Writing from the West Bank, Sarah Levy explains the source of spiraling violence in East Jerusalem–provocations and deadly assaults by Israeli soldiers and settlers alike.

Palestinians marching from Ramallah toward the Qalandiya checkpoint as part of the #On2Jerusalem march (Sarah Levy | SW)

Palestinians marching from Ramallah toward the Qalandiya checkpoint as part of the #On2Jerusalem march (Sarah Levy | SW)

TENSIONS WERE already at the boiling point in Jerusalem after weeks of Israeli provocations when two Palestinian men attacked a synagogue on the morning of November 18, killing four rabbis, all of whom held U.S. or British citizenship, as well as an Israeli police officer.

Though you wouldn’t know it to judge from the U.S. media, the assault on the synagogue followed weeks of Israeli security crackdowns in East Jerusalem and a string of violent and deadly attacks on Palestinians by Israeli vigilantes.

After the synagogue killings, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly struck back, ordering “authorities to demolish the assailants’ homes,” according to Ha’aretznewspaper.

But there was no such punishment for the brutal crimes against Palestinians committed by Israeli settlers in the weeks before November 18. One victim of this violence was burned to death and another stabbed while working in Israel. On November 16, following the stabbing of an Israeli by a Palestinian in Jerusalem, 32-year-old Palestinian bus driver Hasan Yousef Rammouni was attacked by Israeli right-wingers, beaten to death and hanged in his vehicle.

Protests have taken place following the murders of Palestinian suspects by Israeli police, and often against the subsequent Israeli attacks on their villages–each time leading to more arrests, injuries and several deaths.

As of this writing, there have been three vehicle hit-and-runs and four knife stabbings by Palestinians against Israelis since October 22. Most of these have led to the murder of the perpetrators by Israeli police, followed by the harassment of their families, including home demolitions. A majority of the attacks have taken place at tram stations, which Palestinians see as a symbol of Israeli occupation because of the tram’s role in destroying Palestinian communities.

As Dan Cohen told ElectronicIntifada.net, “It’s these kinds of things that are the cycle that Israel creates for Palestinians–to beat them and torture them until occasionally one loses it and does something awful, and then Israelis use it to crack down even more.” Meanwhile, Israel has ramped up its attack on the Al-Aqsa Mosque and implemented a policy of “collective punishment” in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Marches across all of Palestine–in Jerusalem, throughout the West Bank, and in Gaza–are demanding “Victory to Al Quds” (Jerusalem). Clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces have become a near-daily occurrence in East Jerusalem, with hundreds injured and arrested and several people killed. This has created an atmosphere reminiscent of this summer’s mass demonstrations in the West Bank against the war on Gaza.

Israel’s provocations are directly responsible for the growing frustrations among Palestinians. As the blogger Zalameh, who lives in the neighborhood of Shuafat, said in an interview with ElectronicIntifada.net:

Israel is really touching into the heart of the wound, which is the Al Aqsa Mosque. This really has potential to bring Palestinians together. It’s not the first time where Al Aqsa and the Old City unified Palestinians. Jerusalem unifies Palestinians’ imaginations of a free Palestine. So whatever Israel is doing in Jerusalem has the potential to reverberate across the West Bank, Gaza [and] in ’48 areas [inside present-day Israel] as well.

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Al-Aqsa under attack

Tensions in East Jerusalem were already running high after this summer’s murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat. Khdeir was abducted, beaten and burned alive by six Israelis.

But alongside such acts of vigilante violence is the rising arc of abuse and intimidation carried out by Israel’s official security forces. According to the Palestinian Prisoners Society, more than 1,300 Palestinians, 40 percent of them children, have been detained in Jerusalem since June alone.

Then, starting with Ramadan in July and increasingly since the Jewish holiday of Sukkot in early October, Muslims have been repeatedly and arbitrarily barred access to Haram al-Sharif, otherwise known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound–Islam’s third-holiest site and an area within Jerusalem’s Old City that also contains what Jews refer to as the Temple Mount.

But while Muslim women and/or Palestinians under the age of 50 have been routinely prohibited from praying in the mosque, incursions by settlers into the compound have increased, facilitated by Israeli security forces, often complete with police escort or political officials. During such “visits,” settlers often provoke violence and incitement against Palestinians and against the mosque itself.

Since the end of the Ottoman era after the First World War, the status quo of Jerusalem’s holy sites has been that Muslims pray at the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa, while Jews pray at the Western Wall. According to Judaic law, or “halacha,” praying at the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, is actually forbidden.

