Jerusalem: Back from the brink of a new intifada

A year after it looked like a new intifada was about to break out, the Holy City appears to have calmed down.

Jerusalem light rail. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Jerusalem light rail.
On June 22, city council member Arieh King uploaded a video of stones and Molotov cocktails hitting the glass door of his balcony in Ma’aleh Zeitim the night before. It was the 52nd attack King had counted this year.
He has complained that all the authorities, from the mayor to the government, are failing to ensure the protection of his family and neighbors, out of what he claims is fear of what left-wing organizations and foreign media might say.
Indeed, 52 attacks on one neighborhood sounds a like a serious security issue, and security forces have said the number of Molotov cocktails thrown in east Jerusalem and seam neighborhoods lately is the highest in the Judea-Samaria region since last summer.
But according to Prof. Hillel Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, there is no question that the city has calmed down significantly in the last year.
“The calm has indeed come back to the city,” maintains Cohen, a scholar on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel and a research fellow at the university’s Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace.
One year after it looked like a new intifada would break out, life in the Holy City is back to “business as usual” – at least on the surface. There are still stonethrowing incidents here and there, mostly targeting the light rail or military jeeps, but compared to what happened last summer – and considering what is going on in the Arab countries in the region – Jerusalem seems like an island of tranquility.
On June 30, 2014, the corpses of three Jewish teens – Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach – were found near the spot where Hamas terrorists had kidnapped them three weeks earlier in the Gush Etzion region. Their highly publicized funerals took place the following morning, in a rare atmosphere of unity that went beyond political positions.
But on the night following the funerals, the atmosphere on the streets of Jerusalem was markedly different. Dozens – some say hundreds – of angry youths marched in the city center, openly looking for Arab residents on whom to take out their anger, and young Arab and left-wing activists became their prey.
Meanwhile, a group of six Jewish men toured Arab neighborhoods for an easy victim – to “make him pay for the murder of the three boys,” as they explained later. They soon found one: 14-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir from Shuafat, on his way to dawn prayers for Ramadan, never made it to the nearby mosque – as three of the men kidnapped him, dragged him to the Jerusalem Forest and burned him alive.
Once the news of the murder emerged, the violence of the resulting Arab riots recalled the second intifada. The light rail stations of Beit Hanina and Shuafat, and almost all stops from Route 1 as far as the Damascus Gate, were savagely destroyed and burned, rails uprooted and electronic signboards demolished.
Stones, Molotov cocktails and fireworks appeared on every corner.
Within a few hours, the attacks separated the city into two parts and raised serious fears that not only Jerusalem but the Palestinian territories would be set aflame. The light rail management stopped service to these neighborhoods, effectively cutting off residents of the Pisgat Ze’ev and Neveh Ya’acov neighborhoods as well. Within a short time, the first in a series of vehicular attacks occurred – with Arab drivers turning their cars into instruments of terrorism, deliberately running over Jewish pedestrians.
Everything indicated that the capital was on its way to a third intifada, and the virtual separation between the two parts of the city became more apparent. Arab residents disappeared from the city center and the light rail, and avoided speaking Arabic while on buses.
In the year since these dramatic events, there have been more stone-throwing incidents, fireworks and clashes with security forces. There have been new vehicular assaults, a bloody terrorist attack on a synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood, and clashes on the Temple Mount that culminated in the attempted murder of activist Yehudah Glick.
Rock-throwing in east Jerusalem in July 2014. (Seth J. Frantzman)
Rock-throwing in east Jerusalem in July 2014. (Seth J. Frantzman)
In the last three weeks, since the start of Ramadan, a series of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank have killed two Israelis and wounded six, raising fears that things are once again spinning out of control. On July 2, the anniversary of Khdeir’s murder, hundreds of Palestinians held a protest in the Shuafat neighborhood, with some calling for a new intifada.
Even in the face of these incidents, the violence in King’s Mount of Olives neighborhood and occasional stone-throwing along the light rail route, Jerusalem today is relatively calm. Arab residents travel on the light rail and come to the city center, and the Jewish youths inflamed by the murder of the three boys and looking for trouble seem to have disappeared from the streets.
To top it all off, new plans are in motion to invest hundreds of millions of shekels in development projects for the Arab sector.
