Proposal to quieten Muslim call to prayer stokes tensions in Israel

Firas Kazaz, a Palestinian muezzin -- the person appointed to recite the Muslim call to prayer -- calls for prayer from the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, on Nov 21, 2016.
Firas Kazaz, a Palestinian muezzin -- the person appointed to recite the Muslim call to prayer -- calls for prayer from the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, on Nov 21, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (AFP) - It is 4.30am and Mr Mufeed Shawana is rushing to Al-Aqsa Mosque, as the first Muslim call to prayer of the day rings out across the Old City of east Jerusalem.

But he stops short when asked how he feels about the prospect that the sound echoing from the minarets could soon be dampened.

"It upsets me. The calls to prayer have happened for 1,400 years," said Mr Shawana.

A Bill backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ban mosques around Israel and annexed east Jerusalem from using loudspeakers to amplify late night and early morning azans, or calls to prayers, has been approved by a ministerial committee ahead of a parliamentary debate and voting.

It has been temporarily blocked, but the government is still confident of pushing it through.

Mr Shawana argues that nobody would deny Jews their own religious rituals, which are "their right".

"This is our right," he adds, before disappearing inside the mosque.

The dispute around high-decibel minarets is not unique to Israel, which argues that other states, including in Europe and North Africa, have similar restrictions to those it is looking to implement.

But it has touched a raw nerve in Israel, where many in its minority Arab population - around 17.5 per cent of the whole and overwhelmingly Muslim - believe Mr Netanyahu's right-wing government is systematically persecuting them.

They also worry that their connection to Al-Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam, is under threat.

Large numbers of Israeli Jews view the azans as noise pollution, with the Bill's sponsor, Mr Motti Yogev, of the far-right Jewish Home party, arguing they disturb the peace of hundreds of thousands of people.

He has also claimed that in some cases, they are used by religious leaders to incite against Israel.

In its current draft, the law would prevent the summons to worshippers between 11pm until 6am from being relayed on loudspeakers.

Palestinians and Arab Israelis have organised protests against the ban, with an Arab Israeli MP performing the azan in Israel's Parliament to the fury of some of his Jewish colleagues.

The Arab League called the Bill "a very dangerous provocation".

Arab Israelis, who largely identify as Palestinians, are the descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

On Tuesday, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported a mosque in the Arab Israeli city of Lod was fined 750 shekels (S$274.84) for playing the call to prayer too loud.

Beit Safafa in southern Jerusalem is a Palestinian village in east Jerusalem flanked by Israeli neighbourhoods, including the area of Pat, a few hundred metres away.

In a passionate sermon at Beit Safafa's mosque, Mr Najih Bkeirat, a religious leader from Al-Aqsa visiting for the weekly Friday prayers, railed against the Israeli plans.

"It is very clear the Israeli occupation with this law, or the attempt at this law, wants to Judaise the city. They don't want to hear Arabic prayers in the city, they don't want to see churches in the city," he later told Agence France-Presse.

"The prayers represent a racket, but the Israeli Jewish celebrations, celebrations at night you hear until dawn, they don't represent a racket?" he asked.

For Israelis in Pat, turning the volume down is only fair and they accuse the Palestinians of being unreasonable.

"We are a Jewish neighbourhood next to an Arab village - the noise is terrible. I have a little kid who cannot sleep," said Ms Ayelet Sadeh, 42.

Just like Mr Bkeirat and Mr Shawana, she sees calculated malice rather than cultural misunderstanding behind the actions of the other side.

She points to the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, when life in Israel grinds to a standstill for a day, as an example - pointing out Muslim prayers continue that day.

"Sometimes," she said, "it feels like they are doing (it out of) spite."

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the ultra-orthodox party United Torah Judaism blocked the Bill as he was worried it would silence the weekly siren alerting Jews to the start of the Sabbath, or holy day.

An Israeli official told Agence France-Presse the authorities were confident they'd find a way to pass the Bill "while protecting religious freedom for all and the right of all to be free from excessive noise".

There are more than 400 mosques in the country, including east Jerusalem, according to Israeli government figures, and implementing any law could be tough.

"Forbidden fruit is sweet," Mr Bkeirat said, suggesting Muslims would organise loud prayer calls from homes.

"If they ban the prayers, every house will become a prayer house - every house will pray, every person," he said. "Day and night, until the occupation understands they cannot interfere in religious issues."