Former extremist Israeli settler thanks Allah at new West Bank home
HEBRON, West Bank (AFP) - With his tattoo of the Star of David hidden from view, Mohammed al-Mahadi prays to Allah in his new West Bank home near the radical Jewish settlement where he spent much of the last decade.
His recent arrival in the Shaab neighbourhood of the flashpoint town of Hebron is the latest twist in the extraordinary life story of Mahadi, who was born to Jewish parents 37 years ago in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.
The man then known as Mikhail Shirovsky moved to Israel soon after the Soviet authorities allowed Jews to emigrate in the 1980s.
After serving in the army as a fitness instructor, he was drawn to Jewish extremism and decided to move to the hardline settlement of Kiryat Arba in 1995 soon after one of its residents, Baruch Goldstein, shot dead 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs.
But an unlikely friendship with a Palestinian garage owner led him to first question his values, then to convert to Islam before marrying a Muslim wife from his native land.
Mahadi said he has been touched by the warmth of the welcome that he has received from his new neighbours in spite of his background.
"I was a radical settler and an enemy to them," he told AFP in an interview at his new home. "They have treated me like a brother and have offered me all the help that I need."
After his conversion to Islam and marriage to Sabena, Mahadi's life among the Jews of Kiryat Arba became increasingly fraught.
He says that his wife and four children, were ostracised and harassed by his one-time friends.
"I was attacked in the settlers in Kiryat Arba many times. They stoned my house and wrote graffiti against me, saying I'm a Muslim and had to leave.
"Every time I travelled anywhere, we were harassed because my wife was wearing a veil.
"I was also often interrogated by the Israel security services, but all that I care about is that my children continue on the same religious path as me."
Maadi admits that the man responsible for attracting him to Islam was garage owner Waleed Zaloum, whose business is located just outside Kiryat Arba.
Two strong-headed men, they used to argue for hours about the merits of their respective faiths as Zaloum recalls.
"From the start I felt there was good inside this man, even though I was not expecting it from a settler from Kiryat Arba," he said.
"The issue became a challenge to me and I told him: 'Either you convert me to Judaism or I convert you to Islam', but after six months of discussions and meetings it was him who ended up being converted."
Mahadi said that he had been persuaded to renounce Judaism for intellectual reasons.
"I discovered that there were too many contradictions in Judaism and at the same time I realised that Islam is the religion of truth and wisdom," he said.
"I converted because I am seeking truth because of religious reasons and not for any other motive."
He is unable to shake off all his Jewish heritage. Tattoos of the Star of David and of a Menorah (a seven-branched Jewish candelabrum) are etched indelibly on his hands.
But Mahadi harbours no doubts and his new faith, saying that he is not interested in the formation of a secular Palestinian state.
"What I want is an Islamic caliphate in Palestine and God willing, Jerusalem will be the capital of this state," he said.
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