Is this an intifada?
I returned home on 3 October after a one-week visit to New York to attend CNEWA’s annual planning meeting only to find a Jerusalem that was completely different from the one I had left a week earlier.
After landing in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, a normally quick drive to my home in the Old City of Jerusalem instead took me close to two hours, though it was a Saturday and traffic was very light. I learned later that coinciding with my arrival two Jewish people were stabbed, fatally, inside the Damascus Gate. I thought it an isolated incident, and the situation will quiet down and remain under control. Little did I know then!
Is this the beginning of a new intifada? [Intifada is Arabic for uprising.] I guess at this point it would be anyone’s guess; there are no experts in this particular field. We were caught off guard in 1987 with the first intifada, and again in 2000 with the second intifada. We were also caught surprised with the successive wars in the Gaza Strip.
And what about the incidents when we thought that an all-out intifada just started, and again we were all proven wrong. I remember in early July 2014, when the 16-year-old Palestinian boy Mohammad Abu Khdeir was kidnapped from his East Jerusalem neighborhood by Jewish extremists and later burned to death — we all thought this brutal action would spark an intifada. For a full month thereafter, we slept to the sound of gunshots and helicopters flying overhead as every neighborhood in East Jerusalem demonstrated every night. In frustration and anger, they demonstrated against the murder, the occupation [the annexation of Jerusalem by Israel after war in 1967 is not recognized by the international community]. However, it all stopped about a month later and, for Palestinians, life went back to its usual state of occupation, with all of its humiliations and injustices.
One needs to mention that what is moving the masses today is the underlying threat to the Al Aqsa Mosque — a mosque revered as the third holiest place on earth for 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. More importantly, the brutal force used by the Israeli police against women, the elderly and youth who keep watch inside the mosque, and the repeated police raids on the entire compound. have led to arrests, beating and even the use of tear gas around and inside the mosque. There seems to be little respect to the compound as a holy site.
The Palestinian perception today is that Israel is trying to change the “status quo” of Holy Land sites and move in a direction to limit access for Muslims to allow more access for Jews. Even though the Israeli prime minister has repeatedly assured everyone that Israel will continue to honor the status quo [which has been in effect since the 18th century], actions on the ground appear to be quite different. Allowing Jewish extremists to enter the compound and the mosque on a daily basis under heavy police guard while attempting to limit the hours when Muslims can enter the compound is a very provocative move. Various statements by other Israeli politicians and right wing settler leaders indicate their intentions to demolish the entire site and build a temple in its place, which has certainly inflamed this delicate situation.
Since 3 October, and according to various press reports and government sources, as of this writing more than 30 Palestinians have been killed and some 1,900 injured. Some 6 Israelis have been killed and about 70 injured. Those Israelis killed were attacked by knife-wielding Palestinian youths acting on their own. According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, of the Palestinian dead, 13 were accused of committing or having committed an attack. The remaining majority of those killed were innocent bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The remaining were active participants in demonstrations in various parts of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.
New policies and directives
It has been suggested that the increased number of Palestinian civilian casualties may be the result of the Israeli government’s new directives granting the army, police and even ordinary citizens with gun licenses greater latitude to shoot and kill those suspected of being dangerous.
Social media is playing a significant role in revealing such cases, which are considered “extra-judicial executions.” Today’s generation of Palestinian youth, unlike their predecessors, have greater access to mainstream technology and social media that is brimming with terrible images and videos that stereotype like never before, painting an evil picture of the people across the divide.
One video of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who was hit by a settler car and left bleeding on the tram tracks in the Israeli settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev showed police at the scene, continuously kicking him and stepping on him while Israeli passersby were cursing at him and demanding that he be shot in the head immediately. Even paramedics at the scene stood idle and let him bleed, leading many to believe that true humanity was certainly lost on the streets of Jerusalem. Scenes such as these, which go viral, inflame the masses.
Exacerbating the situation are new policies and directives of the extreme right-wing Israeli government. In response to a recent incident when three Israelis were killed, the Israeli government decided to adopt a series of measures in East Jerusalem — a collective punishment, intended to humiliate the population rather than bring security. Some of these measures included sealing off and imposing a curfew on Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhoods, which had been implemented overnight on the Mount of Olives, Sur Baher, Jabal al Mukabber, with others on the way including Shuafat and Beit Hanina to the north. Any individual involved in attacks — whether proven or not — faces withdrawal of residency status, along with their family members; all of the family’s property and assets are confiscated, their home demolished, and land deemed government property. Furthermore, new measures have loosened the restrictions on owning and carrying firearms for Jewish Israeli citizens while thousands of border police reserves and army battalions are being called in to “restore order,” especially in East Jerusalem, giving total impunity to the military and police, and even regular citizens who are now allowed take law into their own hands.
And what about the Palestinian position?
The Palestinian leadership finds itself in a very difficult position. President Abbas has been very clear that he and his leading Fatah party wish to see the current cycle of violence stop immediately; he does not wish to see a third intifada and has repeatedly made unpopular statements to the Palestinians to stop any violent activity directed against the Israelis. Additionally, the Hamas leadership has repeatedly declared that they are not interested in any escalation with Israel, as articulated by written directives in Gaza, which go so far as to declare a 500-meter closed military zone on the border with Israel.
Thus, the Palestinian leadership’s position is against any escalation at this time. However, the question is whether they will be able to control an increasingly angry and frustrated population and if so, at what price?
The sad reality for young people today
Instructions are being given to school children on how to behave if approached by fanatic settlers whose new motto is “Death to Arabs”; or approached by jittery police officers who suspect that these students may have a knife in their pocket or in their school bag. “Keep your hands out of your pockets and do not run away from any scene even if you are frightened or attacked” were my own instructions to my 14-year-old son as he was heading to school last Monday.
I feel sorry for yet another generation of Palestinians whose childhood is being lost as they confront increased extremism and radicalized hatred. In this regard, all Palestinian schools in Jerusalem have been shut down since early this week as a precautionary measure, and it is hoped that they will return to classes by Saturday.
Where do we go from here?
The international community must exert pressure to end the occupation, as nothing short of freedom for the Palestinians will end the vicious cycles of conflict. Even though the reasons change every time violence erupts, the common denominator — the occupation, remains the same. Unless the root cause is dealt with and resolved, then this will go down in history as part of another cycle that will eventually end, but will be followed by more cycles in the future that will be more deadly, and more vicious.
On a more practical note, one needs to highlight the continued important work carried out by Christian institutions working in education, health and social services that continue to provide safe havens and quality services with Christian values at heart. The value of Christian institutions shines brightest during times like these — of crisis, killing, hopelessness and despair. The message of peace, respect, tolerance, forgiveness and acceptance continues to filter through, seeking to make a positive contribution in the societies where CNEWA operates. The poor and the weak become more desperate during times of crisis and this is when we need to intensify our efforts to ensure that faith and hope are not lost.
Please continue to keep us in your prayers.
Sami El-Yousef is CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel.