East Jerusalem’s simmering summer

Despite ongoing violence in the Arab quarters of the capital, observers do not believe this indicates the start of an intifada-like uprising.

Palestinian youths hurl stones during clashes with Israeli police in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Joz, September 7. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Palestinian youths hurl stones during clashes with Israeli police in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Joz, September 7.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
THE ORIGINAL research for this story was conducted in the middle of June as the second installment of a series of articles I had been planning about simmering tensions between Arabs and Jews in East Jerusalem and clashes over holy sites around Israel.
In early May, I wrote about the Temple Mount and had moved on from that story to focus on the next hill to the east – the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.
When I toured the cemetery, the Arab-majority Ras al-Amud neighborhood located on the western slope of the Mount of Olives and the Israeli Ma’aleh Zeitim enclave there on June 25, Arab attacks on Jews on the Mount had been on the increase and were bad enough to warrant an article about the future of the holy site and the adjacent residential neighborhoods.
The rest of the city, however, was calm.
Following a meeting in Ramallah the previous week, I had stopped at a grocery in the Shuafat neighborhood on my way home and thought nothing of it. The day after visiting the Mount of Olives I had arranged to borrow a DVD from a Palestinian acquaintance in Sheikh Jarrah and thought little of walking the streets there with my 12-year-old son as I kept the appointment.
In recent years, I have noted the appearance of Arab shoppers and pedestrians around West Jerusalem – at the Malha and Mamil - la malls, Ben Yehuda Street and Jaffa Road – and taken pride at the non-noteworthiness of it all – as two groups of Jerusalemites, if not exactly sharing the same space, at least co-exist not too badly.
What a difference a week makes.
Four days after walking around Shuafat unafraid, East Jerusalem exploded in a round of popular violence unseen in the city since the dark days of the original intifada a quarter of a century ago.
On June 30, the bodies of Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel were dis - covered in a pit near Hebron, an event that sparked gangs of extreme right-wing Jews to prowl the streets of Jerusalem shouting slo - gans including “Death to Arabs” and harass Arab pedestrians and workers at places like the Mahane Yehuda market. Two days later, the body of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a resident of Shuafat, was found in the Jerusalem Forest in West Jerusalem.
Young extremist Jews have been arrested for the murder.
The murder of Abu Khdeir provided the match that set off a conflagration that the Israeli authorities have not managed to extinguish.
Whereas in the Galilee and central Israel, police and community leaders managed to calm tempers relatively quickly – perhaps aided by Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting that began June 28 – in Jerusalem, police had no such luck. From Shuafat to Ras al-Amud to Armon Hanatziv, violence flared all summer and into September, with no signs of abating.
On Rosh Hashana, 23-year-old yeshiva student Chanan Kupietzky was set upon by a mob in the City of David (Silwan) as he made  his way back to the Old City after performing the tashlikh holiday ritual at the neighborhood’s ancient Shiloah Pool. A week earlier, a family was nearly lynched after mistakenly entering Wadi Joz. Attacks on school buses, gunshots at Ma’aleh Zeitim and other attacks have continued with little response from police or Border Police units, according to residents. In Shuafat, rioters damaged several Jerusalem Light Rail stations and repeatedly stoned trains.
Significantly, however, activists and observers say the violence in the capital appears to be little more than locals “blowing off steam” and does not indicate the start of an intifada-like uprising in Jerusalem. Despite the fact that Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deploy additional security resources to the capital to prevent the round of violence from becoming a “silent intifada,” voices on the Arab streets of the city do not believe the pro - tests will reach that level.
“I SEE it as a phase,” one activist close to the protests tells The Jerusalem Report . Speak ing on condition of anonymity, the activist says the violence is intended largely to highlight the Palestinian identity of East Jerusalem Arabs, but adds that, unlike the second intifada of 2000-2004, there is no central body coordinating the riots nor are they defined by a clear goal.
“For a long time, people assumed that East Jerusalemites were largely integrated into the fabric of the city – we may have been passive-aggressive politically by refusing to take part in Israel’s administration of the city, but we very much participated in the day-to-day life of the city by shopping in West Jerusalem malls, eating in restaurants there, watching movies at the Cinema City complex, and more.
“But the events of the last three months have showed that the calm that pervaded the city was an illusion. Of course, people were furious about the kidnapping and murder of Abu Khdeir and that got even worse because of the war in Gaza. Anger grew as images from the war emerged, but there is a deeper explanation for the deep frustration felt by so many young people – a lack of identity.
This has been a serious issue for us in East Jerusalem for many years. On one hand, we are Palestinians, occupied by Israel and gov - erned by Israeli law. On the other hand, we enjoy access to Israeli society – things like social security and healthcare. Overall, this dichotomy creates a sharp sense of identity confusion for many young Palestinians, so the riots have been a way – a terribly unhelp - ful way, I’m afraid – for many young people to assert their sense of national identification by supporting and identifying with the suf - fering of their nation in Gaza and the West Bank,” the activist says.
