As US Secretary of State John Kerry pursues efforts to resume peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the world's leading Islamic scholar of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, arrived in the Gaza Strip to express support for Hamas.
The Egyptian-born al-Qaradawi, who has in the past justified suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, came to the Gaza Strip at the head of a delegation consisting of some 50 senior Islamic figures from 14 countries.
The high-profile visit is seen as a major victory for Hamas and its supporters and a severe blow for Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and his "moderate" Fatah faction.
Al-Qaradawi, who heads the International Union of Muslim Scholars, came to the Gaza Strip to urge Palestinians to continue the struggle against Israel.
During his visit, al-Qaradawi also urged Palestinians not to give up one inch of land to non-Muslims. He also warned against making any concessions on the "right of return" of millions of Palestinians to their pre-1948 villages and towns inside Israel. "Palestine was never Jewish," the 86-year-old sheikh told Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. "Palestine has always been Arab and Islamic."
Although al-Qaradawi did not mention Abbas, his comments were seen as directed against the Palestinian Authority president's readiness to engage in peace talks with Israel.
When someone as senior and influential as al-Qaradawi tells Palestinians that it is forbidden to make concessions to Israel, he is sending a warning message to Abbas and other Arabs that jihad [holy war], and not negotiations, are the "only way to restore our rights."
Although the Palestinian Authority had called on its supporters in the Gaza Strip to boycott al-Qaradawi, thousands of Palestinians turned out to give him a hero's welcome.
His anti-Semitic remarks and support for suicide attacks have earned al-Qaradawi the respect and admiration of many Palestinians, especially those who seek to destroy Israel.
Had the Muslim Brotherhood's al-Qaradawi visited the Gaza Strip to urge Palestinians to recognize Israel's right to exist, he would have been received with shoes and rotten eggs.
But al-Qaradawi is a hero in the eyes of many Palestinians and Muslims because he views Jews as the "enemies of Islam and treacherous aggressors."
In a January 2009 sermon, al-Qaradawi prayed [according to a translation by MEMRI] that "Allah take this oppressive, Jewish Zionist band of people. Oh Allah, do not spare a single one of them. Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one."
Al-Qaradawi's visit has further bolstered Hamas's standing, enabling it to tighten its grip over the 1.5 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. Moreover, the visit has granted legitimacy to Hamas's rule in the Gaza Strip and turned it, in the Arab and Islamic countries, into an acceptable Islamic party.
But more importantly, al-Qaradawi's visit and statements also serve as a reminder that the Israeli-Arab conflict is centered, more than ever, around religion. The sheikh's message to the Palestinians and Muslims is that this is a religious conflict and not a political issue.
This is an unequivocal message that stresses that no Muslim is entitled to give up Muslim-owned land to non-Muslims. As far as al-Qaradawi, Hamas and their followers are concerned, the conflict is not about a settlement or a checkpoint. Rather, it is about Israel's presence -- its right to exist at all -- in the Middle East.