20 January, 2022


Palestine, Ramallah & The Politics Of Sacred Space

By Hafeel Farisz

Hafeel Farisz

Hafeel Farisz

I met Isra on the bus. She said she was 15. Getting from Jerusalem to Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank is a short bus ride of a maximum of 45 minutes. The ride commences around the Damascus gates of the old city of Jerusalem. I found it difficult to know exactly where we were and she seemed to be the only one able to speak English. The rest, of the bus looked at me and smiled, empathetic but helpless – not knowing how to answer my questions.

She didn’t seem anything like 15. I assumed she was in her mid twenties, a mature woman. She was on the bus with her sister, who said she was 25. I am yet to get over the fact that she was 15. Curiosity got the better of me and during the ride, I asked her how she spoke English so well, and she smiled. “I am a tour guide”. “But you are 15, dont you go to school?” I aksed. She smiled back, the sort of smile which indicated that she has answered the same question a thousand times before.

“My father was in prison and by brother is still in prison, the uncle who took care of us was killed. There was no one to take care of the family and I had to earn money” she said. Non nonchalantly. My mind raced back to when I was 15. It also for a moment raced back to what the kids who are 15 in Sri Lanka would be doing. Some privileged to have an education, the rest facing the same plight Isra does. Education, although free, may be a distant dream for many in the distant villages around the country. May be. I wont know, because it isn’t something that struck me. The children of those killed in the bloodshed of 30 years, is not within the discourse of my circles, journalistic and otherwise. Palestine

As we proceeded to Ramallah, Isra told me that we should get down and attempted to carry my bag. Her sister had a handful with 4 children, the oldest seemed around 6. I brushed her offer away and got down. Ramallah. Here I was. Finally. In Ramallah. It took a few minutes to realise that I infact was yet to get into Ramallah. This was Calandia- no mans land. Neither the Palestinians Authority nor the Israeli Government controls the area.

Throughout the years of my formal education, the Israel and Palestinian conflict has been at the center of discourse and debate. It has been an issue that compelled me to understand the larger dimensions of religion- its evolution and socio political influence on the world as we see it today. If not for the conflict, I doubt religion would have been a subject that I would have wanted to dvel into. I would’ve instead been happy going through the motions of ritual and defending the rituals with scripture.

The issue of Palestine was different. It brought to the fore, the need to understand religions inherent political component. How and why else would for over three millenia, Jerusalem be at the center of bloodshed, conflict and conquests, I asked myself?. What makes Jerusalem so important to all three Abrahmic religions? How and why does the politics of sacred space supersede empathy toward each other? I wondered.

A brief tracing of the politics of sacred space

The answers have been written and re written. The scholarships on these questions are far and wide, indepth and nuanced. David the father of Solomons re-positioning of the ‘Ark of Covenant’ to Jerusalem in around 1000BCE, after he united the Kingdoms of biblical Israel, Judah, of which inhabitants were Philistines and the Jebusites the people who inhabited Jerusalem, into a single Kingdom, remains the first instance in which religion was used to propagate power in this part of the world.

David, a Prophet of all Abrahmic religions was the first King of the United Kingdom of the people of Judah, Philistine and the Jebusites. He betrayed his former King, Saul, who ruled the people of Israel. Thereafter assuming power near the neighboring Philistines, in Hebron he took over the Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem, in what was termed a ‘ military coup’- with no bloodshed. Following the death of King Saul, he was also invited to take over the territories ruled by Saul- after the son of Saul who assumed power failed in exercising it to the benefit of his people and was killed.

The ‘Ark of the Covenant’, represented everything sacred to the sons of Abraham. It was the throne, of their God Yahweh. The fascinating history of the politics of God are for a different day, but the transition of monotheism- of the sons of Abraham is indicative of many things, central of which is the cementing of authority. From El to Eliyon, to Yahweh to Al-ilah to Allah, the same sacred power, monotheists believe in evolved from generation to generation, an epistemology that is not even in discourse today among many. If it were, I assume, many of the rituals and abominations would dissolve without a second reading.

So in order to cement the power, David, as any ruler 3000 years ago would have, or any ruler now would, used the ‘Ark of the Covenant’- relocating it to Jerusalem from the neighboring valley. The decision was political. It provided credence to his rule, of a Kingdom which was inherently disunited and which was yet to welcome him as a King. He remained an outsider and betrayer in all three kingdoms: A betrayer to the Kingdom of Saul, and an outsider to the Philistines and the Jebusites. It gave the rule validity in the eyes of the population.’ After all if he could bring in the Ark- the most sacred symbol to the monotheists- then he must be Gods chosen ruler’. The ‘Ark of the Covenant’ was lost since, but scriptures revealed thereafter make central reference to it- The Throne.

History tells us that both David and his son Solomon who took over the rule became unpopular among the masses late in their reigns. The initial revolt against both- are initiated within the Royal court itself with the older sons of the two taking the helm.

‘The first Temple’ which houses the ‘Ark’- was an idea conceived by David carried out by his son- Solomon. The Temple was not built by David who is revered for having United the Kingdom. Construction of religious places, just like it were in Sri Lanka, were an integral component of authority. The fact that David was not the one to build it was incomprehensible to the later day chronicler, who reconciled it beautiful imagination. They chronicled that Davids rule came with bloodshed and God therefore did not will David to build the Temple. Instead he provided David with the plan, which was carried out by his son- Solomon who was considered a just ruler, except for his passion for building. The passion ultimately led to all the resources of the state being drawn to his building projects, leaving a poor and failed population.

The chroniclers go further in reconciling Davids inability to build the temple. They tell us that the reason David was not permitted to build the temple may have been because David had sinned. The sin was the ordering of a census during his rule. The ordering of a census was usually a prelude to severe taxation and forced labour on the population. As a result of this, we are told that God sent a severe plague that killed 70,000 people.

Thereafter conquests after conquests, over this area, shaped and continue to shape the world we live in today. The reason for such, was the belief in the sacredness of the space which was home to Prophets and Sages of all Abrahmic religions. We are also told that Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son around this area of around 150,000 Square Meters and also that the earth mound which created Adam the first man, was also chosen from here. It is in these precincts that Jesus uttered the words “Does not scripture say: my house will be called a house of prayer?. You have turned it into a robbers den” after the Temple was turned for unethical commercial trading and usury. The outburst led to the eventual crucifixion of Jesus a 5 minute walk away from the Haram al Sharif/ Al Aqsa/ Temple mount within the city of Jerusalem.

For Muslims, it remains one of the most holiest places, for it is believed that The Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven to meet god, in a chariot named ‘ Burak’ from the very rock which is located in the Dome of the Rock. The entire area is known as the Haram Al Sharif to the Muslims. The area is central to the apocalypse- the end of the time. It is here that the judgment and Resurrection is said to take place according to all three monotheistic traditions- Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

As a part of a footnote it must be added that the worship of the sacred- many gods- which were devoted to many reasons- were a part and parcel of the sons of Abraham until the exile of the then sons of Abraham the Jews to Babylon, following the destruction and massacre by the invading army in and around the area of the Haram al Sharif in (597-539). The decision to worship one God alone seems again political in order to preserve the identity against an imposing Babylonian culture which served many different gods. After the destruction of the First Temple- the fact that God let it happen meant the end of the world- metaphorically to all adherents of Yahweh. It meant a defeat of the God they worshipped. They fled to areas of Babylonian domination which had conflicting cultures and gods. Ultimately this let down by the God was reconciled with the blaming of themselves- that they had angered the god and the destruction was therefore his will. The Second Temple built after the destruction of the first, therefore was a more sober one- sans the pomp and pageantry of the work of Solomon. It was believed that Yahweh may have not been pleased with such exuberance resulting in its destruction and expulsion by the invading forces.

As a mode of connecting to the sacred place following the exile- the sons of Abraham looked towards the direction of the Temple and worshipped. In order to distinguish themselves from the rest of the imposing Babylonians whose land they now found sanctuary in- they also initialized new practices such as taking ablution, not eating a certain kind of meat, circumcision, wearing a cap on the head etc. Muslims followed this tradition including the use of ‘Haram al Sharif’ being the first kiblah- the direction toward which the Muslims prayed.

Ramallah as I saw it first

The West Bank has three different areas, marked and coded by the Israeli government. Area “A” comes under the direct governance of the Palestinian authority. The Palestinian Police remain the dominant force. Palestinians are free to build and farm in the area, which comprises only 18% of the land. Area “B” is the second demarcation. The Palestinians do not have judicial authority over the area. Area “C” which comprises 61% of the land comes under direct Israeli control and the Palestinians have no control and aren’t free to build or farm in the lands owned by them. They have to obtain permission from the Occupier- the Israeli government.

The city of Ramallah however is bustling. It reminds me of a more organized Pettah. The market place is full of fruits and vegetables and the Coffee shops are a place at which the youth enjoy their evenings, smoking Shisha. However, it remains like Tel Aviv a very expensive city, even to a traveler from Europe or the United States.

Having been treated to an Arabic coffee and other such niceties I left Isra to the main city. That night was the night of the Champions league football final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. I never for once realized how important a sport could be to a population. Three of us, backpackers who just met at a hostel in Ramallah proceeded to a Shisha bar, after hearing the loud noise of cheers and disappointment. The place was packed. Palestinian youth in their numbers, replete with Real Madrid T shirts and flags were at the edge of their seats cheering and praying. The match was no disappointment, going into a penalty shoot out but the moment of victory was a sight to see. I have seldom experienced that kind of passion and emotion at such a closed space over a sporting victory, and here I am from Sri Lanka where sports mean more than just a game.

The area erupted. Everyone hugged each other and were on top of chairs the moment the Atletico player failed to find the net. As we walked down the youth had poured into the streets shouting and drumming celebratory tones. Hugging is kissing the three strangers they did not know only a moment ago.

They seemed to have forgotten, at least for a moment that they have been surrounded by a wall- which stretches 700 kilo meters. ” We can’t go to the beach. That is a small thing that I want for my son” one man was to tell me. Another lamented that he could not visit Al- Aqsa, just 45 minutes from where we were. ” I haven’t been there for 30 years, it is very difficult for us to go there. We have to get a permit and getting it is next to impossible” he lamented. Another woman was to show me her land, filled with Olive trees, on my way into the outskirts of Ramallah. ” This is the land my father gave me, but I cant build or take the produce of the Olives” she said. Why I asked naturally. ” You see those houses on that side and the houses on the other side?” she asked and I replied in the affirmative. ” Those are settlements, and we cant do anything in between that area” she said. Right at her doorstep, she lived in occupied land, by people she did not know.

Almost everyone I spoke to around here has a relative or friend lost, injured or incarcerated. “We are an educated people, today there are more girls in university than guys” Samina a 23 year old English graduate of Al- Quds told me.

Religion and nationalism

It was after I attended a wedding quite by chance, in a village in the outskirts of Ramallah that I felt compelled to ask the question. The Palestinian weddings are an exhibition of its own, a celebration that again seldom draws parallels. The wedding usually spans three days, filled with song, dance and laughter. The night before the wedding I am told is the biggest celebration. On the day of the wedding guests are served traditional Palestinian lunch, with meat, rice and a sort of yogurt poured in to the rice. There are two kinds of dishes; served at weddings I was told. Following the lunch the Groom is then taken in procession around the village, the men and women joining into sing and dance, traditional Arabic dances. The groom is then taken to the house of the wife and the newly wedded couple make their way to the house of the groom at which the celebration of the ladies continue.

The ‘coffee man’ was indeed a sight to see, dressed in a traditional costume pouring coffee to all who wish to drink it. So were the females dressed in traditional Palestinian ‘throbe’-. A rich garment which I was hand-woven in traditional Palestinian fabric. I was struck by the fact that in the land of Philistina- where Prophets and sages have set foot, one of the first conquests of the Caliphate- the cultural influence of the house of Saud ( Saudi Arabia) was nonexistent. ” There is no lady in a Nikab in this village, the other and the other” a man told me pointing left and right from where we were. Everyone I spoke to in the village was insightful- speaking fluent English, with a nuanced understanding of the world, and emotion against the occupation. Come to think of it I am yet to see anyone in a Nikab as I write this.

There was no ‘separation wall’ between the genders, nor was there an eerie feeling of imposition. The music was beautiful, with a beat strong enough to energize the young and old towards traditional dance. It was a celebration, an event in which all of them gathered to celebrate the union of the young, with open hearts and warmth I’ve seldom experienced.

” We are proud of our culture and although there may be political extremism against the occupier there is no religious extremism here” I was told, ” The battle is against the colonisation of our people. It’s about our land. So our resistance draws from that. It doesn’t go beyond to religious fanaticism” a woman who looked like she was her early forties told me.

On my way back, I could help but think of Isra though. 15, intelligent and confident. Yet struggling the economic struggle of a 40 year old, to keep the family alive. She told me that she could give me a guided tour, if I so wish. I am yet to make up my mind, the hazel brown eyes and the smile tells me that I should. Soon.

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Latest comments

  • 6

    A well written article from one of the best young writers. Presents the plight of the Palestinians without hype. I am sure there will be hordes of the usual Muslim-bashers ready to jump on him. However, as he says, this is nothing to with Palestinians being mostly Muslims.It has everything to do with Israeli apartheid.