But in the last 30 years, a right-wing movement of mostly messianic Jews and ultra-nationalists has emerged, insisting that Jews should have access to the Temple Mount and seeking to destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque and replace it with a Jewish Third Temple.

While this used to be a fringe idea, in recent years, its followers have gained a hearing in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), effectively giving its relatively small number of supporters a disproportionate amount of influence. A 2013 report by the Israeli nongovernmental organization Ir Amim explains that the movement “enjoys the [Israeli] establishment’s most generous support.”

“About half of the members of the [ruling Likud] party support the Temple Mount activists,” according to Tomer Persico, a lecturer at the department for Comparative Religion at Tel Aviv University and author of the report. Likud’s party platform even states that “Likud will act in the next term to find a solution that allows freedom of worship to Jews on the Temple Mount, while of course treating the matter with the necessary sensitivity.”

While many Palestinians accept as reasonable the idea that people of all religions should have access to Al-Aqsa, they know from bitter experience how Israel has used calls for “shared access” as a foot-in-the-door toward complete annexation and denial of access to Muslims.

Many have pointed to the case of Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque, which houses the Cave of the Patriarchs, a Jewish religious site. Since 1967, Israel has controlled the site. It allowed both Muslims and Jews to worship there, but gradually restricted access to Muslims and set aside areas for exclusive Jewish worship.

In 1994, Israel used a massacre in which American-born Israeli extremist Baruch Goldstein killed dozens of worshippers inside the mosque to proceed with the partition of the Mosque into separate Jewish and Muslim sections. Today, many Palestinians again fear provocations by Jewish extremist groups will give Israeli officials the pretext they are seeking to officially limit Muslim access to the mosque.

As Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, General Secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative, explained in an interview:

Israel thinks that if they can destroy our [Palestinian] presence in Al Aqsa, they can destroy our presence in Jerusalem, and that if they can do so, they would destroy our presence in Palestine. This is the Israeli goal: a system of apartheid and ethnic cleansing. They are trying to stop us from having any rights in our country.

Some Palestinians see Israel’s move on Al-Aqsa as not only political but also strategic. “It is the culmination of the entire system of moves taken by the occupation since 1967,” wrote Nasser Ibrahim, co-director of the Alternative Information Center, in an article for the center’s website. “It seeks to change the heart of Jerusalem’s reality on all levels and to reach the right moment in which these new facts are transformed into well-established structures that are difficult to alter.”

With a vote coming up in the next month about officially partitioning the mosque, many feel a lot is at stake. Yet a crucial fact is entirely missing from mainstream discussions about the upcoming vote: “Israel illegally occupies East Jerusalem, so it has no legitimate power to actually–as it’s going to–vote on dividing Aqsa between Jews and Muslims,” said Dan Cohen in an interview with ElectronicIntifada.net.

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The collective punishment of East Jerusalem

In addition to its attacks on religious symbols of Islam, Israel has further intensified its occupation of East Jerusalem in recent weeks–a policy that residents and politicians alike have deemed “collective punishment.”

The September 30 settler takeover of 25 apartments in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan–the largest such influx of settlers in this part of Jerusalem in 20 years,according to Ha’aretz–led to a series of clashes in the area.

But tensions were driven even higher on October 23 after Palestinian driver Abdel Rahman al-Shaludi crashed his car into a crowd of Israelis waiting at a light rail stop near Ammunition Hill, giving Israel the perfect pretext for an intensified and disproportionate crackdown, particularly in the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, where the driver was from. As Dan Cohen wrote in late October:

The immediate branding of the incident as a Hamas terrorist operation alleviated any potential responsibility from public consciousness. As the news of a terrorist attack spread, the Israeli public demanded the Netanyahu government punish East Jerusalem Palestinians. An op-ed appeared in Ha’aretz that called for an increased police presence in Jerusalem, signaling consensus from left to right.

The following day, Netanyahu convened a special meeting with Israeli security, intelligence and municipal officials and ordered 1,000 additional troops from the border police into East Jerusalem to “exercise Israeli sovereignty” over the occupied territory. According to Cohen:

The police carried out Netanyahu’s orders with brute force. As a crowd of 150 Israelisgathered at the site of the incident, calling for expulsions of Palestinians, and chanting “death to Arabs” and “revenge,” soldiers, police and settlers mounted attacks on neighborhoods throughout East Jerusalem. In Silwan, soldiers ransacked the al-Shaludi home and arrested family members, including Abdel Rahman’s 15-year-old brother Izzedin. Settlers threw stones at homes, cars and property and attacked several Palestinians. Fatimah Rajabi, 11, and her four-year old cousin Wael were shotin the face while in their home by Israeli soldiers firing rubber coated bullets.

