A ticking BOMB

The violence in east Jerusalem might have been triggered by the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir and the Gaza offensive, but trouble has been brewing for a long time.

Policemen detain a Palestinian during clashes in Wadi Joz last Friday. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Policemen detain a Palestinian during clashes in Wadi Joz last Friday.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Sunday, an attempt to detonate a car full of explosives linked to gas canisters was prevented thanks to the vigilance of a few border guards at the checkpoint near Tzur Hadassah. The planned act of terror was allegedly in retaliation for the situation in Gaza. The evening before, a group of young Jews in the Neveh Ya’acov neighborhood assaulted two young Arabs, who ended up at Hadassah University Medical Center, seriously wounded. Add that to the last few weeks of riots and increasing violence in the Arab sector, and it seems that the relative calm in the capital’s Arab community in recent years is reaching a breaking point.
Many observers warn that Jerusalem may be on the edge of a third intifada that could break out at any moment, considering the damage that the recent riots have caused, as well as Hamas members’ repeated calls for the younger Arab generation to attack anything that represents Israeli sovereignty in order to express solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza. But others still believe that this is just another instance of the Arab community expressing frustration and anger and that it will not go too far, as the Arab residents of the city have certain advantages that they will not want to endanger.
Some observers point to the city’s leadership as being partly responsible for the situation, referring to a lack of budgets and investments.
For others, the racist atmosphere stoked by Jewish hooligans’ violent demonstrations is the fuel that could ignite the fire.
With all of this, what are the most problematic issues at stake? And looking beyond the current situation, what lies in store for the city? Dr. Yitzhak Reiter, a scholar at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and an expert on Oriental studies, says he wouldn’t dare to estimate how far the current agitation could reach.
“However,” he adds, “based on similar situations in the past, the chances that after a while things may get back to normal still exist.”
At the moment, he says, the situation in Jerusalem is “explosive.”
“First the murder of [Arab teenager] Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and then the massive destruction in Gaza – there is no way the Arab residents of Jerusalem could remain silent in face of these pictures,” he says. “Imagine if we would have seen such destruction of, let’s say, Herzliya – could you imagine how we would have reacted? It’s the same here.”
For Dr. Meir Margalit – a former Meretz city council member who held the portfolio for east Jerusalem – the relative prosperity among the city’s Arab residents is no longer enough to overcome what they consider the ongoing abuse of their rights and maltreatment by the government.
Both he and Reiter believe that Abu Khdeir’s murder and the events in the Gaza Strip were just triggers.
“The horrible death of the young boy, and then the terrible pictures from the Gaza Strip – they both fueled a very delicate situation already existing on the ground,” says Margalit.
“It’s not that they don’t know that their own situation is far better in many aspects,” continues Reiter, “but every night on TV, they see the ruins in Gaza, they hear the number of victims, and [then there’s] the murder of the young boy – it has all merged into one big [sense of] frustration. And now we have on top [of all that] the attacks by Jewish hooligans. Of course the situation is tense – I would say explosive.”
Margalit agrees that the years after the second intifada brought some prosperity and calm.
“Until recently there was a common feeling among the Arab sector that it was possible to live with the occupation, and even to draw some benefit from it,” he says.
“The improving economic situation, [along with] the realization that any alternative – not only in Syria, Iraq or Egypt, but even in the [Palestinian] territories – was only worse, had a strong impact, too. Hence, a large part of the Arab population in Jerusalem reached the conclusion that living under Israel’s sovereignty was acceptable.”
Indeed, a survey that the JIIS conducted in 2011 found that 40 percent of Arab residents preferred Israeli sovereignty.
Reiter confirms this, but notes that “it also said that about the same number – close to 40% – still preferred Arab sovereignty, whether Hamas or the PA.”
Does that mean the general feeling that the Arab sector’s situation in the city has improved – with greater tourism, more investments in infrastructure, and the mayor’s inauguration of new schools – was nothing more than an illusion? Reiter says he is aware that there was such an impression, but adds that Jerusalem’s Arab residents face a lot of difficulties in their daily lives; their situation is precarious and far from encouraging.
