Religious Trash Talk Goes Mainstream in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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Religious fundamentalists are gaining greater influence on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, complicating peace efforts.

With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process suspended, religious fundamentalists on both sides of the conflict are gaining wider influence. Palestinian and Israeli analysts alike warn that the trend could further complicate prospects for a resolution by turning a nationalist clash over territory into more of an absolutist religious war.

The typically secular Palestinian Authority (PA) has joined the militant Hamas movement in using Islam as a rallying point, while Israeli settler groups, citing Scripture and backed by one of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history, are gaining unprecedented(?) momentum in their drive to take control of Arab East Jerusalem.

''On both sides, religious fundamentalist elements are on the rise politically,'' says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Hani Masri, director of the Badail think-tank in Ramallah, agrees: ''The religious factor in the conflict was always there but it has become stronger,'' he says.

The change in the nature of the conflict is due in part to the failure of the peace process begun in 1993 when the two respective leaderships were both secular, according to Ghassan Khatib, director of the PA's media center. Religious and ideological radicalism has grown on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide, as evidenced by Hamas's victory in parliamentary elections in 2006.

''The failure of the secular leaderships ... in achieving the objectives of their respective publics weakened them and allowed a shift in the balance of power ... in favor of those forces and groups and sectors against the peace process that are more radical politically and ideologically,'' says Mr. Khatib.

But that's just one of the root causes, says veteran Palestinian journalist and blogger Said Ghazali, who also cites "the failure of the PA to build a good society, economic problems, and Islamists gaining power in the Arab world."

'There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him'

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has publicly stated his willingness to accept a two-state solution and territorial compromise. But the charter of Hamas - the Islamist movement that runs Gaza - considers the entire area encompassing Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip sacred Islamic territory ''consecrated for future Muslim generations until judgment day."

It was an Abbas appointee, perhaps in an effort to outbid Hamas, who recently deployed Islam to radicalize the conflict. Earlier this month, the senior PA cleric, Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammed Hussein, invoked a hadith that says that the resurrection - when pious Muslims will go to paradise - will not take place until the faithful kill Jews.

''The hour will not come until you fight the Jews," said Mr. Hussein, quoting the saying attributed to the prophet Muhammad. "The Jew will hide behind stones and trees. Then the stones and trees will call: O Muslim, servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.''

Hussein later denied that the sermon, delivered Jan. 9 at the 47th anniversary of the establishment of Mr. Abbas's Fatah movement, was a call to kill Jews. But the fact that it did not prompt a condemnation from the PA, which aired the speech on its TV channel, is a telling sign of poisoned relations as Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jordan were trying to revive peace talks.

'Descendants of apes and pigs'

The moderator at the Fatah rally said explicitly that the conflict is a religious one. ''Our war with the descendants of the apes and pigs is a war of religion and faith,'' he said.

But Palestinians do not have a monopoly on incendiary invective. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the religious Shas party - part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition - has said over the last decade that Arabs should be attacked with missiles, that they are ''vipers,'' and that God should ''smite them with the plague. …