The increase in Palestinian resistance to Israel’s attempts to change the status quo in occupied east Jerusalem and its holy sites has put the divided city of Jerusalem and the relationship between the two sides living there at a crossroads. It has become quite possible--if the recent escalation gains dynamics that sustain it, deepen it and expand it--for events to get out of hand.
However, it is also not too late to pull back from the tragic consequences of sustained violence, and avoid further escalation. This would require respecting the status quo of the holy sites and the rights of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Which way things go depend on how the Israeli government handles its responsibilities in the city--indeed, whether it maintains the practices and policies that are responsible for bringing us to this precipice.
This wave of resistance was triggered by what Palestinians consider a sustained Israeli attempt to change the status quo at the Haram al-Sharif, Jerusalem’s holy mosque. Foreign journalists and diplomats have reported increased Israeli government permissiveness, and even protectiveness, towards extreme Jewish settlers visiting the site, at the same time that regular access to Muslims seeking to pray has been obstructed.
Newspaper readers have gotten used to news items saying that Muslims above the age of 40 were not allowed to pray, or that Muslims living outside the old city were restricted from entering the mosque for prayer.
What most alarmed observers recently, including Jordanian officials, was the introduction of draft laws in Israeli’s parliament seeking to divide the mosque in a blatant violation of the status quo that was agreed upon in part through the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.
These provocative developments have occurred against a backdrop of long-standing Israeli practices that discriminate against the Palestinian residents of occupied east Jerusalem--the kind that planted seeds of frustration and anger. Two reports by European Union representatives in Jerusalem warned of the grave consequences of increasing Israeli violations of Palestinian rights in their city, among them land confiscations, the refusal of building permits, the demolition of homes, arrests of children, settler terrorism and “price tag” revenge, lack of public investment and so on.
The reports showed that these Israeli policies and practices have produced appalling socio-economic indicators, where unemployment, poverty, the numbers of school dropouts, and incidences of drug addiction are much higher in East Jerusalem than the rest of the West Bank. Some neighborhoods of East Jerusalem have become “safe havens” for West Bank criminals who hide there, knowing that Israeli police neglect these areas and that Palestinian police cannot access them.
If Israel is left to apply its typically arrogant approach in handling the crises--i.e. the use of force, and when that fails, even more force--then previous experience tells us we are headed for disaster. To avoid that, Israel should take three steps.
The first is that Israel should respect the status quo of Jerusalem and its holy sites and refrain from changing the reality in the city, especially at the Haram al-Sharif. The second is to restrain the violence being carried out by Jewish settlers against Palestinians.
One way of doing that is to apply the same punishments that Israel imposes on Palestinians. Why haven’t the homes of the Jewish terrorists who burned alive a Palestinian teenager been demolished yet, as we are now seeing the homes of Palestinians who carried out attacks on Israelis being destroyed? If those punishments are not fair for Jewish extremists, then they need to be halted for Palestinians. The third step is to avoid collective punishment against Palestinians, which usually only incites and angers more Palestinians in protest and violence.
These steps are in the interest of the Israeli government, despite its efforts to appease hard-liners. “Unrest” in East Jerusalem is terribly embarrassing to the Israeli government. After 45 years of Israeli effort and investment to claim this “unified” city, Jerusalem is clearly completely divided. Israel’s claim that it had “neutralized” the Palestinians of East Jerusalem by including them in the Israeli social security system has been shown to be patently false.
For those who understand the forces at work here, it is no great irony that the current protests are concentrated in East Jerusalem rather than the rest of the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority is in partial, control. One is forced to repeat: the occupation is the reason, and the direct force of its hand is heavy and brutal.
This escalation of violence and suffering is happening within the context of Israel’s illegal occupation of East Jerusalem, part of the occupied Palestinian territories. It is Israel’s responsibility, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pathetic attempts to lay blame with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (accusations opposed even by the head of Israeli intelligence).
However, this suffering is also indirectly the responsibility of these counties friendly to Israel that continue their cooperation while disregarding continued Israeli violations of Palestinian rights. This conflict would end tomorrow were Israel not blindly sanctioned by Europe, the United States and the rest of the international community.
This article was first published in the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre on Nov. 25, 2014.