Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi’s visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque passed virtually unnoticed.
The Arab media and public opinion ignored it, even though it was a rare moment in the Arab approach to handling the Israeli occupation of Arab lands which, for decades, has been based on the principle of boycott.
Until now, no Arab official of that level had visited Occupied Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque outside of the framework of official relations.
Former Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher visited Jerusalem in 2003, as did a number of other ministers from both Egypt and Jordan, before and after this.
But these visits took place in the context of the peace treaties these two countries had concluded with Israel.
Oman, on the other hand, is not bound by any agreements with Israel. Its foreign minister’s visit included no other destination but Arab Jerusalem.
It did not take place on the margins of an official visit to Israel.
Effectively, it was a visit to Palestine, not to Israel which, itself, acknowledged that it had no advanced knowledge of this visit.
That it would be an Omani official who undertook this visit is not odd. Oman follows an independent approach to many regional issues at diverse levels.
For example, it is the only country on the Arabian Peninsula that has not joined Saudi Arabia in its military operations in Yemen.
The Omani foreign minister’s visit should be seen in the context of the Palestinians’ long and frequently repeated appeals to fellow Arabs at official and non-official levels to show concrete support for the Palestinian people and their resistance against Israel through such visits which help break through the Palestinians’ physical isolation inside Israel.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has told me on a number of occasions that it makes no sense that people from all parts of the world come to Palestine to show solidarity and help sustain Palestinian morale while the Palestinians’ Arab brothers refuse to do the same on the grounds that to visit the Palestinians in their territories is to normalise relations with their occupiers.
Some foreign protesters have even sacrificed their lives placing themselves in front of Israeli bulldozers sent to demolish Palestinian homes in the process of the illegal confiscation of Palestinian land for the purpose of constructing and expanding settlements for Jewish immigrants.
Arabs from outside Palestine have remained absent from such scenes.
During one of his visits to Cairo, Abbas spoke to me about the need to safeguard Arab property in Jerusalem.
He wondered why wealthy Arabs were not purchasing Palestinian houses and land in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of the occupation authorities which are expelling families from their homes and confiscating their property in the course of a systematic drive to Judaicise the Holy City and strip it of its Arab identity.
Arabic street signs are being torn down and replaced by Hebrew names as all vestiges of Arab architectural and cultural heritage are being effaced in East Jerusalem. Where are the Arabs while all this is taking place?
The problem with the Arab boycott goes further. Palestinian writers, intellectuals and artists have long expressed their hope that other Arab intellectuals, writers and artists would join them in their cultural and artistic conferences, seminars and fairs, all of which ultimately work to promote the Palestinian cause and reaffirm the Palestinian Arab identity.
When I once refused to participate in a cultural event in the occupied territories, the Palestinian poet Murad Al-Sudani, secretary-general of the Palestinian Writers’ Union, wondered aloud, “whose interests does this determination to isolate the Palestinian people from their Arab brothers serve?” Other Palestinian writers, intellectuals and artists share the belief that severing the Palestinians from other Arabs only serves the ends of the occupation authorities and their determination to perpetuate the occupation.
We need to reassess our policies and approaches to resisting the Israeli occupation of Arab territories in light of the many developments that have affected the Arab-Israeli conflict. More sophisticated means need to be brought to bear.
I, personally, believe that political and cultural boycott is one of the most effective instruments, but so long as it is wielded in a manner that reflects a grasp of current realities so that it does not end up backfiring.
The Arab boycott of Israel has evolved in many ways since 1948. However, we need to continue to refine how we use it so as to ensure its continued efficacy.
When we first applied the boycott policy we refused to deal with anyone who held an Israeli passport even if they were Palestinian. Accordingly, we would not allow the Arabs of Israel to take part in our literary and artistic fairs and exhibitions.
But by doing this we were effectively punishing the Palestinians who clung to their land and refused to leave in spite of the dangers and hardships they encountered. We were inadvertently helping Israel to tighten its siege around them.
When we eventually realised the effects of that policy, we changed it and began to welcome Palestinians regardless of what passport they have to carry. In the 1960s we hosted Mahmoud Darwish, Samih Al-Qassem and many other major figures of the Palestinian cause regardless of the fact that they carried an Israeli passport.
Without a doubt the most significant development that has occurred in connection with the Palestinian cause recently is that foolhardy decision taken by US President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The Arabs have yet to react in a manner commensurate to that dangerous decision which works to aggravate the Palestinians’ isolation in the occupied city and to further shrink the remaining political and geographic space available to them after more than half a century of the occupation.
The Palestinians have repeatedly called on their fellow Arabs to demonstrate support for them under these extraordinarily difficult conditions.
The Oman foreign minister’s visit was a response to this appeal. It broke the blockade imposed on the Arab inhabitants of the occupied city by the occupation authorities, on the one hand, and the Arab boycott, on the other.
His presence in Al-Aqsa Mosque served as an affirmation to the Palestinians and the world that the Arabs still stand side-by-side with the Palestinian people, not just in international forums or around negotiating tables but also on the ground, and that the Arabs remain committed to the Arab identity of Jerusalem and to Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.
Another important point that the Omani official’s visit affirmed was that the Arab boycott should focus on the occupation authorities not on the Palestinian people. Will this visit initiate the necessary change in the Arabs’ boycott policy?
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly