Like dancers in a well-choreographed ballet, the men standing on their small prayer rugs bent, knelt, stretched up and stood with hands crossed on their bellies, and then knelt again. On Friday, July 21, following the installation of metal detectors at two of the entrances to al-Aksa Mosque, thousands of Arab residents prayed in protest outside, everywhere.
Facing the Damascus Gate, about 1,000 of them held the midday prayer in front of police forces. They prayed in total silence, apart from the verses recited by the leader, to which, in unison, the men waved their answer as part of the ritual of the Islamic prayer.
On the right side, in a small enclave, women dressed in traditional Muslim garb, their heads carefully covered with hijabs, joined the prayer with fervor. At some point, two of the women deviated from the text and added to their part curses on Jews. The other women – about 100 of them – didn’t join them, but none of them hushed the two cursers.
For the past 10 days or so, Jerusalem has lived through a familiar scenario of terrorist acts followed by restrictions by the police on the age of those permitted to attend the Friday prayers at al-Aksa Mosque – a step immediately answered by riots, violence and more terrorism.
Following the murder of two Druse policemen by three Israeli Arabs from Umm el-Fahm
, who shot them from inside the holy site, Israeli authorities decided to install metal detectors at two of the entries to the al-Aksa esplanade. Considered by the Wakf Muslim religious trust and the city’s Arab leadership as a “provocation from the Israeli authorities,” a wave of protest began, which reached some peaks here and there but, nevertheless, did not degenerate into widespread riots as expected and feared by many on the Israeli side.
So far, the most feared situation – a conflict on the holy site that would cause massive disorder, dangerous riots and wanton acts of violence across the country and the world – like the famous threat that “a billion Muslims from all over the world will march to Jerusalem” – hasn’t happened. The bloody murder of three members of the Salomon family in Halamish on the following day was a tragedy that many observers feared could multiply into many more cases, as occurred two and three years ago. Ten days later, even the government’s controversial decision to remove the metal detectors hasn’t set off anything more than some joyful reactions that have not turned into riots.
However, this time, some significant changes have occurred in this scenario. First of all, the number of women who participated in the various protest acts and gatherings has become impressive and may indicate some more profound change within the Arab community in Jerusalem. At the protests held on July 27, women were sometimes more active than men – some sort of local limited leadership; for example, they provided some of the food and drinks distributed to the crowd. They led many of the slogans. Those who managed to get to the esplanade before the police prevented it were there all night long, which is quite unusual.
Aviv Tatarsky, a field researcher at Ir Amim (a left-wing organization that monitors the situation in east Jerusalem), says that most of the time during the few days that access to the mosque esplanade was forbidden, the atmosphere at the closed gates was more of a festival than a protest. This shouldn’t be confused with anything close to a peaceful summer event, but as confirmed by residents, observers and even experts on the matter, the massive presence of women – who were all accompanied by children – may also be the reason for the relatively subdued level of the protest.
In addition to unusually high number of women in the protest, the role of young adults and teenagers in these last days’ events is also worth noting. On July 21, not far from the men who took part in one of the outdoor midday prayers, a large group of teenagers and some young adults sat on the benches of the Arab bus company on Sultan Suleiman Street, waiting for the prayer to end. When the worshipers quietly left the place, looking for some shade from the hot sun, the group of some 20 youths and young adults began to move in a column toward the policemen, taunting them with curses and trying, here and there, to throw stones.
Asked why he had come to pray there, Fawaz, a tall middle-aged man wearing the traditional white Muslim knitted cap, said he had no other choice.
“Since I was a little child, I used to come for the blessed Friday prayer at al-Aksa. Now they [the police] forbid us, so we have no choice. We will pray here until they let us in,” he said.
The same scene repeated itself in many other locations along the Old City walls, most of them at the Lion’s Gate, where adults prayed quietly but in protest outside the Old City, followed by youths who waited for the end of the prayer to try to incite a riot. In most cases, the riots ended quickly due to the presence and actions of the police. In most cases, the sporadic attempts ended with minimal damage.
The same scene occurred on the afternoon of July 27 as thousands of Arab residents refused to reach the esplanade, even after the metal detectors had been removed (in protest at the age limit set by the police) and continued to pray in the streets, especially around the two gates leading directly to the esplanade – at the Lions’ Gate and Bab-Huta (near the New Gate). Thousands of Arabs – again, an impressive number of them women – stood in the streets, refusing to enter the Old City, pounding on the gates and waiting for the evening prayer time (9:30) to repeat the outdoor prayer events of the last 10 days.