“They cannot build, and there are lots of demolitions [of homes],” he says.
“There was a lot of frustration anyway, and that is why these two triggers set off the violence – it was there all the time.”
WADI JOZ resident Maoaz Za’atari – founder and president of the nonprofit association Al Maqdassa, which aims to give residents legal support in obtaining their civil rights – echoes this sentiment. For him, the current situation is the result of years of oppression and repression of the Arab population.
“The occupation is putting continuous pressure on us,” he says in perfect Hebrew, adding that “the first and most painful thing is the [state’s] preventing growing numbers of us from praying at Al-Aksa [Mosque] on Fridays.”
That particular move, he says, “is a red line. You have to understand, since 1967 and until this past year, it never happened – not in these numbers. It makes our blood boil – it is unacceptable for us.”
The second point, he continues, is the massive demolition of (illegal) structures. According to his figures, there have been thousands of demolitions, both by the Interior Ministry and by the municipality.
“We cannot get permits to build our houses, our mosques, and at the same time the government destroys what we have already built,” he says.
“That is unbearable, and it raises the temperature among young people – people just explode from anger.”
Margalit confirms that the worst of the anger is among the younger generation.
“First of all, because they are young – and like young people everywhere, they are [naturally] more tumultuous – they rebel against the older generation, which they accuse of apathy. They rebel against the occupation, against the representatives of the establishment and so on. They hate Israelis, they hate the municipal inspectors, they hate the Border Police who patrol their neighborhoods. If something serious breaks out, it will come from them.”
Reiter says that beyond Jerusalem Arabs’ natural feeling of empathy toward their brethren in Gaza, there are many local issues contributing to the agitation the city has witnessed these last few weeks.
“Of course, they bear in mind that they have quite a few advantages linked to their status as Jerusalem residents, but I don’t think any of them really fears that because they demonstrate in support of the residents of Gaza, Israel would deprive them of their national insurance and unemployment allocations,” he says.
As for Mayor Nir Barkat’s repeated declarations that he has a policy of increasing investments and development plans in the Arab sector, Reiter is a little skeptical.
“First of all, it’s not the city’s money; it comes from the government, and they know that, too,” he says. “And yes, there is a slight improvement, but things affect people differently. For a small elite of well-to-do people, it has had some impact, but the majority live in very poor conditions.”
Za’atari is more blunt, and simply calls Barkat’s declarations “nonsense, some jabbering that no one believes here.”
“We feel like a tire into which one continues to blow air – at a certain point, the tire will explode,” he says.
“The worsening of our situation is mostly happening this year, and it’s piled up, turned into hatred and anger among the younger generation. They don’t have memories of the hardship of years ago [during the intifada], and on the other hand, there are not enough care frameworks for these young people – we don’t have enough social workers, enough welfare bureaus and agencies. We only have thousands of border policemen whose task seems to be mostly to humiliate us, to put more restrictions on us, to make our lives miserable.”
REITER AGREES that the situation has deteriorated in the past few months.
Although he emphasizes that there is no comparison between Hamas’s influence in Jerusalem and its influence in the Gaza Strip, he remarks that there are a few areas in the capital where Hamas has power.
“In Sur Bahir, for example, there are two large families [affiliated with] the Hamas movement – the Abu Tir [family, one of whom is a Palestinian Authority parliament member,] and the Abu Atun family. They are very powerful.
They have opened five schools funded by the Wakf in the village – that is also a way to add to their influence. There are also some from Hamas in Wadi Joz and in some additional villages.
It is not comparable to the powerful presence of Hamas in parts of the West Bank – like Hebron, for example – but it still exists. All these contribute to making the situation in east Jerusalem very tense.”
The fact that there has been an increase in the number of Arab east Jerusalem residents asking for Israeli citizenship, he says, only illustrates how complex the situation of the city’s Arabs is.