Church bells and sirens sounded to mark the beginning and end of Jewish holidays have not been part of the discussion as exceptions to synagogues are being debated.
The “Muezzin Bill” as it’s commonly called — in reference to the person tasked with making the call to prayer from dawn to evening five times daily — has been described by critics as yet another assault on the Muslim identity of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, targeting further Judaicisation of Jerusalem.
Because there are already laws and regulations for noise pollution in Israel, efforts to defend the new bill against accusations of racism have been unsuccessful. Both Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the bill’s primary sponsor, MK Moti Yogev from the Zionist Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) Party, have not been shy in singling out the Muslim call to prayer specifically as the source of unacceptable noise.
An explanatory note with the bill said that hundreds of thousands of citizens in Galilee, the Negev, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv-Jaffa and other locations in the centre of the country regularly and daily suffer from noise caused by the muezzin’s call in mosques.
The controversial law was backed by the Netanyahu government last week and unanimously approved by the Ministerial Legislative Committee. As Al-Ahram Weekly was going to press Wednesday, the Knesset was to begin voting.
If enforced, the law will target mosques in Jerusalem in 1948 Palestine, not the Occupied West Bank, which is under Palestinian Authority rule.
“We do not intend to violate freedom of religion, but rather to prevent harm to citizens whose sleep is affected by the muezzin’s call,” said Yogev.
Palestinian officials disagree, arguing that the move serves to antagonise Muslims and flare up sectarian tension in an already explosive region. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to turn to the international community to fight against bill. His spokesman, Nabil Abu Rodeina, said the bill will lead to a “catastrophe in the region” if passed.
“The Palestinian leadership will turn to the UN Security Council and all other international organisations to stop these Israeli measures,” he added.
In protests during the weekend, thousands of Palestinians living in Israel decried the bill and its authors as racist and anti-Muslim. In the Arab city of Kafr Qassim, protesters carried placards in Arabic and Hebrew which read: ‘You will not silence a voice that took off 1,400 years ago’ (since the advent of Islam).
Proponents of the bill cite European laws banning loudspeakers in mosques. They went as far as claiming — inaccurately — that Arab Muslim states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia similarly ban loudspeakers for prayers.
“Those who are disturbed by the sound of the call to prayer and think they are in Europe, should return to Europe,” Arab MK Haneen Zoabi wrote on her Facebook page. She said that the objective of the bill is to “alter” the nature and identity of place.
“The sound of minarets is part of our homeland and its culture; that’s why they want to silence it… The sound of the Muezzin is part of the sentiment of the indigenous people and that’s what they want to uproot.”
There are over 1.7 million Palestinians living in Israel — roughly 20 per cent of the population.
The main opposition to the bill was inside the Israeli Knesset where the Joint List that comprises of Arab MKs threatened to go to the Israeli Supreme Court if the draft law exempts the siren for the Jewish Shabbat.
Legal experts say the bill would not stand in the high court because of its discriminatory nature. The Israeli Yedioth Ahronoth news Website quoted a senior legal official who was doubtful that the attorney general would defend the government and the Knesset before court if a version of the bill passes exempting the loudspeaker systems of synagogues.
The official said such a law would be unconstitutional for permitting discrimination and would damage the freedom of religion and worship.
Reported changes to the bill seek to apply the ban late at night and in early morning, which means that mosques would still be allowed to operate loudspeakers for the rest of the day.
“If taken in a vacuum, the bill could seem something that could be up to debate; should there be loud noise for religious practice late at night?” said Joel Branauld, executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace. “Of course this bill is not happening in a vacuum and further creates distinctions between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens. There are pre-existing arrangements and informal relationships that sort this out in general. It seems to be a law whose main purpose is to create a reaction from the Arab community which feels under threat already.”
The prospect of banning the call to prayer has been so infuriating to Palestinians that Arab MKs Ahmed Al-Tibi and Talab Abu Arab took to the podium in the Knesset and sounded the Muslim prayer in a show of defiance to the bill.
“We will not respect this law, and I call on our public to revolt against it and reject it. Netanyahu personally stands behind this bill, and he spreads incitement against Islam,” said Al-Tibi.
Yogev’s bill is not the first legislative attempt to muzzle the Muslim call to prayer. In 2011, an MK from Yisrael Beiteinu proposed a similar law, but despite Netanyahu’s pledge of support for the bill it failed to pass.
This time, ahead of the Knesset debate, illegal Israeli settlers lobbying for the ban have been gathering outside of Israeli politicians’ homes in West Jerusalem at odd hours to play the call to prayer to demonstrate the noise, according to reports.
As the controversy surrounding the bill progressed, ultraorthodox MKs who had initially opposed it under the presumption it also banned the sirens sounded for Jewish holidays, withdrew their opposition after receiving promises that Jewish sirens wouldn’t be affected.
According to The Jerusalem Post, a spokesman for Interior Minister Arye Deri issued a statement in the name of a senior figure in the ultraorthodox Shas Party who described the “Muezzin Bill” as “unnecessary”, saying there was no need for the measure and that current laws can be used to require mosques to reduce the volume of the call to prayer.
The Arab League described the bill as a “very dangerous precedent... a threat to peace and security in the region” and a rejected escalation by Israel. In the same vein, the Islamophobia unit in Egypt’s Dar Al-Iftaa issued a statement that deemed the bill incendiary and in violation of the principle of freedom of worship. The statement associated the bill with increasing violations by Israel, in particular hampering access of Muslim worshipers to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Occupied East Jerusalem.
On Saturday, fans of Jordanian football team Wahdat erupted in chants sounding the call to prayer during a match in a stadium east of the capital Amman, in solidarity with Palestinian protesters.
The Jordanian government came out against the bill last week with Undersecretary for Islamic and Waqf Affairs Abdullah Abadi saying, “an occupier cannot make any change to the city it occupies and things must remain the same.”
On Monday, Turkey’s deputy prime minister denounced the bill as unacceptable and “an insult to the culture, past and history of Jerusalem. It makes no sense and is contrary to freedom of belief.”