During all those hours, a live program directly from Bab-Huta and the Lions’ Gate was provided by Al Jazeera TV, which was also available on smartphones. This led to even more agitation. For reasons that remain unclear, the police didn’t allow journalists inside.
So this writer decided to act like a journalist but look like a regular resident and went to the Bab-Huta spot, where the largest crowd was. There were rallying cries (some of them verging on antisemitic slurs) and a lot of excitement, including the throwing of some stones but mostly plastic bags filled with water – not dangerous but still very painful – and an atmosphere that was partly festive, partly angry.
Again, most of the outbursts were led by the young, who expressed mixed emotions of anger and triumph, celebrating the “caving in of the Jews” (not the Israelis – they were careful to use the term “Jews”) and a lot of unflattering slogans about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
IT WAS not only the right-wing part of the political spectrum who didn’t like the prime minister’s decision to remove the metal detectors. But whether the decision was an opportunity to end the crisis before things went too far and resulted in casualties or simply because he had no other choice in the international and regional political context, Netanyahu’s edict had a dramatic effect on the mood of the Arab residents. Men, women and youngsters all celebrated the “victory,” which they all, of course, credited to their protest.
But it seems that the change in policy came quite early and therefore pulled back some of the planned protest celebration, say Tatarsky and Amnon Ramon of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research.
Based on many conversations with Arab residents, the picture becomes clearer. Most of the protesting, which led here and there to some restrained acts of violence, was done by young people, most of whom don’t even participate in the prayers on a regular basis. As Ahmad Asmar, a scholar and researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, explained at an evening of discussion about the situation earlier this week at the Carousela coffee shop in Rehavia, “Al-Aksa is not only a matter of religion but a major part of the Jerusalem Palestinians’ national identity, including those who are not so religious or even not religious at all.”
Asmar admitted that he couldn’t at this stage confirm that something significant had changed in the nature of the protest or daily life among the city’s Arab community, but he acknowledged that the lack of leadership may bring some changes as well.
“There is a vacuum in the Palestinian community in Jerusalem,” he added, “and that kind of vacuum cannot remain unchanged for too long. The Jerusalem Arabs understand that they are more or less alone, and they act according to their own local needs.”
For Tatarsky, this may be the beginning of a genuine local leadership that has grown from the experience of 50 years of life near and with the Israelis.
“There are home demolitions and agitation around the esplanade, and also working and living under Israelis, and it has created a specific reality,” he said.
So what really happened this time, and can things be explained? Moreover, what can we expect in the coming weeks? All specialists on the Arab sector agree that this was a short but very different reaction led by locals, without any political background or organization. The “Mukadisin,” as the Arab residents of Jerusalem are called here, realized they had to deal with the situation on their own.
“This is not something totally new, but it was clearer than ever that the Arab Jerusalemites were alone here – no significant support from the Arab world was expressed. It was a relatively short crisis this time, so it is not enough to draw a realistic picture of what awaits us in the future. But it was certainly a very local initiative all the way,” said Ramon (who recently published a book on these matters titled Residents, Not Citizens: The Arabs in Jerusalem between 1967-2017
But is this the whole picture? Based on a few conversations with Arab residents of the city, there are many different streams under the official cover of the urge to “Save al-Aksa” – as it is, again and again, presented by Arab residents and leaders. One of them is Omar (not his real name) who, on his own initiative, called me to tell a quite different story.
“I am not religious, but I respect our traditions,” he began. “In my family, there are at least two Islamist radicals, and we are all afraid of them, including my father. They lead the tone, they drag us all after them, but many of us just want to live a normal life. They force us into their foolish dreams, and they can be very dangerous.”
Omar added that while his wife, like him, is not religious, she wears the hijab “because there is such pressure on her; and again, she is afraid of some members of her own family. I hate the hijab like she does, but we dare not confront these people. Believe me, they are very dangerous.”
Asked how his future looks under these conditions, Omar replied that he has applied, in secret of course, to obtain immigrant status to Canada for himself and his wife.
“I will never raise children in this crazy society,” he concluded.
Omar added that he is far from being alone. He said that he knows at least 10 young adults like him, educated, all working in western Jerusalem, who are just waiting for an opportunity to emigrate.
Last but perhaps not least, during all these days of protest and anger in east Jerusalem, Arab men and women didn’t stop for a moment from visiting the malls on the west side, sitting in the coffee shops in Mamilla or shopping in the large discount supermarkets in the city, using the light rail – business as usual.
Perhaps the clue to what is really going on lies in a waiter’s words. As Thamar, a resident of Jebl Mukaber, said at the end of the evening at Carousela dedicated to the situation, “Most of my friends and I just want to live.”