Between October 22 and the writing of this article, 188 Palestinians in Jerusalem have been arrested, including 71 children. Israel has now stationed more than 3,000 police in Jerusalem in order to impose “order” on the city.

In Issawiya, another East Jerusalem neighborhood near Hebrew University at Mount Scopus, police have literally and figuratively suffocated the neighborhood’s nearly 17,000 residents, daily firing tear gas in every direction and blocking off four of the five entrances into the city.

Israeli troops have also routinely sprayed massive amounts of skunk water on main streetsand into schools, closing down multiple schools due to the intolerable stench. “Even inside their own homes, people cannot breathe because of the gas,” said Uri Agnon, an Israeli student and activist at Hebrew University.

Police have also been instructed by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to crack down on the most minor traffic violations, issuing dozens of tickets for hundreds of shekels and in some cases confiscating cars that residents depend on to get to work. Surveillance balloons hover above many of these neighborhoods. “They are putting a siege on Issawiya,” said one resident of the neighborhood at a protest on November 12. “Just the way they put a siege on Gaza.”

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Glick is shot

The two dimensions of these attacks–the assault on religious symbols and the siege of East Jerusalem’s neighborhoods–converged on October 29 after the attempted assassination of Yehuda Glick, a right-wing religious extremist well known in the Temple Mount movement.

That night, as he was leaving a conference titled “The Jewish People Return to the Temple Mount” at the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre in Jerusalem, Glick was confronted by an assailant, shot and seriously injured.

Hours later and through the following day, Israel closed the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, something it hadn’t done since it first occupied Jerusalem in 1967, angering Muslims all across the country and beyond. Also during those 24 hours, Israeli police stormed the home of suspected shooter Mutaz Hijazi, ransacking his residence and shooting him more than 20 times on his rooftop in what can only be described as a state-sponsored extrajudicial killing.

The police killing and subsequent raid on the Hijazi neighborhood provoked clashes across Jerusalem two days later. Protesters railed against the killing of Hijazi, but also against the killing of al-Shaludi the previous week and the intensified police violence in the area. At least 28 Palestinians were injured.

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Israel cracks down

Further stoking the fire, Israeli officials have introduced a series of new measures to crack down on the Palestinian resistance.

Recently, Netanyahu expedited passage of a law that calls for 20-year prison terms for stone-throwing, a common form of resistance for Palestinian youth. Israel’s Internal Security Minister, Yitzhak Aharonovich, has also said he intends to further clamp down by fining the parents of those accused of rock-throwing as a means of “harming the parents financially [to] restrain the children.” In many neighborhoods, Israeli police have victimized children in particular, arresting dozens of minors, often holding them for over a month before allowing them to face trial.

“The [stated] decision of the Israeli government to crush Palestinian protests by means of brutal force is reminiscent of Israel’s ‘iron fist’ and ‘breaking bones’ policy of the first Intifada,” said Ingrid Jaradat Gassner, coordinator of International Advocacy and Public Relations for the Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem, in an interview with the Institute for Middle East Understanding. “This policy has resulted in a deep sense of insult and humiliation among all sectors of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian population, including among youth and the un-politicized.”

Adding to all of this, Israel has continued to accelerate the expansion and creation of illegal Jewish-only settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

On October 27, Netanyahu announced that 1,060 new homes would be constructed in East Jerusalem; on November 8, Israeli officials announced the confiscation of an additional 3,200 acres of Palestinian land from the village of Beit Iksa north of Jerusalem; and on November 12, Jerusalem’s Committee for Planning and Building approved theconstruction of 200 more housing units in the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramot Alon.

As Nasser Ibrahim, co-director of the Alternative Information Center, wrote in an article for the center’s website:

Israel is not bothered that it’s violating international and humanitarian law. It continues, for example, settlement construction so that a new reality is created, one that creates a new spatial conception and can thus not be ignored. Israel sees itself as above international law, answering only to a “higher law” of a “divine promise,” which gives it the right to control any geographical area in Palestine.

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Ongoing Judaization and ethnic cleansing

Israel’s terror campaign against East Jerusalem is not a new phenomenon. Since Israel illegally annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, no country outside of Israel–not even the United States–recognizes the land as part of Israel, instead considering it part of the Occupied Territories.