For Arab and Jewish Jerusalemites, the cost of the current “phase” continues to rise. In the Arab sector, Jerusalem police say more than 760 people have been arrested since the riots broke out. Of these, at least 260 detainees are under the age of 18, according to a report in the Haaretz Hebrew daily.
No estimates have been released yet re - garding the monetary damage to local in - frastructure and the economy caused by the violence, but news reports ahead of the Rosh Hashana holiday indicated that hoteliers in the city were concerned about empty rooms during the peak holiday season as tourists chose to stay away from Jerusalem because of the violence.
Two days before Yom Kippur, which co - incided with the Muslim Eid al-Adha festival, there can be no mistaking the tension in Silwan, adjacent to the Old City’s Dung Gate. Although the neighborhood has largely steered clear of the violence that has rocked other parts of the city, clashes did erupt on September 30 when a group of Jews moved into a home in the dead of night.
Right-wing groups and representatives for the new Jewish residents asserted the right of Jews to purchase property anywhere in Jerusalem and say the home had been purchased legally.
Left-wingers and Palestinians countered that the home was forcibly wrested from the rightful Palestinian owners and that the transaction was intended only to provoke violence from local residents by a combina - tion of pressure and questionable real estate ethics. They say the move was just the latest incident aimed at “Judaizing” the neighbor - hood, prior to erasing the Arab presence in Jerusalem completely.
In either case, there is no question that the Jewish homes serve as a poke in the eye to the local Arabs.
Walking around the neighborhood, locals are only too willing to point out the homes that have been taken over by Jews – apart - ment buildings clearly identifiable by Israeli flags, glistening white Jerusalem stone (in contrast to the rough stone characteristic of older, Arab-owned buildings) and especially by the barbed wire and private security forces financed by the Housing Ministry.
One resident, Khaled Ziyyam, eagerly pointed out to The Report the most recent acquisition – one wing of a larger family home with a pretty courtyard, complete with lemon tree and grape vines. Whatever the legal details of the purchase and takeover of the property, the reality appeared to be simple and bitter – a group of unwanted Jews have moved into the part of a Palestinian building, very much against the wishes of the residents.
ASKED HOW he felt about the new neighbors, Ziyyam spat on the ground and called them “filthy thieves.” He says Jews would never be welcome in Silwan, or any other Arab neighborhood, and added his hope for a new intifada, or even full-scale war, to evict the usurpers.
“Let them live in Tel Aviv or Haifa. We don’t want to live with them,” he says.
Others disagreed, saying that while they agreed with Ziyyam’s view of the current crop of Jews in Silwan, in theory they would not object to Jews purchasing property in the neighborhood, provided they came in peace rather than violence. As in other communities where Jews and Arabs live in close proximity, both sides here say they are the victims of regular attacks by the opposite ethnic group.
“All presence of settlers is provocative,” says Yehudit Oppenheimer, executive director of Ir Amim, a left-wing NGO that stumps for Palestinian rights in the city. “According to international law this area does not belong to Israel, but the settlers’ organization, El- Ad, has virtually unlimited funding, which allows them to terrorize the neighborhood, forcibly taking control of the area house by house, dunam by dunam.”
According to Oppenheimer, the fight in Silwan is essentially a fight over the “narra - tive” of Jerusalem. She cites Economy Min - ister Naftali Bennett’s bizarre claim in early October that the arrival of the latest group of Jewish residents created a Jewish majority in Silwan (when in fact it brought the number of Jewish residents of Silwan to no more than several dozen) as evidence that the settlers are “trying to erase Jerusalem’s Palestinian identity”.
In addition, she calls the adjoining City of David excavation project “nothing more than a cynical use of archeology and tourism to tell people that ‘what you think you are seeing here – an Arab neighborhood with a few militant, heavily armed Jews – is not really what you are seeing.’” Oppenheimer continues, “Yes, Silwan is the site of ancient Jerusalem – but the history here is not exclusive to Jews. Every nation that has lived here throughout history left its mark on this place. As such, the archeological finds here belong to the public, not to one narrow group, and the finds represent the cultural and historic heritage of many peoples and cultures, not just Jews.”
In contrast to the Palestinian activist mentioned above who cited Palestinian nationalist feeling as the main source for the current flare up, Oppenheimer’s group focuses on discrimination in Jerusalem as the source of Palestinian anger.
It isn’t a difficult claim to back up.
