Co-Authored by Shir Alon
It is no longer possible to ignore what’s happening in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem- in recent months the situation has been deteriorating fast, and the tension is constantly rising. The settlers’ efforts to take over sites in densely populated Palestinian neighborhoods have increased significantly, while the Palestinian residents’ protests grow more heated and violent. The killing of Milad Said Ayyash, aged 17, during the Nakba day clashes last week, was a foreseeable tragedy under the violent and discriminatory regime forming in East Jerusalem, where the settlers and their private guards are fully backed up by the police and the political echelons. And as the government plans new provocations, approving plans for new construction and Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, in the Palestinian neighborhoods themselves a new kind of Intifada is taking shape, and a violence threatening to flood the rest of the city.
The pressure on the citizens of East Jerusalemhas increased significantly in the past few years. The separation barrier, cutting the East Jerusalem neighborhoods off and separating them from the West Bank, has been completed. The Ministry of Interior has renewed its practice of revoking the residency status of residents who fail to meet strict conditions, and many East Jerusalem residents live under constant fear of expulsion. The settler-financed development of tourist attractions around the Old City and the growing number of settlements in the midst of densely populated Palestinian neighborhoods not only threaten to change the neighborhoods’ character and fabric of life, but they provide further instances of friction and violence between the settlers and the residents, causing anxiety and anger among the Palestinians who are being dispossessed from their homes.
The discrimination against the Palestinian population ofEast Jerusalem has been ongoing for 43 years and is evident in all aspects of life; social services, infrastructure, urban planning, house demolitions, education and more. The discrimination is embedded in their legal status – the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, living in an area which Israel annexed in 1967, are not Israeli citizens and do not have voting rights in the national elections. Their status is that of permanent residents, which entitles them to vote for the municipality, even though they do not enjoy equal municipal services as their Jewish neighbors.
The mounting tension and increased friction in East Jerusalemhave led to varying forms of protest and dissent. For the past two years, a group of Jews and Palestinians have been holding weekly demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah, and their group has succeeded in turning global spotlights to this site. The Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity activists are present almost everywhere inEast Jerusalem, participating in protests and documenting violent clashes and incidents. The police take an aggressive stand against the activists, using violent measures and making frequent and repeated arrests. Yet so far this stand has only made the demonstrators more determined, enhancing the demonstrations’ public impact.
The majority of activity is currently concentrated in the villageof Silwan, which is targeted by a number of tourist and settlement projects. In the Al Bustan neighborhood, which the Jerusalemmunicipality intends to demolish and construct a biblical park in its place, the local activists put up a protest tent for organizing activities and demonstrations, which draw the attention of journalists and diplomats. The residents of Wadi Hilweh, which saw large parts of their neighborhood given over to the settler-run tourist site Ir David, set up an information center that hosts groups of visitors and journalists, telling of life in the shadow of the settlement. The center runs an excellent website with daily reports on the situation in the neighborhood and inEast Jerusalem.
In Batn al Hawa, which houses the illegal settlement Beit Yehonatan (which the state refuses to evacuate despite the High Court of Justice’s explicit order), there are daily violent confrontations. In the past two weeks this has become a real children’s intifada. Day after day, stones are thrown at the settler’s houses or cars, and answered with tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and even live ammunition. Hundreds of children, many of them still under the age of 12, were arrested and investigated. Some of them were put under long house arrests and others were threatened with various means.
This intifada already has its victims. In September 2010, Samer Sarhan, resident of Al-Bustan in Silwan and a community organizer, was shot and killed by one of the settlers’ guards. The police was quick to adopt the guards’ version of the events, claiming that the guard shot in the air in response to the stone throwing and accidently hit Sarhan. All the circumstantial evidence, however, point otherwise.
Samer Sarhan’s killing marked a turning point in the struggle in Silwan. Since then the regular Friday demonstrations have been drawing many more people throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, and the use of violent measures by the police has augmented.
On May 13, 2011, on the weekend commemorating the Palestinian Nakba when the atmosphere in Silwan was especially heated, some Molotov cocktails were thrown at the gate of Beit Yehonatan. Eye witnesses claim that someone opened a window on the third floor of the Beit Yehonatan, and several shots were fired, hitting 17 years old Milad Said Ayyash from Ras al Amud. Ayyash, who was about to finish his high school education, died a few hours later at the hospital.
While the case is still being investigated, the police spokesman stated that no live ammunition was used by the police or the border patrol, implying that the shooter may have very well been one of the settlers or their private guards – a kind of private militia which feels entitled to simply shoot, as they know they will be backed up by the authorities and the police. Therefore there is not much to hope for in this investigation. As in the killing of Sarhan and in earlier cases, it will most likely lead to nothing; the shooter would be questioned and released, and the violent regime in Silwan would continue, undisturbed.
The police sense that they are loosing control over Silwan, and try to oppress all means of protest. During the past few months, almost all civilian leaders in Silwan were arrested and investigated, and some of them were charged with various offences. Sheikh Musa, 60 years old, sat through a long arrest under the charge of throwing a stone. Zohir Rajabi was arrested for allegedly attacking a policeman; Fahri Abu Diab’s sons were arrested as well, as were many other activists. Adnan Gheith, one of the leaders of the protest in Bustan, was expelled from Jerusalemwithout trial, on pretexts relying on emergency-situation decrees. Jawad Siyam, one of the coordinators of the Wadi Hilweh Information center, has been harassed by the police and arrested repeatedly for false charges. It is hard to believe that suddenly, all at once, all of these people have become dangerous criminals requiring the police’s intervention: rather this seems like a coordinated effort to break the protests in Silwan. As a security figure was quoted in Maariv on February 2, 2011, “If Siyam and his friends are not deported from the area, the anti-Israel activity will escalate.”
At the same time, the settlers and the police form close bonds. An illustrative example to their warm relationship could be witnessed in a recent ceremony for the appointment of the new Jerusalem District Police Commander, Niso Shaham. Shaham invited some old friends, among them settlers and extremist rabbis. A local Haredic website published some interesting pictures from the event in which Shaham was seen exchanging hugs and posing for photographs with the East Jerusalem settler leadership, among them Yonatan Yossef, the head of the Sheikh Jarrah settlers gang, David Be’eri from Elad (who made the news when he was filmed running over a child who threw stones at his car in Silwan), Matti Dan from Ateret Cohanim, and others. Needless to say that community leaders from Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, and other Palestinian neighborhoods were not invited, and do not enjoy such an immediate and supportive link to the police. Events such as these confirm that the police see the Palestinians in East Jerusalem as their target rather then those who deserve their services, validating the fears that theJerusalem police is actually the Settlers Police.
InEast Jerusalemthere is a regime. This regime is not a democracy, and is not guided by principle of morality and justice. The state ofIsraelcontinues setting facts on the ground, either by planning and building or by exerting pressure and violence on theEast Jerusalemresidents. These facts can render the political situation in the city irreversible – the next intifada is already here, inJerusalem, the very heart of the conflict.