Israel, however, regards East Jerusalem as its own, leaving it with the ongoing dilemma of what to do with all the Palestinians who live there and the “demographic threat” they pose to Israel’s desired Jewish majority. One way it deals with this is by classifying Palestinians in East Jerusalem as “residents” as opposed to “citizens,” denying them various rights that Jewish citizens enjoy, such as the right to build homes and the right to vote, in addition to systematically denying funds needed for crucial infrastructure projects, such as schools, roads, hospitals, sewage and garbage collection.

Such treatment is legally defined as “forcible displacement” by human rights organizations and is one aspect of Israel’s long-term aim to ethnically cleanse the area. The “70-30 policy” outlined in the Jerusalem 2020 Master Plan is an explicit example of Israel’s drive to “Judaize” the land. According to the Master Plan, the goal is to achieve a 70 percent Jewish, 30 percent Arab population around Jerusalem and and recommends various means of removing the Arab population and replacing them with Jews.

This systematic attack on East Jerusalemites’ ability to live normal lives is intended to restrict the growth of the city’s Arab population and to make life so unbearable that they will simply leave, meanwhile privileging and expanding the Jewish population within the same area.

Further, a new report by an independent workers rights organization based in Palestine outlines how a recent Israeli “development” initiative threatens to accelerate mass displacement of the Palestinians. According to a summary of the report in the Nation:

The municipality’s recently announced five-year economic plan purports to boost national security by “unifying” the city. But earlier this year, Ha’aretz reported that the plan appears to be designed to facilitate annexation of Arab communities and “thwarting any possibility that the city would be divided as part of a future accord.”

“What Israel is doing is weakening Palestinian presence in Jerusalem,” said the blogger Zalameh. “It is gradually Judaizing Jerusalem to the point that whatever they will do to Al Aqsa and the Old City will be met with little resistance because Palestinians presence here is becoming weaker and weaker.”

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Resistance: “Victory to Al Quds”

Israel’s intensified repression has, however, failed to halt a new wave of protest across all of Palestine in solidarity with Jerusalem and against the attack on Al Aqsa. On October 31, a Day of Rage was held with marches organized in the West Bank and the Gaza in response to the closing of Al Aqsa the previous day. Demonstrations were organized by the national and Islamic political parties, and speakers demanded an end to Israel’s policies of extrajudicial assassinations, home demolitions, land confiscations and the violations against worshippers at Al Aqsa.

Since then, large marches and demonstrations focusing on Jerusalem have taken place each Friday. On Friday, November 14, two #On2Jerusalem marches were held near Ramallah and the Qalandiya checkpoint, organized by the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee and Hamas, with hundreds of Palestinians marching toward Jerusalem until they were stopped by riot police.

A statement released by the Popular Committee read:

We, Palestinians, decided to rise in our masses to confront the occupation at the points of closure around the city of Jerusalem, against the siege of the holy city and its people. “On to Jerusalem” is an action that was initiated to resist the occupation and its measures, against its checkpoints, which violate our right to freedom of movement between our cities within the West Bank and to Gaza. The colonial occupation imposes measures that prohibit us from reaching our holy sites. For tens of years, Palestinians Christians and Muslims have been prohibited from reaching and visiting their churches and mosques in Jerusalem.

The ongoing mobilizations have led to media chatter about whether the protests represent the start of a “third Intifada,” but at this point, most people on the ground seem to think that while there is sufficient anger, there isn’t sufficient organization to compare recent events to the first and second Intifadas.

Since Israel’s assault on Gaza garnered no more than hollow condemnations from international powers such as the United States, Israeli officials have pursued their latest attacks on Islam’s holy sites with impunity, and they show no signs of moderating their policy of accelerated ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Additionally, the setbacks suffered by the Arab uprisings–from Egypt to Syria–and the international focus on ISIS have provided Israel with an excellent opportunity to go full speed ahead with its latest attack.

But the fact that Al Aqsa unites not only all Palestinians but also Muslims outside of Palestine could mean that the attack has the potential to spark and strengthen a new resistance. It should not be forgotten that it was precisely the provocations around Al Aqsa in 2000, when Ariel Sharon visited the mosque with a massive entourage of armed security forces, that sparked what later came to be known as the Second Intifada.

“Pressure has been mounting for years,” said Wael Mahmud, a social worker from East Jerusalem. “Unemployment among young people is high and even those working find it difficult to cope with high living costs…Children grow up scared of being the next Abu Khdeir.”


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