“There is no arguing that the municipality is trying to improve things for the Arab residents,” asserts Cohen, though he adds that “this municipality has two faces – it’s primarily the carrot-and-the-stick method, and most of the time it is the stick that prevails.”
He admits that there quite a few signs of improvement, but it is “certainly not enough, and quite a few of these things are, for the moment, only plans and are far from being implemented. But there is improvement.”
One thing that raises defiance among the Arab population is the way these advancements are presented, he argues. “All these projects that the municipality is promoting are presented as a means to deepen the Jewish holdings in the city, and that obviously does not contribute to the good feelings of the Palestinians here.”
Yet Danny Rubinstein, a veteran journalist on city Arab affairs who participated in a symposium at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies earlier this week, avers that any calm reigning now is deceptive. Rubinstein describes two factors that could result in bloodshed in the capital – and are, according to him, the direct result of the way the municipality is handling east Jerusalem affairs.
“The neighborhoods that judicially belong to Jerusalem but are located beyond the security barrier are ticking time bombs, for two reasons. First, the huge scale of building there – which, needless to say, is illegal, without permits and thus without any engineering supervision. One light earthquake there and 12- to -14-story buildings will collapse and end in a terrible tragedy.”
Another issue is the no-man’s land that has emerged in these neighborhoods – with “no supervision whatsoever, no police, no services from the municipality – these are forgotten places with no laws and no implementation of any law,” Rubinstein warns. “They have become the territory of gangs of outlaws, drug dealers and criminals; shootings are something of a routine there.
“Since it is very close to the Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev, if a shooting ever, say, harms a child in a kindergarten, the IDF will have to intervene to get into these places – and we can all imagine what will come out of that.”
WHAT ABOUT Arab residents themselves? Hussam is a single Arab resident of Beit Hanina.
Speaking perfect Hebrew, he says he has never encountered a problem; he has always worked with Jews and spends most of his time, both during and after work, in the center of town.
“I think I have more Jewish friends than Arabs,” he says. “Also – perhaps because I am totally secular – I don’t go to the mosque, and I don’t even fast during Ramadan.”
Nevertheless, during the first weeks of the riots last summer, even he was cautious about speaking Arabic on the phone in public, and he admits that for a while, he avoided spending his leisure time in Jewish areas.
“But today, everything is back to normal, perhaps even better than before the events of last summer,” he says. “Every evening during Ramadan, the streets of Beit Hanina and Shuafat are full of people, there is festive lighting [hung by the municipality], and people go to coffee shops and restaurants after the fast. One cannot believe that only a year ago the situation was so dangerous.”
Shaher Shabane, a resident of E-Tur and a member of a parents’ association for special-needs children in the Arab sector, says that the situation has improved a lot.
“We had a very hard time, with the security barrier and Border Police checkpoints at El-Zaim [close to E-Tur],” he recalls. “It went on for a month. We had to stand on line, show our IDs, and we couldn’t move about freely. Also, the use of buash [skunk spray, an IDF crowd-dispersal method] was terrible for us – the children and pregnant women became ill, as did the elderly. We really had a very hard time. Just because a few teenagers threw stones, we were all blocked inside.”
But Shabane notes that for the past few weeks, things have significantly changed for the better: “Everything is back to normal, as if nothing wrong ever happened here.”
The same goes for the Arab side of Abu Tor, where Border Police were patrolling the streets for weeks, detaining people for identity checks and disrupting their daily lives, according to Salim, who lives there with his family and works for a Jewish company.
“We have made an immense effort to bring daily life back to normal – that was the mayor’s instructions,” explains Dr. David Koren, Mayor Nir Barkat’s adviser for the Arab sector. “There has been a significant drop in the amount and severity of the riots, compared to last year.”
To what can we attribute this change? Koren says there are two major elements.
“Firstly, there is the natural phenomenon of the rioters getting tired, the drop in their motivation.
And then there is the big plan of action that the municipality has launched, together with the police and the court.
“We have made a clear distinction between average residents – what we call the sane majority, who wish to live their lives peacefully – and the hooligans, whose motivation is not only nationalist and political, but also simply that they are [disenfranchised] youth.
Toward those who perpetrate vandalism, we react with an iron fist.”