    • 9

      There have been several injutices such as this in the modern world. When Islamic Pakistan was created out of Hindu lands, no Muslim called it wrong. When millions of Hindus who were the original owners of the land were murdered and driven out, no Muslim called it wrong. When Islamic apartheid is being unleashed on minorities in the partitioned lands of Pakistan and Bangladesh, no Muslim is writing about it. Are these cannot be called occupied territories. It is proved beyond doubt that Indus valley civilisation belongs Dravidians and therefore Aryan and Mugal descendants are both aliens. Indus valley encompasses the present Kashmir, Punjab and Sind and rightfully must be handed over to descendents of Dravidians. Are Pakistanis prepared to oblige, and if there is an armed movement to liberate them, will the Pakistanis react differently from the so called harsh actions of Jews against Arabs. When Pakistan was created, Hindus did not go to war unlike Arabs. Even in Kashmir, it is Pakistan which sent the army in and is occupying it. Before condemning Jews, Muslims must ask Pakistan and Bangladesh to hand over all territories appropriated from Hindus and leave.

      Even middle east belongs to Sumerians who were ethnically cleansed by Arabs. Both Jews and Arabs are hybrids of European and African groups and are immigrants from North Africa, the skin colour and hair texture proving it. Jews were present in middle east and the birth place of Judaism is Jerusalem. To claim that Muhammed ascended to heaven in a chariot from Jerusalem is too much to believe, and to construct a mosque citing this absurdity in Jewish holy land is therefore an act of provocation. Palestinians got together with Romans and drove the Jews out of Palestine. To say that Jews from other parts of the world had been settled there for the first time is an outright lie. It had veen prophesied that jews will get their lands back and they have got it, which is a divine act. Arabs should have accepted the Jewish state and co-existed, but instead went to war to destroy it. It is said that what God did you cannot undo, which is proved by the utter defeat of Muslim troops by Jewish in several wars. After these debacles, they have incited palestinians to get Jews dislodged. The reselient Jews by their determination and intelligence are holding fort, which is not to the liking of Islamic racists worldwide. Will it be unreasonable if Jews drive Arabs away from all Bibilical lands like what Muslims did to Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

      • 6

        When G-D handed down the Torah to the Jews there was a million people who witnessed this miracle
        Mohamed ascended from the dome of the rock on a horse or chariot ,no witnesses .
        The answer is the land belongs to the Jews.

      • 2

        There is no point trying to look at history elsewhere and justify what is happening presently in the Palestinian territories. Palestinians are living under a military occupation, and having their lands stolen, which does seem to bother you. There is no point looking at Biblical times to justify Israel’s crimes, when the entire world has to abide by UN resolutions. The UN dumped these homeless European Jews after the war in these territories, and it is not fair by the indigenous people that they have to lose their homelands and have their homes demolished by Israeli bulldozers. Israel killed over 2000 Palestinians in 1014, mostly women and children, and again, there is no justification for that.
        Netanyahu is a dangerous war criminals who has openly stated they will NOT have a 2 state solution, which again goes against UN resolutions.

        Here is a picture of the shrinking map of Palestine, which clearly shows just how much the greedy Israelis have taken from the Palestinians, and also shows what Israels real motives are. To get rid of the indigenous people in the Palestinian territories and steal their resources.


      • 2

        Dr GS,
        Perhaps you are unaware that even the Vatican does not approve of Israeli actions.
        The reason for Israel being set up in Palestine was that the European Jews suffered persecution by the CHRISTIANS. It was the Germans under Hitler that killed 6 million Jews, not the Palestinians. Why should they suffer for an European Christian crime?

        Quoting scripture to justify it is double-edged. Even without scripture, we know who inhabited America and Australia just 500 years ago.
        Israel is the last colonial outpost.

        • 5

          Vatican cannot stop divine retribution that is being meted out to Arabs for the crimes of their ancestors. See what is happening in Europe, Arabs are like dogs begging for mercy from Christians, like pigs living in squalor eating rubbish. Are you blaming Jews for it. When the oil becomes irrelevant due to development of alternate technology, same thing will happen to gulf state Arabs. Divine retribution will also strike Pakistanis for committing atrocities to Hindus and usurping their lands by their ancestors. However the present day palestinians curse, it will not do any harm to the Jews as they are protected by divine power.

          • 1

            Dr. GS,
            A few questions,
            1.Who broke up the Ottoman Empire?
            2.Who killed 6 million Jews?
            3.Who put the remaining Jews in Palestine?
            4.Who installed the Shah of Iran ?
            6.Who sent the Saudi Wahabis to Afghanistan?
            7.Who invaded Iraq?
            8.Who funded ISIS in Syria?
            Even you should be able to see that all the answers point to the same people.
            We are all victims of the same people. Get it? God has nothing to do with it.

