Hundreds of Palestinians poured out of Jerusalem’s Old City on a recent weekday carrying two open caskets, painted in deep green and emblazoned with Quranic verses, to the Muslim cemetery just outside the Lion’s Gate.
Fighting against the mourning tide, both literally and figuratively, a group of 12 Pakistani visitors slowly made their way into the ancient city, each step bringing them closer to fulfilling a lifelong dream.
The delegation of Pakistani community leaders touring the country as part of a regional peace initiative arrived in Israel last Sunday for a six-day visit designed to foster deeper ties between the two countries, which do not have diplomatic relations.
The group, some of whom live in the US and some in Pakistan, also met with President Isaac Herzog, local business leaders and political experts.
As he meandered through the Umariya elementary school, a historic campus built over a former Crusader castle in Jerusalem’s Old City, Dr. Nasim Ashraf reflected on the first days of his maiden voyage through the Holy Land.
“Coming here has cleared up a whole lot of misunderstandings, fixed notions and wrong perceptions,” Ashraf, a former Pakistani government minister, said as he stood in the school’s Ottoman-era courtyard.
Pakistan is one of numerous Muslim countries with no official ties to the Jewish state – although there have been brief overtures in the past, most notably a meeting between Israeli and Pakistani foreign ministers in 2005, following then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to pull out of Gaza.
In recent years, military training exercises have been conducted alongside Pakistani forces. However, Jerusalem’s increasingly close relationship with India remains a sore point for Pakistan, with the two neighboring states having fought periodic wars over disputed territory in Kashmir.
In a courtyard adjacent to a gymnasium once used as a rest stop for Jordan’s King Abdullah I during visits to Jerusalem, windows provided a rare glimpse from above of the northern courtyards of the Temple Mount, known to the Pakistanis by its Arabic name, the Haram. Al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary.
The competing historical narratives at play on the flashpoint esplanade and elsewhere would be a constant theme for the group to grapple with as it navigated through the city.
‘One step at a time’
The trip was organized by Sharaka, an organization that emerged in the wake of the 2020 Abraham Accords — a series of normalization deals between Israel and several Arab nations — to promote peace and cooperation in the region, alongside the American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council. .
For Ashraf, joining the delegation was a logical step after decades spent promoting interfaith dialogue.
“Since the Abraham Accords, I’ve felt there is definitely an appetite [in Pakistan] for peace with Israel. There is a lot of opposition too – one step at a time. We started the conversation in 2005 when I was a member of the government’s cabinet.”
Following the signing of the accords, an adviser to then-prime minister Imran Khan reportedly visited Israel to convey Islamabad’s desire for a closer relationship between the two countries. Officials in Pakistan rejected the claims and the visit was never independently verified.
As the delegation ambled out of the tranquil school grounds and back into the chaotic alleyways of the Old City, Ashraf, as if thinking aloud, concluded: “Israel can mainstream the Palestinian youth, to reduce hatred and violence, giving them the same education and opportunities. That’s how you change thinking and society at a young age — not when you have nothing.”
The Pakistani delegation is following in the footsteps of a group of Bahraini and UAE nationals that visited the Jewish state with Sharaka almost a year ago. That group, wearing traditional white Islamic robes common in the Gulf states, attracted far more media attention and public fanfare than their South Asian counterparts.
The lack of attention may have been by design. Whereas the autocratic governments of Bahrain and the UAE enthusiastically welcomed ties with Israel, anti-Israel sentiment runs deep in Pakistan’s messy political system.
Last year, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Quraishi was fired from his position after visiting Israel. Last week, few delegates clamored for the opportunity to speak on the record.
Ashraf, though, was open, perhaps due to his high profile and US citizenship. He said that the Quraishi incident was part of the reason for his visit.
“I said the only way I will go [to Israel] is if it’s public, not in the closet. Let’s make peace go forward. If this is to lead to anything in our lifetime, or the next lifetime, it has to be on record and some people just have to bite the bullet.”
‘Wonder of the world’
Descending the steps towards the Western Wall plaza, the group stopped to watch darkness descend upon the city as the Dome of the Rock lit up, the golden jewel in Jerusalem’s crown.
Led by Dan Fefermen, global affairs director at Sharaka, along with a quintessentially Israeli tour guide in loose jeans and a patterned shirt, the delegation entered the Western Wall Tunnels complex, marveling at the engineering genius and religious significance of King Herod’s Temple walls.
The dark, damp rooms they entered, which lay undisturbed until their rediscovery a decade ago, became the scene of a bizarre interfaith dialogue: the Muslim Pakistani visitors compared notes from the Quran with the Israeli tour guide’s biblical knowledge, confirming the existence of shared narratives and pointing out subtle differences.
The tunnels themselves have been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1996, excavations under the Muslim quarter of the Old City, authorized by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sparked three days of rioting across the West Bank and Gaza that would take the lives of 25 IDF soldiers and over 100 Palestinians.
While the highly publicized peace agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco have grabbed global attention, subtle underground conversations continue with other powerful Islamic countries — Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and others.
As the tunnel conversation petered out and the group headed for the Western Wall plaza’s exit, one delegate, as if making a public proclamation, said, “The wonder of the world,” as he watched the masses of swaying Jewish worshipers at the foot of the wall, the Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock’s golden dome above. All nodded their heads in agreement.