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The Battle for Jerusalem

The battle will either be the last one Palestinians fight before Israeli Jews take over East Jerusalem. Or the first in a much larger struggle.

To be a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem is to suffer from a special form of statelessness. They are citizens neither of Israel nor of Palestine. They cannot vote. They have no official passports and cannot freely cross borders.

They have the right to residency in Jerusalem, but it is a daily battle to keep it. Under the Israeli Ministry of Interior's "centre of life" policy, they have to continuously disprove a negative, that their real family life is not elsewhere. This means endlessly collecting receipts as proof of their life in Jerusalem like medical prescriptions and school registrations. Inspectors go as far as counting the clothes in a wardrobe or the food in the fridge, as evidence of the claimed number of children living in the family home.

Obtaining citizenship of any country or spending too long abroad are both reasons for the revocation of the residency status, which cannot be handed down to children. They cannot build onto their houses, and if they do, they have to pay to have the extension knocked down, or knock it down themselves. This is the community from which the two men who shot and hacked worshippers in early morning prayers in a synagogue in West Jerusalem on Tuesday came from.

There is another element peculiar to this attack on a Jewish religious target. Ghassan Abu Jamal, 23, and Odai Abu Jamal, 30, were not members of a religious Palestinian group. They came from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) - a secular, revolutionary, leftist organisation founded by George Habash, a Palestinian Christian, responsible in the 1960s for a series of aircraft hijackings.

This brings us to the third new element in this attack: the PFLP did not, on the available evidence, order or plan this attack. A statement posted on the group’s Facebook page supported the attack and identified the attackers as members of the PFLP, but a press release emailed on behalf of the group omitted any affiliation the men had to the group. The PFLP in Gaza wanted to claim responsibility for the attack, the West Bank did not. This is similar to the abduction and murder of three settler youths by members of Hamas, which Hamas itself did not know anything about.

Ofer Zalzberg, senior Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG) put his finger on what is happening here. “There is no leader to go to that can represent the needs and demands of East Jerusalemites or Palestinians in general. For Palestinians, Abbas does not seem to act, Jordan’s actions are limited, while most of the Arab or Islamic world doesn’t seem to be mobilising,” said Zalzberg. “No one is acting in the face of perceived threats among Palestinians in East Jerusalem and therefore in the absence of leaders, individuals react,” he added.

While Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that Mahmoud Abbas' "incitement" was responsible for the synagogue attack, a young woman in Ramallah put a video up lambasting the Palestinian president for condemning it. Kristina Yousef said:

“Mr. President! Where were you a month ago? Where were you when child Turin was killed? Where were you yesterday when Yousef al-Ramouni was strangled to death while on the job? Did you watch the video of his wife when she was weeping and crying? Where are you? Do you watch the news? Where are you?

"We are not in a state of war. We are in the middle of a massacre. We have lost all hope. These are the ones who lift our heads high while you come out to condemn (them)?

"Where are the violations of Al-Aqsa? Here is Al-Aqsa. It has only a few years to go. They have been demolishing it. They are digging underneath it. Every day, the women at Al-Aqsa get beaten. Why are you not coming out to denounce this? If you do not want to stand by us, then sit on the side. Believe me, we can do the job instead of you. We can defend our country; we do not need you.”

Like it or not, this is an authentic Palestinian voice. Her video went viral. The issue, then, is not the degree to which Abbas condemns or dissociates himself with the Palestinians who carry out these attacks. On this point, the Shin Bet service chief Yoram Cohen bluntly contradicted his prime minister. The issue is the extent to which Abbas, the Palestinian Authority, and indeed all Palestinian factions have lost control of events taking place on the ground. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem are not only stateless, but leaderless too.

Yousef’s voice should not come as a surprise. Her’s is the product of the generation that has grown up under a policy which has been consistently applied and internationally supported. It is to suppress all political opposition in the West Bank, isolating Jerusalem, to allow Abbas to speak. Abbas’s voice comes at the expense of silencing all others. 

The policy has been undermined in two ways. Israel collectively has stopped listening to Abbas. And the Palestinian president has stopped being listened to by Palestinians themselves.

The red line in this battle is al-Aqsa in particular and Jerusalem in general. There is no question in the minds of the Palestinians of East Jerusalem but that Israel has already crossed this line. Attacking places of worship has alas become commonplace. Since June 2011, 10 mosques in Israel and the West Bank have been set on fire by presumed right-wing Jewish extremists. No charges have been filed. Over 63 mosques were destroyed and 153 partially damaged in Israel's attack on Gaza.

