another.”

That means that many Palestinians have two cell phones, one with a Palestinian number and one with an Israeli number to cover the whole West Bank. He also said that the core equipment switches are located in Jordan and London while the company operates in the West Bank.

The Know thy Heritage program is loosely modeled on the popular Birthright program, which has so far brought almost 300,000 Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 to Israel for free ten-day trips to strengthen their Jewish identity. The family of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson has announced that they will donate an additional $13 million to Birthright to reduce the long waiting list.

Rateb Rabie says the Know thy Heritage trip is different than a Birthright trip.

“The Jewish people offered some good things and we thank them for bringing this (idea) to us,” he said. “But we have a completely different agenda and we are not involved with politics or religion.”

Rabie says that even the world “diaspora” is a Jewish term, which the Palestinians have now adopted to refer to the seven million Palestinians living abroad.

Just as the Birthright participants do not meet Palestinians from the West Bank, (although they do meet Arab citizens of Israel), the Know thy Heritage delegates do not meet Israelis.

Rabie says he is open to the idea of holding a dialogue with either Israelis or Jewish Birthright participants.

“Dialogue is the most important thing in anything you want to do,” he said. “When people sit face-to-face, they come to their senses. It would be a pleasure to do that, but we need that cooperation.”

Some of the students also say they would like an opportunity to hold discussions with Israelis.

“I would like to meet the young generation of Israelis,” Wassam Rafidi, 21, from Houston, Texas, told The Media Line. “The older generation was involved in wars and fighting and there’s too much harsh sentiment on both sides. You always remember, you never forget, but we have to learn how to forgive. It’s the young generation that will make or break this thing.”

But for most of the participants, the focus of the trip is in strengthening their ties to the West Bank and to their Palestinian heritage. Hadeel Abnadi, from San Diego, is visiting for the first time. Her mother was born in Jordan, her father in Lod, which is today part of Israel. In 1948, he fled and moved to Jordan. At age 14, he moved to the US and attended Michigan State University. After college he returned to Amman, where he met his wife.

“I wanted to do this program because I kept hearing stories about our land,” she told The Media Line. “I would watch CNN and Al-Jazeera and see the land that was being fought over. I wanted to learn about the culture and my roots. Whey you come and see it, it puts it all in perspective.”

Sarah Ikhnayes, 23, tells a similar story. Her father was born in Surif, and lived in the Deheishe refugee camp adjacent to Bethlehem. She was born in Kuwait where she was raised in a refugee camp called Talibiye until she was 8 years of age and then headed to New York.

“It was nice to come back to the land where my father, my grandfather and my great grandfather were born,” she said. “This took us to a whole new level of knowing our heritage.”