On track to another intifada?

We won’t be seeing an end to the violence anytime soon, experts say.

A masked Palestinian protester stands near burning tires during clashes with police in Isawiya. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A masked Palestinian protester stands near burning tires during clashes with police in Isawiya.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The light-rail car, uncommonly empty for a Thursday afternoon, was gradually emptying out as it traveled from Safra Square toward Pisgat Ze’ev last week. By the time it reached the stop at Ammunition Hill, where a terrorist attack had caused the death of three-monthold Chaya Zissel Braun and Karen Jemima Mosquera, 22, and wounded seven others, just the day before, there were four passengers left, two of them young Arab residents who sat at the back.
At the Damascus Gate stop, two guards boarded the car and inspected it from one end to the other.
The woman seated by the front door of the car addressed one of the guards, asking in a loud voice why the light rail continued to go through the Arab neighborhoods after the attack, and with the serious damage to the stations and the continual stonethrowing.
“Instead of punishing them, we reward them for their violence. How stupid are we?” she demanded, half to herself and half for the benefit of the two young Arabs, who looked on in silence.
One of the young guards nodded, but said that he and his colleagues were just there to ensure the passengers’ safety.
“Instead of taking care of us, the Jewish residents, we protect them and they keep s****ing on us. It’s a disgrace!” the woman declared before stepping off the train at the next station, followed by the two young Arabs, who went in the direction of the large neighborhood mall.
The resurgence of the security issues in the city following this past summer’s tragic events has created a significant change in the city’s atmosphere – so much so that the Tel Aviv education administration has decided to suspend all elementary school visits to the capital, provoking indignation among city council members.
The damage to the light rail alone has been considerable: uprooted rails, arson at the stations, systematic destruction of the electronic signboards, damage to the cars from stone-throwing. The trains’ glass windows are reinforced, but every time a stone is heavy enough to crack them, the NIS 20,000 it costs to repair each window adds to the mounting cost of the continuing riots. Meanwhile, residents of Pisgat Ze’ev, the last stop on the line, are significantly affected, because the light rail is their most direct means of reaching the city center.
But is Jerusalem really witnessing a new era of insurgence among its Arab residents? Is this situation going to escalate? Are we on the verge of a third intifada that will immerse the city in another cycle of violence and terror like the one it experienced more than a decade ago? Not surprisingly, the answer depends on whom you ask.
“When the work on the light rail began, I was one of the first people in the Arab neighborhoods who understood that it was a potential benefit for us,” says Shuafat resident Mansur (not his real name), a merchant and father of seven in his early 50s. “You, the Jews, talked about this train as a symbol of the city’s reunification, but I thought that if I opened a little supermarket and put out some tables and chairs and served refreshments, tourists and Jewish residents would come and do some shopping here because our prices are lower and that it would be good for all of us. And now look: The supermarket is empty, the tables and chairs unused, and I lost a lot of money, as did my neighbors.”
Asked who he thinks is to blame for this situation – the young Arabs who set fire to the light rail stations, or the Jewish politicians – Mansur answers, “All the parties are responsible, but one expects some leadership, not just answering violence with more violence.” He doesn’t elaborate.
“The young generation is burning with hatred,” says former Meretz city council member Meir Margalit.
“All this violence is coming from them – young people who feel they have no future, neither political nor professional, and disregard their parents’ attitude, which they consider helpless and oppressed. So it is not something organized, structured and manipulated by some political group – neither Fatah nor Hamas – but it still involves a lot of rage, and rage is harmful.”
Margalit adds that some families have even decided to leave the city for a while – especially families that have young boys who are likely to join the rioters – for fear they might be hurt or arrested.
“THIS IS not going to end soon,” says Itzhak Ritter, an Orientalist scholar and researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and at Ashkelon Academic College. “It looks a lot like a second al-Aksa intifada, an upheaval that is linked to a few different reasons converging at the same time. The situation that we had until a few months ago, in which adults with familial responsibilities were focused on improving their financial situation and not involved in politics, is over, mainly following two events – the brutal murder of young Muhammad Abu Khdeir [in July], and Operation Protective Edge and [the resulting] devastation in Gaza.”
Ritter cites several major factors that have contributed to the present situation.
“The bitterness caused by the economic situation among a large part of the Arab population in the city, the lack of a political horizon and hope – the Arab residents of Jerusalem feel that no one is interested in them anymore, that all the focus is on Gaza, and they feel forgotten. But then, the sight of what happened in Gaza is tearing them apart. They did not watch the Israeli channels, they watched the Arab channels and Al Jazeera, where they were exposed to the horrible images from Gaza – the dead bodies, the destruction, the ruins, and the feeling that [Mahmoud Abbas] and the Palestinian Authority allowed that to happen,” he says.
“If until this summer most of the polls taken in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, showed that the support of the PA and Hamas was more or less equal, by now it has changed. If elections were held today, Hamas would win,” he asserts. “But besides all these, the increase in racist declarations and actions, such as the price-tag attacks, [among] young Jewish rioters and some officials, too, have caused great damage.”
Mayor Nir Barkat has requested more police and special units to maintain order in the city, a request that erupted into an open quarrel between him and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch but resulted in the deployment of an additional 1,000 policemen in the city’s more sensitive zones. There have been some official declarations from the prime minister, other ministers and MKs that the security of Jerusalem is their main concern and that no violence will be tolerated.
But to Margalit, that sounds like exactly the wrong approach.
“Of course, I also want to see the return of calm and peace in the city, but the question is how to do it the best way, and what should be avoided,” he says. “For example, the use of Border Police units is a bad choice. They have been here for the past 10 years and have become the symbol of all the mistakes we are making with the Arab population.”
Ritter also considers the attitude of some of the security forces one of the major factors exacerbating the tension and violence.
“The system is always more powerful to fight back,” he says.
“The police go to the Temple Mount every Friday, and now they also go inside al-Aksa Mosque. That is certainly not the way to end the violence. We have to use a ‘smart’ police force, not just more and more brute force. It is clear that this doesn’t work.”
BOTH SIDES agree that the status of the Temple Mount is at the heart of the matter. Arab residents of Silwan are convinced that the recent arrival of some 26 Jewish families in the neighborhood is part of a larger plan to take over the area, as it is the closest Arab neighborhood to the holy site.
“This is a very sensitive case,” says Ritter, “not only here but also in Jordan. At King Abdullah’s palace, people are very concerned by the growing number of Jews who visit the Esplanade of the Mosques [Temple Mount]. And they are following with mounting concern a bill in the Knesset to authorize Jewish prayer time there. They are convinced that it won’t be long before there is a decision to permit such prayers. They fear that the site will become like the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, with separate prayer hours for Jews and Muslims. Most of the issue is about the al-Aksa situation and what, in their view, is threatening it.”
Indeed, it seems as if things at the holy site could erupt at any moment into a situation that no one can control. For the past few weeks, Arab women have been allowed to sit inside the mosque – an unusual situation, except during times of prayer. Their role is to follow Jewish women who visit the area and prevent them from praying. Often, they call the police guards when they think that the Jewish women are silently moving their lips. Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick has posted several videos of such episodes on his Facebook page, remarking that the Israeli police obey the Arab women’s request.
For city council member Arieh King (United Jerusalem), things are clear and obvious.
“The police should do their duty – arrest rioters and bring them to justice. The municipality should put an end to the illegal construction in the Arab neighborhoods and not reward them with new construction plans,” he says.
Last week in King’s neighborhood of Ma’aleh Zeitim, which faces the Temple Mount, heavy stones were thrown at a kindergarten. None of the children were hurt.
The real concern now among the city’s Jewish leadership is to see what will happen to all the past decade’s efforts to change Jerusalem’s image from a city battered by violence to a flourishing cultural, commercial and academic capital that is an appealing place to live.
“The question is how the leadership – national and local – will face this explosive situation,” concludes Ritter. “Leaders should stop making comments like ‘Hamas is [Islamic State].’ The Arabs in Jerusalem are not [Islamic State], and we should be very careful not to tar them with the same brush. And of course, on top of this, are we going to understand that a stick has to be accompanied by some carrots?” On the train back from Pisgat Ze’ev to the city center last Thursday, no passengers boarded at the stops in Shuafat and Beit Hanina. I asked one of the guards if that had been the case all week, and he said that except in the early mornings, no one took the light rail from these neighborhoods.
“They don’t feel safe, especially the women,” he added. “I am Druse, and I understand Arabic. Young Jews on the train curse them and say nasty things. That’s not good.”
He said he was from a village in the North, was serving in the Border Police and had come to Jerusalem to study at the Hebrew University. I asked him if it was true that some border police cursed Arabs when they patrolled their neighborhoods. He admitted that it did happen.
“But you know, they curse us, too,” he said.
At the Mahaneh Yehuda stop, the car became packed with people carrying bags and pushing shopping trolleys. Among them was a group of Arab women, easily recognizable by their head coverings. The young Druse guard stepped out of the car, but not before nodding to me discreetly to point them out.