‘A Declaration of War’ in Jerusalem

As Mahmoud Abbas rails against the Temple Mount closing, a volatile and divided city is poised to explode.

Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

JERUSALEMAfter a week of photo ops and press conferences by Israeli police and politicians aimed at reassuring the public that Jerusalem is safe, tensions in this disputed city skyrocketed on Oct. 29 with the attempted assassination of right-wing activist Yehuda Glick, who was shot at close range after leaving a conference.

The man who allegedly killed Glick was himself killed by police hours later, prompting a day of clashes between police and Palestinian youth from East Jerusalem. Israeli authorities then took the nearly unprecedented step of shutting the Temple Mount to avoid confrontations, a closure that local activists say has only happened one other time since 1967.

The war of words between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, is in full swing. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said incitement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was partially to blame for the assassination attempt; Abbas, meanwhile, called the closure of the Temple Mount a "declaration of war."

Following months of simmering unrest, Jerusalem seems to be heading into uncharted territory. The attempt on Glick’s life was the second high-profile attack this month: Last week, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem drove his car into a crowd of passengers disembarking from the light rail, killing two people, among them a 3-month-old baby. Both attackers seemed to be working alone, but a range of Palestinian factions rushed to take credit for their actions, which were met with a degree of public sympathy.

Palestinian anger elsewhere is also close to boiling over: In Gaza, nearly 2 million people are seething over the lack of postwar reconstruction, an effort hobbled by Israeli restrictions and the decrepit state of Palestinian politics. 

But even as the longtime status quo seems to be unraveling, the response from the political class has been bizarrely detached. Hamas and Fatah are still preoccupied with fighting each other, despite their rhetorical commitment to unity. And after a brief summer romance, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have gone back to their drawn-out divorce. Members of the Knesset are preoccupied, above all, with the looming prospect of early elections.

"It’s a political culture with a very short-term approach to the world," said a senior European diplomat in Tel Aviv. "It’s hard to ring an alarm bell." 

The bells might have started ringing in July, when a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem was abducted and burned alive — an act of revenge for the murder of three Jewish teenagers in the occupied West Bank. His killing set off a week of riots that left hundreds of people injured or jailed. The abductions helped spark a summer of provocations that further heightened public anger: the Gaza war, ongoing arrests and home demolitions, and, most recently, the arrival of dozens of new Jewish settlers to East Jerusalem’s Silwan district. The government also advanced plans this week to build more than 1,000 new homes in two other neighborhoods. All of this fueled months of violence. Local youths continue to throw firebombs at Israeli police, or stones at passing buses and trains; about 40 percent of the light-rail cars in Jerusalem are out of service due to damage. The unrest has continued despite more than 700 arrests since July.

Yet until last week’s hit-and-run attack, the deteriorating security in Jerusalem merited little wider attention, prompting city officials to lash out at the national government. "Netanyahu … doesn’t want to give the orders to the police to fight against terrorism in Jerusalem," said Aryeh King, a right-wing member of the city council. 

On Oct. 23, the prime minister finally announced a plan to deploy heavy police reinforcements in the city to "restore quiet and security." He blamed the violence on Abbas, saying the Palestinian president "extols the murderers and embraces the organization that the terrorists belong to, Hamas."

Netanyahu’s branding of Abbas as an enemy represents a reversal from this summer, when it seemed possible to imagine that the two leaders would patch up their differences. During the seven-week war in Gaza, some members of Netanyahu’s cabinet tried to portray the Palestinian president as an ally — the man who could retake control of Gaza and help drive Hamas from power. The Palestinian Authority, which is run by a government loyal to Abbas, is meant to oversee a massive effort to rebuild the battered Gaza Strip, including $5.4 billion pledged by international donors in Cairo earlier this month. 

That strategy to dislodge Hamas, however, hasn’t gone as planned. The Palestinian Islamist movement has yet to hand over power in Gaza, however, and Abbas has accused the group of maintaining a "shadow government" in the territory. Two weeks ago, while the new Palestinian government’s cabinet was meeting for the first time in Gaza, the military wing of Hamas launched a fresh recruitment drive.

"This means there are still two authorities," said Faisal Abu Shahla, a Fatah lawmaker in Gaza. "[Hamas is] asking the international community to come here, to reconstruct Gaza according to international regulations, and you do this?"

The promises to rebuild, meanwhile, remain just that. Infrastructure across the strip is devastated, with 12-hour blackouts and widespread water shortages. Tens of thousands of families are homeless, huddled beneath tarps or in the ruins of their houses. There is a pervasive sense of hopelessness, deepened by the approach of a cold and rainy winter.

"Now I know, if my house is going to be destroyed, I should go and fight the Israelis," said Ibrahim al-Najjar, 26, a Gaza resident whose family home in the town of Khuzaa was leveled by shelling. "It’s better if we die fighting than in the rubble." 

An initial shipment of cement and other construction materials arrived to Gaza last week, while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was visiting the strip. Unusually, top Israeli military officers have urged the civilian leadership to end the blockade. "We need to permit the opening of the Strip to goods," Gen. Benny Gantz, the outgoing Israel Defense Forces chief, told Haaretz. "These people need to live."

Yet on the ground, Palestinian officials say nothing has changed. Mufeed al-Hassayna, the Gaza-based housing minister, said a shortage of construction equipment means it would take years simply to clear the rubble. Materials are scarce. Even temporary shelters, like trailers, are arriving at a rate of roughly 50 per week — far too few in a territory where almost 60,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, according to the Palestinian government.

"The people will have patience for some days, but we’re afraid of what’s going to happen in the future," Hassayna said. "People will be banging on my door every day this winter asking what I’m doing for them, and what can I tell them? We have nothing to offer." 

Hamas would like to see Gaza rebuilt before the widespread devastation further erodes its popularity. But with the reconstruction stagnating, it is maneuvering to put the blame on the Palestinian Authority.

"To keep the situation calm, the reconstruction should start immediately," said Sami Abu Zuhri, the Hamas spokesman in Gaza. "But we are not part of the rebuilding…. The government should be responsible." 

In the desire to pass the buck, at least, Israel and Hamas seem to have found common ground. Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected the idea that his policies in Jerusalem fueled the unrest there, instead placing the blame on "incitement" from Ramallah. Similarly, he has dismissed U.S. criticism of a spate of new illegal settlement plans in the city, calling it "disconnected from reality."

The construction has undermined ties with the United States, culminating in an unnamed official describing Netanyahu as a "chickenshit" prime minister. The diplomatic row with Washington coincides with a crisis in Europe, where several countries have symbolically recognized Palestinian statehood. Sweden recognized the state of Palestine on Thursday, and the British parliament passed a nonbinding resolution to that effect earlier this month.

Yet none of this has prompted new thinking. Netanyahu has nothing to offer the residents of Jerusalem beyond throwing an additional 1,000 police at the problem; Abbas is encouraging unrest that he has no means to control; and Hamas, keen to discuss anything other than the disastrous conditions in Gaza, held a rally in the strip earlier this month urging Jerusalemites to follow its "successful example" and revolt. All three parties are still acting as if the status quo of the past seven years remains intact.

"It’s a deadlock everywhere," said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a Gaza-based political analyst. "Nobody is serious, not Hamas, not Fatah, not the Israelis. And it is making people more and more pessimistic … it’s an unsustainable situation."

Indeed, on the streets of East Jerusalem, locals see little hope of stopping the unrest. "This is life every day since the summer. It’s a war," said Mohammed Shwayt, a resident of the Abu Tor neighborhood watching the clashes on Thursday. "And I don’t see how it ends."

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