Throughout history Jerusalem has become known as the city of peace, sacred for all three monotheistic religions. In its more recent history the city has experienced periods of calm, but unfortunately never peace. For months now violence has become a daily occurrence, though it was overshadowed by the 50 days of war in Gaza during the summer and was thus almost absent from the headlines. This is surprising considering that Jerusalem, more than anywhere else, is where one can feel the pulse of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each and any of the default lines of the conflict between the two people is ever-present in the city.
The religious divide, the political struggle, the conflicting national aspirations, the demographic competition, the geographical battles and the violence that characterizes the entire conflict, persist in Jerusalem more than anywhere else. Almost unnoticed, a Third Intifada has been brewing in the city, threatening to spread to the rest of the West Bank. Politicians on both sides, though especially on the Israeli side, are wilfully refusing to admit that, short of a political miracle, the Israelis and the Palestinians are heading towards another painful round of violence. They, together with the United States, maintain the charade that peace negotiations are still possible, while everything they say and do points to the opposite conclusion –leaving the two state solution a fast-fading prospect.
A new uprising
Riots by Palestinians in East Jerusalem have become a daily routine since three Israelis killed the 16-year old Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir and burnt him alive. The killing was according to its perpetrators a revenge for the murder by Hamas members of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped near an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. The new uprising is mainly led by youths throwing rocks and fire bombs at Israeli targets and on occasion attempting to mow people down with vehicles. The relatively new light train which runs on both sides of the city seems to have become the most popular target of the Palestinian resistance. Maybe because it is representative for them of Israeli insistence that the entire city belongs to them. It could also be that it represents normalization which they do not feel part of as long as they live under occupation.
Last week, a Palestinian drove his car into a light rail train station and ran over passengers disembarking from a train –a sign of the fast deteriorating relationship between Arabs and Jews in the Holy City. This attack left two people dead, a three month old baby Haya Zissel-Brown and tourist from Ecuador Keren Yamima Muscara. Israeli politicians lined up to condemn this killing, and who would not lament another senseless loss of young innocent lives in this endless vicious cycle of violence. However, bereavement is not confined to one side of the conflict. Last Friday in the village of Silwad, north of Ramallah, Israeli security forces shot and killed Orwah Hammad. Hammad was 14-year-old Palestinian-American youth who participated in clashes with Israeli force. Hammad was the second young boy to be killed by an army shooting in eight days, following the killing of 12-year-old Bahaa Samir Badr in the West Bank village of Beit Laqiya. In the daily grinding reality of life in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, violence keeps breeding further violence and grief.
A typical demagogue
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in his typical demagogue was quick to blame the Palestinian president for the killing at the light train stop. He accused him of inciting his people to resist the occupation by force. Admittedly, both leaders have been regretfully using more inflammatory language than usual since hostilities started this summer. Yet, regardless of Abbas’ behaviour, it is hard not to understand Palestinians’ frustration and sense of haplessness. The war in Gaza claimed the lives of thousands of Palestinians and sowed devastation across the Strip. Throughout the West Bank settlements are constantly expanding, administrative arrests are increasing and settlers’ attacks on Palestinians continue to go unchecked. The status quo in the West Bank between Israelis and Palestinians is just an illusion – it does not exist, it never has. The building of thousands of home units in the Jewish settlements leaves the Palestinians to watch as their dream of self-determination fades away in front of their very eyes. In East Jerusalem itself, the designated capital of an independent Palestinian state, Jewish neighbourhoods are encircling Arab ones. In many cases Palestinian land is confiscated. In late September this year settlers entered into 6 buildings in Silwan, under the cloak of darkness, provoking tensions in a sensitive area very close to Jerusalem's Old City and Temple Mount (Al-Aqsa Mosque). Owners of the buildings refuted settlers claim to have purchased the buildings from Palestinians and embarked on legal actions to evacuate the settlers. According to the Israeli NGO Ir Amim “The map of "Greater Jerusalem," surrounded by the separation barrier, reflects the Israeli governments' official aspirations for a demographic balance that maintains a clear Jewish majority in Jerusalem.” Moreover, the routing of the barrier according to the organisation “….created an artificial blockade between East Jerusalem and its social and economic hinterland,” in relation to the municipal boundary of Jerusalem. Israel, through the building of settlements, national parks and archaeological excavations, is trying to change the multi-cultural nature of the city and marginalise the Arab history and the Arab narrative of the city.
One does not have to condone violence in order to understand that Israeli policies in Jerusalem, as the ones in Gaza and the rest of the West Bank, can only lead to Palestinian active resistanceYossi Mekelberg
To add insult to injury, despite the fact that East Jerusalem, as the rest of the West Bank, is considered by international law as occupied, Israel has annexed it. Palestinians who live there have never enjoyed the same rights as other Israeli citizens. They are considered permanent residents without the right to vote in national elections or hold an Israeli passport. Even their rights as permanent residents are not guaranteed and can be revoked if they stay out of town for a certain amount of time. This quite a raw deal for the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, who the state of Israel is trying to deprive of their Palestinian identity and at the same time giving them very little in return.
In an act of sheer provocation, right wing Israeli legislators and members of extreme religious-nationalist movements are attempting to hold holiday prayers on Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram al-Qudsi al-Sharif, the place of both the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. This is a dangerous attempt to disturb a very fragile co-existence in which Jews pray in front of the Wailing Wall, while Muslims do the same on Temple Mount. The Second Intifada was triggered when this arrangement was threatened, and the third one might follow suit in very similar circumstances.
For the sake of all the people of Jerusalem, and the rest of Israel and Palestine, even secular people should pray that a full blown Third Intifada is not upon us. The ones before, especially the second one, brought about only death and destruction. However, an obstructive and incompetent Israeli government is igniting an already very flammable situation. One does not have to condone violence in order to understand that Israeli policies in Jerusalem, as the ones in Gaza and the rest of the West Bank, can only lead to Palestinian active resistance. When the political diplomatic door is closed for Palestinian independence, a violent struggle will take its place whether as an attempt to gain rights or as an expression of deep frustration. One remains perplexed as to whether the Israeli government and the Israeli people have learnt anything from their own history.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.