A pre-dawn muslim call to prayer has provoked the main backlash from Israeli Jews
Palestinian politicians in Israel have found an unexpected ally inside the government against a new bill banning mosques from using loudspeakers to broadcast the call to prayer.
The so-called Muezzin Bill – named after the person who calls Muslims to prayer – was approved by a ministerial committee on Sunday, on the grounds that it is needed to reduce “noise pollution” from mosques.
A first vote in the Israeli parliament on the legislation – due on Wednesday – had to be delayed, however, after a small Jewish religious party raised objections.
Yaakov Litzman, the health minister, was reported to be concerned that the legislation’s current wording, which refers simply to “houses of worship”, might also cover synagogues. Sirens are often used to announce the start and end of the Sabbath.
Palestinian leaders in Israel fear the setback will prove short-lived. The bill has widespread support from within the government, including from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“This bill is the ugly product of Islamophobia that has come to dominate Israel,” said Thabet Abu Ras, of the Abraham Fund, which promotes better relations between Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens.
“Now the government will try to reframe the bill to satisfy the Jewish religious parties so that it can proceed.”
From the outset, Palestinian leaders have maintained that the bill was not about noise, but intended only to silence mosques, a suspicion confirmed, said Abu Ras, by the government’s agreement to review the legislation to address Litzman’s concerns.
Israel includes a community of 1.7 million Palestinian citizens, a fifth of the population, most of whom are Muslim. Israel also rules over a further 300,000 Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, which it annexed in violation of international law.
Pressure for the legislation has been especially strong from settlers in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The bill’s main initiator, Moti Yogev, of the Jewish Home party, lives in a West Bank settlement.
Mosques in the West Bank and Israel have been repeatedly sprayed with graffiti or torched by Jewish extremists.
When the bill was originally submitted earlier this year, curbs on mosque loudspeakers were justified on the grounds that the dissemination of “religious or nationalist messages” and “incitement” would be prevented.
The bill had to be redrafted after the government’s legal advisers expressed concern. It is these changes that appear now to have raised doubts among two small Jewish religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. Both sit in the government.
Abu Ras told Al Jazeera: “Israel already has noise pollution laws, which it rarely implements. This bill is indicative of Israel’s current mood, of growing intolerance towards its non-Jewish citizens.”
He said the bill’s main goal was the further “Judaisation” of Jerusalem, and would be used against the al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City. The mosque has become a flashpoint, with mounting concern from Palestinians that Israel is seeking ever greater control over the site.
Youssef Ideiss, the Palestinian Authority’s religious affairs minister, warned this week that the bill risked plunging the region into a “religious war”. Jordan, which oversees religious matters at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, added its opposition on Tuesday. Abdullah Abbadi, the Islamic affairs minister, accused Israel of damaging the delicate status quo in Jerusalem.
He said, given that Israel was an occupying power, any changes it made in Jerusalem were “null and void”.
Although the call to prayer occurs five times a day, it is the pre-dawn call that has provoked the main backlash from Israeli Jews, especially those living near East Jerusalem and dozens of Palestinian communities in Israel.
In backing the bill, Netanyahu said he was committed to religious freedom for all but was “also responsible for protecting citizens from noise. That’s how it is in cities in Europe. I support similar legislation and enforcement in Israel.”
A report commissioned by the Israeli parliament in 2011 found that several European countries had placed restrictions on the call to prayer, including France, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands. In Switzerland, mosques have been banned from erecting minarets.
Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, called the comparison with Europe “ridiculous”. She told Al Jazeera: “If Netanyahu really admires Europe so much, what is preventing him from going back there?” She added that Jews who were offended by the sound of the mosque were those who had chosen to settle near Palestinian communities in Israel or the occupied territories.
“The issue is not about noise in their ears but about the noise in their minds. What disturbs them so much is the noise of the Palestinians’ presence in their own homeland.
“Netanyahu and the other racists in the government still behave like colonialists who refuse to internalise that they should be part of the region they live in.”
Another Palestinian legislator, Ahmad Tibi, called this week for a campaign of civil disobedience to block the bill. On Tuesday, the Yisrael Beiteinu party of defence minister Avigdor Lieberman called on the attorney general to investigate him for “incitement to violence”.
Support for the Muezzin Bill has been especially intense in the large Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. Some 200,000 settlers live close to Palestinian communities there.
The settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, which is close to mosques in the Palestinian neighbourhoods of Shuafat, Beit Hanina and Al-Ram, has become a notable friction point. This month Pisgat Ze’ev’s settlers have staged separate protests playing recordings of the call to prayer outside the Jerusalem homes of Nir Barkat, the city’s mayor, and Aryeh Deri, a Shas party leader.
Like Litzman, Deri is also reported to be wavering in his support for the bill.
Aryeh King, a settler leader and Jerusalem city councillor who led the protests, told Al Jazeera: “We wanted both of them to know what it feels like to be woken at 4am every morning. The noise from the muezzin reaches all parts of Jerusalem and disturbs everyone, Jews and Arabs alike.” He added: “We will carry on with this campaign until the bill is passed.”
Ahmed Sub Laban, a researcher with Ir Amim, an advocacy group for a fairer Jerusalem, said pressure from the Israeli authorities meant mosques in Jerusalem reduced the volume of their loudspeakers years ago.
He told Al Jazeera that “clashes would be almost inevitable” if the mosques were required to reduce the sound further, or the Israeli police used force to impose restrictions.
He pointed to the experience of the Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank, where since 1994 a few hundred Jewish settlers have been given control by Israel over half of the Ibrahimi mosque.
In recent months, the mosque’s muezzin has faced increasing restrictions. According to figures from the Palestinian Authority, the army prevented the call to prayer on 86 occasions last month, while Israel celebrated the Jewish high holidays.
There have been reports that Israeli soldiers recently also raided mosques in Abu Dis, a village in the West Bank close to Jerusalem, and prevented the call to prayer.
Abu Ras said the bill was the latest development in a series of attacks on Islam in Israel.
Last year, Netanyahu’s government outlawed the northern Islamic Movement, claiming it had links to “terror”. However, leaks to the Israeli media revealed that the Shin Bet intelligence service had failed to find any evidence of such ties.
This week, the jailed leader of the movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, announced that he was going on hunger strike. He said he was being held in solitary confinement so he could not mix with other prisoners, and his cell had been repeatedly raided during the night and his writings confiscated.
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