Buildings formerly known as synagogues

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The last-minute Israeli decision to leave behind buildings that had formerly functioned as synagogues in Israeli settlements in Gaza put a spotlight on the role of religious sites in the conflict.

This is something that has historically been a deeply divisive and controversial issue from the way mosques and other religious sites were treated in the part of Palestine the Israeli state was built on in 1948 to the way similar sites have been treated in areas occupied by Israel in 1967. In this latter respect, especially important are acts in and against the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron and the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

The issue of religious sites has two dimensions: one is religious; the other is legal and political. Religiously speaking, all parties must respect the rights of any religion and the rights of believers to worship freely and maintain and preserve the sanctity of their respective religious sites, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim. That has to be a basic rule respected by everybody. In this regard, religious sites and the right to worship at these sites must be respected regardless of the location and the sovereignty over that location.

What must be avoided is using religious sites and issues as a way to achieve political objectives or chalk up political scores. After 1948, during the establishment of Israel and in an attempt to erase Palestinian villages and other formerly populated areas, many mosques were treated in an unacceptable way, whether they were demolished or used for purposes not compatible with their religious nature. That was done in order to achieve political objectives and create realities on the ground for political reasons.

The recent controversy over the buildings in ex-Gaza settlements can also be considered a crisis created for political reasons. The two sides had earlier agreed that Israel would leave intact only buildings or assets that the Palestinian side would be in need of and would agree to take over. But at the last minute, Israel decided to leave behind these buildings, a move perceived by the Palestinian side as an attempt at embarrassing the Palestinian Authority, which would have difficulty protecting them and difficulties if it failed to protect them. Fortunately, most of the relevant third parties did not try to justify this Israeli step and accepted the Palestinian argument that it was unnecessary and only created problems for the Palestinian leadership.

Practically speaking, the Palestinian side dealt with these places as "buildings once used as synagogues", especially since, before the withdrawal, Jewish religious personages removed all holy artifacts and performed rites to de-sanctify the buildings. After that, even Israeli officials referred to these buildings as buildings that used to be synagogues. Since, furthermore, no Jewish community remains there to use them; since leaving them behind was a unilateral Israeli decision; since they were not needed by the Palestinian side; and since the Palestinian side decided the areas in question would not be used as population centers but only for agriculture and industry in accordance with the land use plan to integrate the areas of the settlements within the overall Gaza land use plan–the Palestinian side has not felt any overriding need to preserve these buildings, nor any moral imperative to try.

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Ghassan Khatib is minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet and has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact. He is featured on Media Monitors Network (MMN) with the courtesy of "Bitter Lemons."

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