ACCORDING TO the Central Bureau of Statistics, more than 75 percent of Arab Jerusalemites, including 82.2 percent of the city’s Arab children live below the official poverty line, defined by the CBS as an individual with a monthly income of less than NIS 2,820 or a couple earning less than NIS 4,513 per month. For a family of five, the household income must surpass NIS 8,500 to be considered above the poverty line. In contrast, 23.5 percent of Jerusalem’s Jewish population and 33.7 percent of the city’s Jewish children live below the poverty line.
Anecdotally, too, the discrepancy between East and West Jerusalem is apparent to the naked, untrained eye. One foreign journalist who lived in Sheikh Jarrah told this journalist he never paid for parking in Israel and simply threw the parking tickets he received in the garbage. “The mail service is so irregular and infrequent in East Jerusalem that I am confident I’ll never get contacted to actually pay the fines,” he claims.
One need only look at the difference between the public infrastructure in the two areas to understand the different levels of investment that the Israeli authorities make in each sector.
In West Jerusalem, the Train Track and Sacher Parks are well-maintained urban recreation spaces, while residents of Silwan and Wadi Joz are lucky if the “playgrounds” in their neighborhoods are more than small, bare dirt lots with a rusty swing and see- saw. Whereas roads that climb and descend the hilly terrain of the Talbieh, Gilo and Malha neighborhoods have been properly planned and constructed, the roads leading through the deep wadis east of the Old City are harsh, steep and poorly maintained.
And, while few people would argue that Israeli schools are adequately funded, there are simply no high school campuses for Arab students in Jerusalem that can match the buildings and facilities at the top high schools in West Jerusalem. Both Jews and Arabs say it is virtually impossible to ob - tain building permits in East Jerusalem, but Oppenheimer and other left-wing groups say it is only Arab illegal construction that the city takes care to demolish on a regular basis.
“To Israel, the Palestinian population of Jerusalem is nothing more than a huge col - lection of individuals, not a group with joint interests and certainly not a nation with political aspirations. Discriminating against Arabs is in the Israeli DNA,” Oppenheimer contends.
At the end of the day, questions remain regarding what Arab residents of Jerusalem want. When speaking about the challenges that face the Palestinian community in Jerusalem, all make an obligatory reference to “the occupation,” but when delving into the issues it is not clear that the Israeli is perceived as entirely negative.
Palestinians and left-wing Israelis refer to a “wave of racism sweeping Israeli society,” citing both attacks on Arabs in the Zion Square area of West Jerusalem and discriminatory statements by senior politicians such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. But one Palestinian, who would identify himself only by his first name, Ibrahim, says the Jerusalem Municipality could do much to repair anger in the Arab sector by allowing Palestinian institu - tions back into the city to address cultural matters.
In the past, leaders such as Faisal Hus - seini and institutions such as Orient House provided cultural and identity activities and services for the community, in Arabic. Today, events such as the 2013 Children’s Festival, scheduled for the El Hakawati Pales - tinian national theater, are often cancelled by Israel. Furthermore, the lack of viable Palestinian national bodies in the city and the lack of strong tourism infrastructure means there are not enough jobs for East Jerusalem residents, all of which leads to frustration. “If people don’t find those outlets where they can express themselves, they will express themselves in the street by throwing rocks,” Ibrahim says.
Although violence against Jews and against symbols of the Israeli state have long been commonplace, it is far from clear that residents want to exchange Israel’s “occupation” for a Palestinian government.
Polls consistently show that only a minority of East Jerusalemites would willingly accept Palestinian citizenship. One 2011 poll showed that fully 35 percent would relocate into Israel rather than live under Palestinian sovereignty.
“On the one hand, we have no choice but to be part of the Israeli system – labor laws, national insurance, entertainment, shopping,” Ibrahim says in a moment of honesty. “We cannot escape it. At the same time, however, we seek the cultural norms of our Arab heritage, Arabic music – things like that. East Jerusalem Palestinians miss that and want to expe - rience it, but there is no question that we don’t want to give up the benefits of living under Israeli administration.”
In practice, then, the situation for Palestinians in Jerusalem appears to be a zero-sum game, one that essentially re - verses the values of the American revolution. Whereas Americans bristled against the rule of King George III in the 1770s under the banner “no taxation without representation,” Jerusalem Palestinians today appear to have taken the opposite approach. Despite their presence in Jerusalem under Israeli control and the fact that they pay municipal taxes, they refuse to take part in the administration of Jerusalem because they feel it would conflict with their values and identities as Palestinians.
“I know of one municipal office that approached an NGO with a plan to develop the tourism sector in East Jerusalem – no politics, just a program that would benefit the residents and the city,” says the activist mentioned at the beginning of this article.
“But there is a high level of suspicion of anything having to do with the municipali - ty, which would be seen as legitimizing the occupation. And, in our culture, there is nothing more taboo than that.”