Strangling Jerusalem

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

We have been witnessing an epidemic of violence in Jerusalem. There have been killings and near fatal attacks in Israel and elsewhere in the occupied Palestinian lands, but it is Jerusalem that has been the epicenter of the violence. This tragedy has been compounded by the fact that most US analysts and political leaders have been dead wrong in their simplistic, myopic, or, at times, even bigoted assessments of what is happening and why.

For example, The Atlantic's Jeffery Goldberg says the violence has been caused by Palestinian “paranoia” and their refusal to acknowledge “the national and religious rights” of Jews. Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal, accuses the Palestinians of "blood lust". For their part, Members of Congress have been jumping all over each other to see who can issue the harshest denunciations of the Palestinian Authority for incitement and/or not doing enough to control the situation.

In reality, the roots of the violence in Jerusalem are deeper and far more complex. For decades now, Israel has been strangling East Jerusalem denying its Palestinian inhabitants freedom, opportunity, dignity, and hope, with devastating impact. Before Israel closed Jerusalem off from the rest of the West Bank in 1994, the city had served as the hub of Palestinian life. Not only was the city important for its religious role, all of the major Palestinian economic, social, cultural, educational, medical, and service institutions were located in the city.

Jerusalem was Palestine's heart, and the flow of people in and out was its lifeblood. Jerusalem's people and its businesses and institutions were sustained by Palestinians from the West Bank who entered daily to work or shop, to visit or take advantage of the services it provided. And Palestinians from the rest of the West Bank were, in turn, nourished by all that the city had to offer. The choking impact of the closure was felt almost immediately. It became so difficult and humiliating to pass through checkpoints to get into Jerusalem, that people stopped making the effort. This was compounded by Israeli orders requiring Palestinian institutions to leave the city and reopen in Ramallah.

Israel didn't stop with closure. They also intensified the hardships faced by the Arab population of the city. Palestinian residents who couldn't find work in Jerusalem were forced to look elsewhere for employment. But when Israelis discovered that an Arab was not permanently residing in the city, they revoked his or her residency - denying their right to return to Jerusalem. 14,000 such revocation orders have been issued.

In the past several decades, Israel has also confiscated one third of Palestinian-owned land in and around Jerusalem to build Jewish-only colonies and a network of highways connecting them to Israel. These colonies now house over 200,000 Jewish settlers. At the same time, Israeli authorities in Jerusalem have routinely denied building permits to Palestinians thus forcing them to build, without permission, new housing for their growing population. The Israelis have, at will, issued demolition orders against these "illegal" homes. Thousands of such orders have been issued, and in the past decade alone more than 2,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem have been rendered homeless by demolitions.

Further compounding this state of affairs has been the effort by ultra-nationalist Israeli groups, supported by American Jewish "charities", to seize homes and properties in the heart of older Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and the Old City and to populate them with extremist settlers. These seizures often occur in the dark of night under the protection of the Israeli military. In recent years 119 of these provocative "projects" have been settled by almost 2,000 hardliners. Because they are in the heart of Arab neighborhoods and are guarded by Israel forces, they result in nightmarish disruptions to daily life.

The impact this has had on East Jerusalem's Palestinian population can been seen in ways both physical and spiritual. Arab Jerusalemites have become impoverished, with three-quarters of them living below the poverty line. Unemployment is in the 40% range, with most of Palestinians from East Jerusalem only able to find menial jobs in West Jerusalem. Educated young Palestinians are given a stark choice - either accept employment as a waiter or a taxi driver or give up residency in Jerusalem to find a job in their field outside of Palestine.

This has taken a profound toll on the soul of Arab Jerusalemites, young and old. Denied dignity and hope, both despair and anger have set in. While some older Palestinians in the city have become cynical and resigned, younger Palestinians have become angry, seeking revenge. They are resentful of and feel humiliated by the settlers who have moved into their neighborhoods, closing off streets and moving about with a sense of entitlement. While Palestinian attacks on Israelis are reported in great detail, the attacks on Palestinians by settlers (140 in October, alone) have largely been ignored.

Young Palestinians see their parents in despair and know that their futures are, at best, devoid of promise for a better life. All of this has set the stage for the epidemic of violence that has now unfolded in Jerusalem.

To be sure, the provocative invasions of the Haram ash Sharif by hardline Israeli ministers and their extremist followers have aggravated the situation. But to identify the root cause of the violence as either Palestinian “incitement”, "blood lust" or "paranoia" and to ignore the profoundly unsettling existential incitement faced by Palestinians is unconscionable. 

Make no mistake, the stabbings cannot be justified and should be condemned. They accomplish nothing other than to take lives or cause bodily harm to others. But the Israeli response which has been to bring down even more harsh and repressive measures on an already much violated captive people is no solution. And neither are the lame appeals to "restore calm". More repression will not cure an ailment that has been caused by too much oppression. And "restoring calm" is embarrassingly hollow since it promises nothing more than a return to the pre-existing state of affairs than spawned the violence, in the first place.

In many ways, the tragedy unfolding in Jerusalem reminds Palestinians of what has occurred in Hebron. First, settlements and checkpoints choked off Hebron from its surroundings. Then heavily guarded compounds of fanatics entered the heart of the city, shutting down the main street killing its commerce. The final blow came after an extremist settler massacred 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron's mosque. The Israeli response was to divide the mosque into Jewish and Muslim sides. While Jews were able to enter freely, Muslims were forced to endure humiliating security before entering - with the mosque being declared closed to Muslims, whenever the Israelis decide.

Stephens, Goldberg, and company see only Israeli victims. They limit their focus to the stabbings and the rock throwing youth and blame them. But there is a deeper story and that is that these young Palestinians are also victims—of decades of oppression and the denial of hope. Until it is understood that these Palestinian lives matter and concrete steps are taken to provide them with freedom, opportunity, and hope, the tragedy will continue.    





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