ABU GHOSH, Israel -- Salim Jabber recently renovated his house, and he says he feels bad about hanging the portrait of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov in a corner of the living room: it isn’t prominent enough.
"He's a magical guy," Jabber, who spent 25 years as mayor of Abu Ghosh before stepping down in 2013, says of Russian President Vladimir Putin's man in Chechnya. So during our interview, he moves a bookcase to the right to make the portrait more conspicuous.
It is a display of reverence that might seem more suited to life in Kadyrov's southern Russian republic of 1.4 million, where the 39-year-old former rebel has parlayed Kremlin largesse and frontier-style justice into unrivaled power. There, Kadyrov's critics run the risk of vilification in Russia's pro-government media, public shaming at the hands of Kadyrov himself, or politically charged thuggery and even disappearance.
But two years ago, Kadyrov arrived in this village in green hills on the outskirts of Jerusalem to dedicate a mosque that he helped bankroll as a high-profile gesture to a town with possible historical ties to the North Caucasus.
Russia watchers like Maxim Suchkov suggest the massive Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, named for Ramzan's assassinated father, who ruled Chechnya before him, was an effort "to enshrine family glory." The mosque also allows Kadyrov to paint himself as a generous Muslim abroad, a break from the frequent criticism he faces for his suppression of domestic dissent.
In Abu Ghosh, best-known in Israel for its hummus restaurants and historical Christian churches, locals say the mosque has given them a deeper sense of identity as Muslims -- and possibly Chechens. Now they are cheering on Kadyrov as he faces an uncontested election in mid-September to stay on as head of the Chechen Republic, even as human rights activists blame him for a "vicious crackdown."
"He is a good man and he walks the straight path. He has done something good. May God help him," says housewife Dallal Abu Katish.
Restoring A Lost Connection
Jabber says he grew up hearing that the four extended families of the Abu Ghosh clan originated in Chechnya but that an avatar of those legends arrived when a Jewish Chechen emissary knocked on his office door six years ago and told him Kadyrov was searching for Chechen communities abroad. Would Abu Ghosh like to renew its ties?
"I said we would bless this connection," Jabber says.
Jabber says a number of Chechen dignitaries visited Abu Ghosh, and then he took his first of 12 visits to Chechnya. When the plane landed, he says, "I kissed the ground of my homeland." Looking around him, he was sure the people of Chechnya resembled his neighbors in Abu Ghosh. They spoke Chechen, but Jabber thought he could discern in their voices a similar lilt to the Arabic spoken in his village. Chechen media documented his travels, he says.
Palestinian historian Adel Manna says there may be truth behind Jabber's gut reaction. He says residents of Abu Ghosh are likely descendants of warriors from the Caucasus sent by the Ottoman Empire to guard the main road from Jerusalem to coastal Jaffa. One possible meaning of Abu Ghosh is "father of fighting," he says. The troops may have been from anywhere in Circassia, which spanned a strip across the Caucasus, or maybe they were from Chechnya in the east, he says. In Arabic, he adds, the words for Circassia and Chechnya are the same. Israeli geographer Yehuda Ziv says Abu Ghosh is a variation on Ingushetia, another Russian republic in the North Caucasus that abuts Chechnya.
Today Chechnya is a tiny, mostly Muslim republic still recovering from years of war. After the fall of the Soviet Union, rebel Akhmad Kadyrov fought against Russia for independence, then switched sides to Moscow. He died in a 2004 bombing claimed by Islamist radicals. Putin appointed his son, Ramzan, as his successor.
In political circles outside Russia, Kadyrov is known for his cheerleading for Putin, his administration's persecution of dissenters, and his extravagance -- gold-plated automatic pistols, a fleet of exotic cars, and a stable of racehorses -- much documented on his widely followed Instagram account.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (center) attends morning prayers at the Abu Ghosh mosque in Israel in 2013.
Admirers say Kadyrov has kept the peace in a restive swath of Russia and allowed Chechnya to rebuild. Jabber keeps a souvenir from his visit to Grozny: a 3D laser-etched glass block showing the Chechen capital's modern skyline, erected during Ramzan Kadyrov's time. And Jabber sees in Chechnya's current politics an echo of Abu Ghosh's history. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Abu Ghosh sided with Jewish forces and was permitted to remain, while most other Arabs in the area fled or were expelled.
"[Akhmad Kadyrov] made a smart move," Jabber says. "If he had continued fighting, there would be no more Chechnya. And Abu Ghosh is the same thing: If we had stayed here and insisted on fighting the Jews, Abu Ghosh would not exist."
The appreciation for the Chechen leaders echoes around Abu Ghosh. Fadi Ibrahim printed photographs of Ramzan Kadyrov and his father and hung them in his sandwich shop.
He says he doubts reports of Kadyrov's abuses.
"Maybe the man himself is not like that," he says. "I personally appreciate this man. He did good for me."