Ever since the occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, there were Jews who aspired to remove the mosque of al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock and replace it with the Third Temple. There was always a brisk trade in pictures of the Holy City with al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock photoshopped out. But this sort of wish fulfilment remained on the fringe of Israeli political discourse. Now it has entered the mainstream.

Movements for the rebuilding of the Third Temple have gained ground and the religious veto against praying on the Temple Mount has waned. Thirty years ago, Yehuda Etzion, one the movement's leaders, was convicted of planning to blow up the Dome of the Rock. Today, he enjoys right-wing backing. "The Temple will rise on the expense of the mosques, there is no doubt about it,” said Etzion.

Just a few hundred metres away from al-Aqsa, the crowded and poor Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan is in the first stages of Judaisation. It is now referred to as the City of David. Just after settlers took over 23 more apartments in Silwan at the end of September, and violent clashes ensued, an advert appeared congratulating the settlers on their Zionist endeavour. "The strengthening of Jewish presence in Jerusalem is our common challenge," went the ad. "With your settlement act, you make us proud." 

Who put their names on the front page ad? Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel; Shlomo Aharonishky, ex-chief of staff of the Israeli Police; and retired general Amos Yadlin, former head of intelligence in the Israeli Defense Forces and a possible contender for the leadership of the Labor Party. As MEE contributor Meron Rapoport noted: “In short, not a bunch of right-wing lunatics, but the flesh and bone of the Israeli establishment.”

The settlers of the “City of David” are just the visible part of a broader act of dispossession. Declaring the area a Jewish National Heritage site, despite the fact that no reliable archeological evidence has been found linking King David to the stones uncovered during the excavations, has legitimised the acts of the settlers.

The takeover of Silwan is not a fringe activity. Israel’s housing minister Uri Ariel, a senior minister from the Jewish Home party, has looked into renting an apartment there.

Sami Abu Atrash, a colleague of Yusef al-Ramouni, found hanging from a steel bar in the Egged bus he drove summed up the atmosphere in East Jerusalem on Tuesday. He told the Middle East Eye: “They’re against us. They don’t want any Palestinians to live on this earth. They want to transfer all the people …We work for the Jewish people, and help them, all the time, day and night. But the Israelis - and it’s not just the settlers – it’s the government - they are pushing them to kill us, and destroy our houses. It’s the system of the government against the Palestinian people.”

What’s going in East Jerusalem has forced even the most West-leaning and compliant of Arab leaders, King Abdullah of Jordan to withdraw his ambassador. The king is acting out of pragmatism. He is mindful of the presence of Islamic State supporters in Jordan, to say nothing of the Palestinian majority in the Hashemite kingdom. Abdullah knows that nothing can unify Arabs as quickly as Jerusalem.

Which brings us to the last and perhaps most significant difference between this Palestinian uprising, if such it proves to be, and the last two. If it does materialise, it will be fought by Palestinians inside the walls that Israel has constructed around itself, by the East Jerusalemites and the Palestinians of 1948, who are Israeli citizens. Unlike the previous two intifadas, this conflict will not be contained inside secure borders, such as were guaranteed by strong states, friendly and hostile alike. Egypt’s Mubarak has disappeared, and a very large jihadi insurgency is battling for control of the Sinai Peninsula. Bashar Assad’s forces no longer control Israel’s northern border on the Golan Heights. To make Jerusalem a battle zone, in the circumstances of chaos in the wider Arab world, where four states have failed, is to invite every Arab fighter in.

And Jerusalem will surely become a battle zone, if the public security minister eases controls on gun licenses to Israel’s Jewish citizens, East Jerusalem becomes locked down by roadblocks and police patrols, or the response of the government is to announce 78 new settlements.

So Netanyahu, for once, is right. This is a battle for Jerusalem. It will either be the last battle Palestinians will fight before Israeli Jews take East Jerusalem over. Or it is the first battle of a larger struggle - in which Jerusalem serves as a magnet for militants from wherever they hail - Sunni or Shia, secular and Islamist, takfiris, jihadis, or nationalists. Netanyahu has picked the one battleground capable of drawing them all in.

- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian, from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A Palestinian protester waves a national flag during a demonstration against new concrete blocks put in place by Israeli security forces restricting access to the Abu Tor neighbourhood in East Jerusalem this November (AFP)

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