Following the Tuesday arrests of 16 east Jerusalem residents by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) on suspicion of belonging to a Hamas cell, two prominent politicians said the only way to stymie increasing radicalism there was to address the economic and political morass endemic to Palestinians.
Meir Margalit, (Meretz), a member of the city council who holds the east Jerusalem portfolio, said he was not entirely convinced that all those arrested were Hamas operatives, although he conceded that rising radicalism in east Jerusalem was a “dangerous development.”
“The question is how to stop this in the future,” Margalit told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday.
“Someone should look at the reasons why more and more young people in east Jerusalem are becoming more desperate and more fanatical.”
According to a spokesperson for the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), the suspects were “prominent operatives with Hamas in east Jerusalem and members of its operations branch, and among the leaders of its activities at the Temple Mount.”
Additionally, the Shin Bet said that while investigating the cell it found that the Islamic group was operating educational courses on the Temple Mount and paying people to maintain a presence there to “increase the tension and cause disturbances,” particularly on holidays marked in Israel.
“The investigation revealed another effort by Hamas to expand its influence among the Palestinian population in Jerusalem and the West Bank, in which the organization uses Jerusalem and the Temple Mount and the cooperation of other Islamic movements,” a Shin Bet official said Tuesday.
Margalit said he attributed the rise in radicalism in east Jerusalem to the economic crisis there, compounded by an increasingly dismal political landscape.
“We know that 75 percent of the people there live below the poverty line and no one seems to care,” he said. “And we know from many places in the world that when people are very poor they become more and more religious. That is why they turn to Hamas, the most extremist of the groups.”
Compounded by the current impasse in peace negotiations, Margalit said the situation was becoming progressively more explosive.
“Economic crisis plus political uncertainty – this is the perfect recipe for Hamas,” he said.
While Margalit said he was grateful to the Shin Bet for making the arrests, he emphasized that an “economic and political solution is the only way to put an end to this.”
Also speaking to the Post on Wednesday, MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud) said he agreed with Margalit’s stance that east Jerusalem’s economic crisis and the dismal political outlook were playing directly into the hands of the Islamists.
“Hamas is always looking for the possibility of a crisis,” Rivlin, a Jerusalemite, said.
“They are ready to find any opportunity to incite against Israel, and use any circumstances to declare war again, again and again.”
Politically, Rivlin said Hamas unequivocally viewed any negotiations with Israel as “blasphemy,” and therefore has heightened its presence as much as possible in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“If you say Israel is willing to negotiate, they say ‘No way!’” he said. “It’s blasphemy to them that any Muslim thinks Jews have any place at the Temple Mount and Israel, or is willing to negotiate.”
Moreover, Rivlin acknowledged that east Jerusalem’s worsening economic quagmire had yielded fertile ground for Hamas to make inroads to spread hatred and extremism.
“An economic crisis is an opportunity for Hamas to incite them [by saying] Israel doesn’t have the right to exist,” he said.
“We have to let them understand that there are economic benefits to coexistence, to show them there are fruits for living in the same land.”
To this end, Rivlin suggested encouraging greater work opportunities for Palestinians in Israel and pursuing other financial incentives.
“We can help them by opening Israel for the opportunity to work and show them we can work together,” he said. “If they need a loan and investment, we should encourage it.”
Indeed, he said Hamas could be largely thwarted by helping Palestinians achieve a better quality of life.
“If we can show them that a relationship with Israel will help them economically, we might find a way to increase cooperation and trust,” he said.
“It’s about building confidence on the commercial front.”
Ben Hartman contributed to this report.