    • 0


      Its just the same old regurgitations from the very holy fair tales.

      In fact its the same biblical fairy tale in in a new dressing.

  • 1

    I think the most important point that is made is the stupidity of organized religion. He traces the prophets, the starters of all this nonsense and shows that they were nothing more than kings and rulers. In order to keep their power they used God as the source. That ,it’s be the takeaway from this. Imagine the ordering of a census being a “sin”. The very fact that it was deemed so, shows how illiterate the masses were and how they had to reconcile their illiteracy with the orders of the king whom they had no power over. If they were gods divine men, how come the first revolt against David and Solomon came from their sons ?? Why don’t we ask these questions, instead of trying to defend scriptures that are irrelevant and were written down for people who lived thousands of years ago :(

  • 3

    Israel has got away with the world’s biggest real estate scam, stealing land from those they have occupied for over 50 years, and despite world condemnation, keeps building thousands of illegal settlements. The Palestinians have suffered, had their homes demolished, water controlled and stolen, their generations old olive trees stolen and destroyed, and have to face collective punishment at the slightest excuse. Hundreds of little kids have been thrown in jail and have no access to their families. International organizations have stated that these children are being abused and coerced into signing legal documents in Hebrew, a language they do not know. Human rights organizations have condemned Israel’s crimes against unarmed civilians, and for the war crimes committed during it’s bombing of Gaza, when Israel bombed homes killing entire families.

    The Palestinians are living in open prisons, unable to go in and out of their territories, and blockaded for years.
    Israel bombs them, and refuses to allow them to rebuild their structures by depriving them of important materials like cement. The US continues to send the Occupier billions of dollars, and weapons that are used against civilians, and until the US stops aiding and protecting Israel, and enabling them, the Palestinians will never have Statehood, and will continue to suffer loss of lives, land, and polluted water.

    There are many movements around the world pushing for Boycotts, Divestment, and Sactions (BDS) against Israel, and Israel is desperately trying to get the US and EU nations to ban these movements, and US politicians are helping them achieve that. It is time the world treated Israel just like they did apartheid South Africa, so that the Palestinians can be free.

    • 1

      All these problems will be solved if both Arabs and Jews give back the middle east to Sumerians who are the rightful owners, and get back to North Africa from where they came. Palestinians cannot accuse Jews as occupying their teritory when Arab themselves are occupiers.

  • 8

    Israel, please get rid of these muslim/islam terrorists once and for all. whole world will thank you for that

    • 3

      Dog snatchers please get rid of this Ballah, from spreading rabid disease.

      • 2

        [Edited out]

  • 7

    If you do want worst experiences in your life,
    better to work and live with Arabs.
    mostly Saudis, Egyptians and Palestinians.
    those who doesn’t have experiences with the will think, “Aney pawu””
    Not so,
    They do not have any humanity wit them.
    Those blood sucking Arabs must and will pay their SINS!!!!!!!.

    • 4

      No one has been forced to go and live or work with Arabs. While the Arabs are arrogant and treats laborers inhumanely, our people keep going over there, to earn money, which contributes highly in foreign exchange. 90% of expatriate Sri Lankans reside in the Middle East., and benefit from those “blood sucking Arabs”. Either our government must stop their people from flocking there (I see no Buddhist or Christian nations employing Sri Lankans by the hundreds of thousands), or our people must stop running there. Everyone knows how Arabs are as employers, so why are thousands still over there?
      If we stop sending our people to these countries, our economy will be hit hard.
      Try to put your hatred aside and think rationally.

      • 2


        Why do poor Sri Lankan women work as domestic help for middle income and high income Sri Lankans? Economic hardship and worse options.

        Why do poor Sri Lankan women work as domestic help for Middle East households? Economic hardship and worse options.

        Why do poor Sri Lakan professionals and other skilled workers go abroad to Middle Wast and the west? Better Economic opportunities, and perhaps less discrimination.

        If the remittances from expatriate Sri Lankans do not come, Sri Lanka will be in the hole for $ 7 Billion per year.

        Imagine that will do to a 77 Billion economy? Depression.

        Thank the Sinhala only, Sinhala-Buddhists, and downgrading of English, the current International Language.

        Sri Lankans should go from of a mirror and ask, what went wrong?

        National IQ Scores – Country Rankings

        IQ and the Wealth of Nations


  • 1

    A fine unusual article in the travelogue genre by Hafeel Farisz. I expect much from him. Well done and keep going – IH

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