Koren adds that some of the delinquents are pushed to act by political agitators, whether from Hamas or other parties.
“There is no doubt that there are militant political [actors] behind [this], but the bottom line is that most of the vandalism is done by youths who are bored and disconnected from schools or any other framework.
Hillel Cohen: ‘There is no arguing that the municipality is trying to improve things for the Arab residents, though it’s primarily the carrot-and-the-stick method – and most of the time it is the stick that prevails.’ (Courtesy Hillel Cohen)
Hillel Cohen: ‘There is no arguing that the municipality is trying to improve things for the Arab residents, though it’s primarily the carrot-and-the-stick method – and most of the time it is the stick that prevails.’ (Courtesy Hillel Cohen)
The preservation of the tension between Arab residents and the Israeli authorities... is very strong among those militants.
“There is also quite a lot of money that fuels these hooligans’ continuing their acts of vandalism, but again, there is also a significant amount of the usual sociological cases of youth who have nothing better to do than promote riots.”
Koren believes that the city’s Arab sector is undergoing a complicated process of “Israelization” on the one hand, and exposure to the violent factions of the Palestinian political scene on the other.
“I would say that the pragmatists are, for now, the vast majority – they are those who wish to live, to raise their children and give them the best education, to work and live a good, normal life. Among them, we are witnessing a local leadership developing on the ground. School principals and parents’ associations, as well as merchants’ associations and businessmen – they’re all looking for a normal life.
“What we have developed over these months are new rules: Anything we wanted to do in the Arab sector was promoted through the representatives of the Arab residents – their various organizations, the [community] councils, and primarily the principals in the schools – and it works.”
HOWEVER, MYRIAD issues still persist that poison the sensitive fabric of life in the Arab sector.
In one instance, a group of parents of disabled children registered at the Leumit Health Fund have been struggling to get, as required by law, a center for special-needs children established in one of the Arab neighborhoods. All the health funds except Leumit have opened such centers in several Arab neighborhoods.
“The result is that some families simply renounce to their rights to the paramedical treatments their children need,” explains one of the parents. “Most of the mothers don’t know Hebrew, and they don’t know how to get [by public transport] to the Jewish side of the city to go to the Leumit center [on Bezalel Street] – so they need to take cabs, which are expensive.
Furthermore, they don’t feel at ease coming to this side of the city in their traditional outfits, not knowing their way or the language.”
“If the fathers take it upon themselves, the only days they are free from work are Saturdays – when the Leumit center is closed on the Jewish side. They all finally give up,” concludes Shabane, one of the fathers in the parents’ association.
Cohen, for his part, concedes that the municipality has changed its policy toward Arab residents in recent years, but agrees that parts of the picture are still far from satisfactory.
“For example, they keep addressing them as Arab residents; they will never use the term Palestinians.
But it’s clear that they consider themselves Palestinians,” he says, adding that many issues are still at the planning level.
“The mayor speaks about plans to construct housing, and it’s good, we hear a lot about that – but the fact is that these are still only plans on paper,” he contends. “On the ground, not even one house has been built.”
At a recent evening organized by Ir Amim – an NGO that seeks equal and peaceful solutions for Jerusalem residents on both sides – Cohen gave a review of the Arab residents’ situation, and spoke about the stability that had returned since last summer. He explained the reasons – including most residents’ natural desire to live as normal a life as possible – but nevertheless concluded with the somewhat alarming remark that the same kind of calm had prevailed in Syria before it broke into chaos four years ago.
Asked if he feared that the same thing might happen here, Cohen responded, “Not necessarily, but today’s relative calm still shouldn’t be taken for granted.”
As for the latest terrorist incidents, Cohen allowed that it is “hard to say at the moment” whether they are only local, self-initiated acts or planned by terrorist organizations.
Koren, meanwhile, avers that “as long as we have a synergy with the residents, and we promote things together with them... things will get better for all parties.”
One of these steps is a new Facebook account for the mayor in Arabic; it has acquired over 8,000 followers within a few weeks.
Another step is the change in the police’s instructions when it comes to using the skunk spray in cases of public disorder.
“From now on, the use of this device will be reserved for very specific cases, and only with the personal authorization of the Jerusalem chief of police,” notes Koren.
This story first appeared in the Jerusalem Post  In Jerusalem.