East Jerusalem After the Storm
Checkpoints. Concrete walls. Heavily armed police. Israel has stopped a deadly wave of terror attacks for now, but Palestinians are still seething.
JERUSALEM — The morning starts, for some residents of East Jerusalem, with a rush-hour queue at the makeshift checkpoints manned by Israeli police, where one woman has already died while waiting in line to reach a hospital. For others it may begin earlier, with the sound of demolition charges blowing up a neighbor’s home. Some hurry home in the evenings, fearful of working a night shift. They pass heavily armed Israeli police at seemingly every intersection.
These are tense times in Jerusalem. That is perhaps a truism: It was tense last winter, during a spate of vehicular attacks, and in the summer of 2014 as well, after a Palestinian teenager was snatched off the street and burned alive. But the pace of this year’s violence has been particularly breakneck: Between Oct. 3 and Oct. 17, there were 16 attacks in the city, most of them stabbings; six of 11 Israelis killed this month died in Jerusalem.
Most of the attackers have no clear links to political factions, according to Israeli security officials, and no criminal records. Relatives struggle to explain what happened.
“He was a happy boy,” said the uncle of a Palestinian teenager who plunged a knife into an Israeli policeman’s neck. “He had a job and a family, a decent life,” said a young man whose cousin, a telephone company employee, hacked a pedestrian to death with a meat cleaver.
Israeli authorities wrestled the situation under control by deploying thousands of extra police, making hundreds of arrests, setting up dozens of checkpoints and roadblocks, and even briefly building a wall around one Palestinian neighborhood. Twelve days have passed without an attack.
The 300,000 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem have long fallen through the cracks, neglected by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There are not only vast socioeconomic gaps but also more visceral provocations — right-wing Jewish groups buying up homes in the Old City and the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, home demolitions and evictions, the eternal tinderbox that is the Temple Mount. The crackdown may have brought calm, but it also reinforces the sense amongst Palestinians that Israel is encroaching ever further into their isolated city.
“We live in shit already, and then they come and demolish our homes, put us out on the streets,” said Mu’ataz Abu Jamal, a relative of no less than three attackers. “Why should I explain what was in my brother’s head?”
Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 and quickly annexed the territory, a move not recognized by the United States or other world powers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often promises that he will never divide the city in a final agreement with the Palestinians, who claim the east as their future capital.
What will happen in the future is a fraught question for the inhabitants of East Jerusalem. Few of them chose to take Israeli citizenship after 1967. Instead, they are “permanent residents,” a status that allows them to travel and work freely inside Israel, though not to vote in national elections. Yet a poll of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion earlier this year found that most would prefer to remain on the Israeli side of the border in a future settlement.
“Compare the quality of life of the Arab residents in Jerusalem to the quality of life in the region, in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, and people understand, here in our city we care about them,” the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, said in an interview.
There’s no denying that compared to, say, the Islamic State-controlled Syrian city of Raqqa, the residents of East Jerusalem are well off — but compared to the neighborhood of Rehavia, in the west, they are not. Basic services are scarce: hospitals, clinics, even post offices. Schools in East Jerusalem have a shortage of 1,000 classrooms. A third of households are not connected to the municipal water grid. Most people are below the poverty line.
Unemployment in East Jerusalem is staggeringly high, standing at 40 percent for men, double that for women. Most of the jobs that do exist pay meager wages: A 2013 United Nations study found that three-quarters of those with jobs work in construction, agriculture, and the service industry. These days, the residents of Sur Baher, a district in the southeast, queue for 45 minutes at a checkpoint in order to stock produce shelves and pump gas in West Jerusalem. In Shuafat, a few miles northeast of the Old City, the morning rush can take two hours.
The tightest closure is in Issawiya, a rough district of 14,000 people adjacent to the prestigious Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus. Only one road leading out of Issawiya is still open to traffic; the western exits are sealed with concrete blocks, where pedestrians queue for questioning and a thorough search by Israeli border policemen.