Building A Megamosque
Jabber says Kadyrov asked him how he could help the village. At the time, the people of Abu Ghosh were framing a new mosque, funded by local donations, and they were running out of cash. Chechnya sent the money to finish building the four-story house of worship and repave the street outside, and named both for his late father.
On a recent Friday, the Akhmad Kadyrov mosque filled up for noon prayers. The sun streamed into the prayer hall via windows cut into an airy dome, and glinted off three crystal chandeliers. Men who could not fit inside the gleaming building knelt under the shaded arcade at its entrance or sweated out the services under the fierce August sun in the courtyard. The new shrine, with space for 3,000, replaces a tiny stone house of worship that had room for only 150 people, with the overflow praying on asphalt outside.
Dallal Abu Katish, the housewife, says the construction of the mosque was a community effort. She says she cooked eight massive trays of food for the visiting construction workers one evening.
"The mosque united our village," she says.
The striking new structure has left behind almost no paper trail. The AP news agency and others reported that Chechens gave $6 million to build the mosque. Jabber estimates the total was closer to $10 million, including money for heavy wooden doors and gilded marble furniture. Turkish and Chechen craftsmen were also flown to Abu Ghosh, but he cannot provide details on costs and says most payments were made in cash. The village mosque foundation Kadyrov's administration reportedly funded has filed no financial reports with the Israeli government since it was established in 2007, which a clerk at the Charities Registrar says is against the law.
Abu Gosh ex-Mayor Salim Jabber with Grozny souvenir and a portrait of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in the background.
Current Mayor Issa Jabber cannot provide a precise accounting of Kadyrov's contributions either. Jabber is listed as the creator of the village foundation, and Salim Jabber's name and phone number are listed among its founders, but he says a separate foundation funneled the money to the mosque.
"My goal was to get the mosque built," Salim Jabber says. "I am not involved in the financing."
Beyond slipshod accounting, Kadyrov's donation may have also included some arm twisting. Salim Jabber says Kadyrov's wife insisted on adding two minarets to the two that already capped the mosque, which is common in Chechnya and Turkey but flashy among Palestinians. To get his way, Kadyrov's representatives in Abu Ghosh directly funded builders, Jabber says. The mosque's contractor Ali Abu Katish, a distant relative of Dallal, says he appreciated the Chechens' momentum. He also hung photographs of both Ramzan and Akhmad Kadyrov in his living room.
"Here we get slowed down," Abu Katish says. "They [the Chechens] do things the way they're supposed to be done."
A Chechen Gift -- Or Russian Overture?
None of these details surprises Zvi Magen, Israel's former ambassador to Russia.
"Everything is as usual," Magen says. The mosque was a gift, he says, not from Kadyrov to Abu Ghosh but rather from Moscow to the Chechen leader.
Magen says the mosque reflects Russia's growing involvement in the Middle East. Russia is propping up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including through a recent bombing campaign. Moscow has worked with Tehran on nuclear technology, security issues and trade, and more recently in Syria. And Putin has offered to host Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as early as this month. While Moscow has courted the Israeli government, Magen says Kadyrov could help cultivate ties with Israel's 20-percent Arab minority, which is mostly Muslim.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry had no comment on relations with Chechnya.
Expert Suchkov at the Moscow-based Russian International Affairs Council says Kadyrov promotes himself as a paragon of Sunni Islam at home. He built a $20-million mosque in Grozny, passed an edict requiring women to wear head coverings at universities and in government jobs, and issued an order in November requiring Chechen police to read 300,000 prayers to the Prophet Muhammad during the month.
Perhaps the Chechen leader is using gestures like the Abu Ghosh mosque to gain renown among Muslims worldwide, Suchkov muses.
For former Mayor Jabber, the relationship with Chechnya has given him a deeper sense of identity. Others are less romantic.
"Until they built the mosque I knew we were from the Caucasus," says village resident Tabet Abu Ghosh, 75. "The Chechens came and said, 'We're Chechen and we want to build you a mosque,' and we said, 'Fine.'"
Dallal Abu Katish says her husband, son, two daughters, and all her brothers and sisters have become regulars at the Kadyrov mosque since it opened. Her sister takes part in Koran study competitions, she says. Abu Katish vows to attend services on the Eid el-Adha holiday.
Jawdat Ibrahim, a distant relative of the sandwich shop owner Fadi Ibrahim, says he is not religious but has become a regular at the new mosque because his 12-year-old son goes to weekly prayers.
Ibrahim is perhaps uniquely qualified to appreciate unexpected windfalls like Abu Ghosh's Chechen funding: He won $22.7 million in the Illinois State Lottery in 1990. With his winnings, Ibrahim returned to Abu Ghosh, founded a university scholarship, and opened an expansive hummus restaurant.
Ibrahim says he also grew up hearing about his Chechen roots, although he concedes he has no evidence.
Still, he says, "When someone tells me, 'We love you,'... why do you have to ask too many questions?"