By Rashid I. Khalidi
Once again, widespread popular unrest has broken out in Jerusalem. Since July, there have been clashes between young Arabs and Israeli security forces using tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition and truncheons.
Why are the Arab residents of Jerusalem taking to the streets?
Many feel provoked by increasing attempts by Jewish religious zealots to take over the third holiest site in Islam, the Haram al-Sharif, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Religious activists represented by umbrella groups like Temple Mount Organizations have openly stated that they intend to establish Jewish worship on this Muslim holy site, and to destroy its magnificent 7th century structures — the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock –and replace them with a new Jewish Temple.
Israel’s chief rabbi has lashed out at Jews attempting to pray at the site, suggesting that doing so should be “punishable by death,” as it could desecrate the ‘holy of holies’ — the place where Jews believe the arc of the covenant was once kept. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has also said that trips to the site by Israeli ministers and lawmakers were “provocative,” and could have a “destabilizing effect.”
Still, extremist religious Zionist parties like Habayit Hayehudi who support Jewish worship at the site are not outliers in Israeli society — they have ample representation in the Israeli government, parliament, security services and army.
Many Arabs also point to an ominous precedent. Since the 1967 war, Israel has controlled the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, which houses the Tombs of Patriarchs, a revered Jewish site. It has been a mosque continuously for nearly 14 centuries, barring an interruption during the Crusades, but Muslim worship there has been gradually restricted and parts of the mosque have been seized for exclusive Jewish worship. This step-by-step takeover only accelerated after the massacre of dozens of Muslim worshippers inside the mosque by an Israeli-American settler during Ramadan in 1994.
To understand the recent wave of violence, one has to look beyond just Haram al-Sharif, however.
Attempts to change the status quo of this unique religious site come after decades of Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, which began in 1967. As non-Jews, Arab residents of Jerusalem are subject to overtly discriminatory laws, rules, regulations, and municipal and national spending patterns as regards building permits, education, public parks, garbage collection and every other urban amenity.
This is part of a consistent Israel policy to restrict the growth of the city’s Arab population, and to privilege and expand its Jewish component.
Jerusalem’s indigenous Arab residents have for over four and a half decades been subject to an inexorable barrage of attempts to segregate them in tightly restricted areas of the city, some of them walled and fenced off. Meanwhile, the expansion of the Jewish population into settlements all over occupied Arab East Jerusalem — which are a violation of international law — have been lavishly subsidized and supported by the Israeli state, backed by its oppressive security services.
Palestinians in Jerusalem consider themselves to be living under occupation, as does the United Nations. Even the United States voted for the 1969 UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s actions there.
The occupation is evidenced by the ubiquitous presence of heavily armed paramilitary border guards in Arab neighborhoods, the selective demolition of Arab-owned structures accused of violating building codes, the use of politically-motivated archaeological digs to take over strategic sites, and myriad other daily harassments and inconveniences.
The Palestinians of Jerusalem, who constitute 38 percent of the city’s total population, believe that Jerusalem is not governed for them or by them. They consider that it is run by the Israeli state for the exclusive benefit of its Jewish population, and with the aim of establishing complete Jewish hegemony in the city.
Before 1967, Jerusalem was divided between the Israeli-controlled West and the Jordanian controlled East. After the 1967 war, Israel annexed the entire city and remained an occupying force in East Jerusalem. Ever since then, these discriminatory Israeli policies have systematically aimed to carve the geographic and spiritual heart of Arab Palestine.
These provocations have created the conditions for a major eruption of unrest in Jerusalem, and perhaps beyond: in the rest of occupied Palestine and in the larger Arab and Islamic worlds.
The governments of the United States and European countries bear a major responsibility for leaving Jerusalemites to their fate at the hands of extremists inside and outside the Israeli government— vast sums of tax-deductible charitable donations from the United States support the settlements in East Jerusalem.
The nationalist-religious extremists at the highest levels of the Israeli government like Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennet, head of the Habayit Hayehudi Party, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, have gone out of their way to evince hostility toward Palestinians, whether citizens of Israel or residents of Jerusalem.
Bennet went on record saying that there should be “zero tolerance” for non-Jewish national identity and that Israel should prevent Jerusalem from ever becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state.
For all of these reasons, the ominous developments in and around the Haram al-Sharif are seen by Palestinians and many the world over as yet another attempt by religious zealots to rid this ancient city of its rich Arab and Muslim cultural history — which is also part of world heritage. If no one steps in to intervene, then the protesters in East Jerusalem will have no alternative to defending their dignity, and their holy places, by themselves.