Calm or crisis?

It’s still too early to tell where Jerusalem is headed.

Mayor Nir Barkat visits Sultan Suleiman and Salah a-Din streets this week. (photo credit: JERUSALEM MUNICIPALITY)
Mayor Nir Barkat visits Sultan Suleiman and Salah a-Din streets this week.
Last Friday morning, the Mahaneh Yehuda market was crowded as usual, and at the First Station, coffee shops and restaurants were full of Israelis – though it was difficult to say whether there were any visitors from outside the city. The evening before, a poetry gathering took place at the Jerusalem House of Quality, which faces the walls of the Old City at the junction of Abu Tor and Baka; a few hundred meters from there, a huge outdoor event brought more than 1,000 people together for an evening of music and spontaneous dancing, with popular tunes in Hebrew and Arabic.
So where is Jerusalem headed – toward a period of calm, or toward further violence? The answer one gives will likely depend on where one has spent the last week.
On Sunday morning, while Hatnua MK Amir Peretz announced at the weekly cabinet meeting that he was resigning his ministerial post to protest the prime minister’s policies on the conflict, the riots seemed to have moved to other parts of the country.
Arab and Jewish students held large demonstrations at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa, protesting a policeman’s having shot a youth in Kafr Kana on Thursday. Meanwhile, the whole village of Kafr Kana went on strike Sunday, as did many other Arab establishments across the country.
The protest strike did not skip the Arab businesses in the Old City, although only a few shops were closed.
“Business is slow at the moment, anyway,” explained a souvenir vendor at the entrance to the marketplace near the Jaffa Gate.
As for the light rail, it was still less full than usual by early Sunday afternoon.
While most of the tension surrounding the Temple Mount has focused on an eventual change in its Jewish prayer policy, the number of passengers on the light rail – and the presence or absence of Arab passengers among them – is as good a seismograph as any to measure the tension in the city.
According to David Koren, Mayor Nir Barkat’s special adviser on Arab affairs, things are still very sensitive.
“We noticed that in the last few days there was a drop in the number and intensity of the riots,” he says, “but the situation is still very explosive, and anything can make things flare up again.”
Over the past few weeks, he reports, he and his staff have been in contact with Arab residents, and alongside their anger and concern, most of the adults in the community are desperately looking for a way to restore some calm.
“The fact is that most of the rioters and stone-throwers are very young boys,” Koren says. “Of course, most of the parents are not happy about this situation, but they feel caught in the middle, [between] their parental authority and their nationalist support.
So it means we also have a more domestic issue here – not just political or religious [concerns regarding] the sensitive situation [of the Temple Mount], but also a loss of authority on the part of the parents.”
Earlier this week, he accompanied Barkat on a spontaneous visit to one of the busiest areas in east Jerusalem – Sultan Suleiman and Salah a-Din streets, where the mayor spoke with merchants and heard their complaints. According to Koren, Barkat received an open and polite welcome, and there was a sense of real dialogue, albeit on a small scale.
“People saluted him and asked him questions on his policy regarding the stone-throwing and all the violence,” recounts Koren. “He listened to them and answered. I think it was very important.”
Indeed, say some of the Arab residents, the decision to hold responsible the parents of minors caught throwing stones has given the parents an honorable way to regain some parental authority, and grounds for keeping their children away from the violence in the streets.
“For sure,” Koren agrees. “Now that the parents are accountable for their children who are too young to be brought to justice, it’s easier for them to prevent them from continuing to run wild in the streets. The penalties are a heavy burden. These parents are no longer worried they might be accused of collaboration with the enemy.”
WHILE THE local and international press has been full of ominous headlines for the last few weeks, announcing increasing violence and depicting a city on fire, the facts on the ground are, as usual, more complex.
The ongoing stone-throwing incidents have managed to extend beyond the city, targeting a bus near the Abu Ghosh junction along Highway 1. The Old City and its shopping areas have been receiving many fewer visits from tourists. And apart from the Mamilla Mall, where there are no guards to check them at the entrance, far fewer Arab residents have been coming to commercial centers across the city.
But last Thursday night, quite a few young Arab students and residents turned out for a musical event on Shushan Street, just opposite Safra Square, that the Hebrew University’s Beit Hillel Center organized in cooperation with the municipality.
Two Arab singers and musicians were on the stage, and according to Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkovitch, one of the event’s organizers, a good number of young Arabs attended the after-party, which went on almost until dawn at the nearby Hamazkeka music bar.
“[They] danced and sang with us, including to some Arabic popular music,” he says.
A few hours earlier, Arab poets joined a group of English-speakers – about 40 people in total – at the Jerusalem House of Quality, where American-born poet, scholar and now Jerusalemite Michael Dickel led the Israeli chapter of the annual international event “100 Thousand Poets for Change.”
Besides these public events, there have been interfaith dialogues and encounters going on far from the spotlights.
Yehuda Stolov, founder and head of the Arabic Speaking Interfaith Group, says his organization managed to go on with its encounters in Jerusalem during August and resumed its meetings last month and this month, with six encounters in the city and one at the Dead Sea. And less than two weeks ago, a large group of women – Jewish, Arab and Druse – gathered for the “Women’s Walk” event at the Goldman Promenade near East Talpiot. Led by legendary American dancer Anna Halprin, the encounter ended with a dance experience at the amphitheater at the end of the promenade.
SO IS Jerusalem witnessing a third uprising of its Palestinian residents? Again, it depends whom you ask.
For the souvenir vendor at the Jaffa Gate shuk, the violence is mainly linked to the defense of Al-Aksa Mosque.
“The mosque is our heart and our soul,” he says in perfect Hebrew. “Do you believe these people [the Jews who visit the Temple Mount] come there on their own? They are sent by the government. The government of Israel wants to take Al-Aksa from us and turn it into a synagogue, but Muslims will die to prevent it!” His partner in the shop tells him something in Arabic, apparently trying to calm him down, but then adds himself, “Your government sends the Border Police here, they bother us, curse us, and our youth cannot sit in silence.
So a young boy threw a stone, but you say you are a democracy – where in the world does a democracy arrest an eight-year-old boy because of a stone?” Back on the western side of the city, the light rail cars are full as the train stops at Safra Square. There are many more Arab women stepping out than there were earlier in the morning, on their way to do some shopping. At the stop on the opposite side, heading toward Pisgat Ze’ev via Beit Hanina, there are quite a few Arab residents, some of them probably municipality employees going home from work. Two guards board the train cars, perhaps instilling a sense of relative security – but the marks of the stones thrown at the reinforced windows say it all.