These restrictions on movement can turn into a matter of life and death. Hoda Darwish, 65, developed breathing problems after a tear gas canister landed near her home on Oct. 18. Her sons tried to drive her to Hadassah hospital, normally a six-minute trip. The journey took 45 minutes, with a lengthy stop at a checkpoint where Israeli security forces fired shots in the air to subdue the crowd, according to her sons. She died en route.
Netanyahu has also ramped up punitive home demolitions, a controversial practice that Israel resumed last November after an almost 10-year lull. On Oct. 6, the army abruptly destroyed Ghassan Abu Jamal’s family home in Jabal al-Mukaber, a poverty-ridden district on a steep hill in southeast Jerusalem; he attacked a Jerusalem synagogue last winter, killing five rabbis and a policeman. A week after the demolition, his cousin Alaa, a married father of three, drove his car into a bus stop and fatally stabbed a pedestrian. His home is now slated for demolition, too; the high court will hear a last appeal on Nov. 4.
“[The government is] talking about deterrence to justify it, but then you come up with a demolition order a year after the attack took place,” said Dalia Kerstein, the director of HaMoked, an Israeli NGO that provides legal representation for many of the families. “Where is the deterrence?”
In recent days, the Israeli government has pondered a more drastic step in its crackdown. At a security cabinet meeting earlier this month, Netanyahu proposed revoking the residency of some 80,000 East Jerusalemites who live beyond the concrete-and-barbed wire “separation barrier” that Israel started to build during the Second Intifada. The idea, first reported by Channel 2 on Sunday, has not appeared on the agenda since it was introduced.
It is frightening nonetheless to the inhabitants of places like Shuafat, a squalid refugee camp that houses some 30,000 people. Israeli police rarely venture inside, and Palestinian police have no jurisdiction, so crime and drug use are rampant. Netanyahu’s proposal would isolate them further: They would lose the ID cards that allow them to cross the barrier for work or pleasure, effectively forcing them to apply for permits to visit an adjacent neighborhood.
One Shuafat resident, 19-year-old Mohammed Ali, stabbed an Israeli policeman outside the old city on Oct. 10. A CCTV video of the attack shows him sitting calmly on a ledge; one officer seemingly asks for Ali’s ID, and the teenager jammed a knife into his neck. Other officers quickly shot him dead.
Steps beyond the metal turnstile that leads into the camp, there are charred dumpsters and the burned-out hulks of cars, the aftermath of almost daily clashes between Israeli security forces and local youth. Many businesses were shuttered, and the few that were open had few customers. Teenagers peered down from the rooftops, jeering at the soldiers manning the checkpoint into Jerusalem proper.
Ali’s uncle Mahmoud gestured outside his house, where the streets are littered with trash. “This is all the incitement my nephew needed,” he said. “He was angry about the settlers on Al-Aqsa [mosque], but really, it’s hard to grow up with any hope here.”
The mosque, Islam’s third holiest, sits on the Temple Mount, which Jews revere as the site of the biblical temples, their most sacred place. It is a perennial flashpoint.
Netanyahu stresses at every opportunity that he will not change the status quo at the holy site, which bars Jews from praying and allows Jordan to oversee the mosques there. His reassurances mean little to Palestinians — not when Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s top diplomat, tells the official Knesset Channel that it is her “dream to see the Israeli flag flying on the Temple Mount,” or when police evict five families from neighboring Silwan to make room for a settler group that claimed ownership.
Barkat, the mayor, believes that the current wave of violence will pass. “There’s no replacement for living together in the city of Jerusalem,” he said. “Once things restore back to the way they were, to an earlier life, we lift those sanctions [security measures] and move on.”
But for many Palestinians, a return to the “earlier life” is not much of an ideal. The Palestinian national movement has utterly failed to achieve its goals, and its leadership is discredited; Israel’s occupation is more entrenched than ever, its government and polity increasingly right wing.
Barkat has invested money in building up East Jerusalem, but Palestinians see a city slipping away from their control, and nowhere to turn.
“I can’t even cross the main street in my own neighborhood anymore,” said one man in Jabal al-Mukaber, offering directions to the Abu Jamal house. “Where is this united capital?”
Photo credit: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images