The last week has seen an almost unprecedented retreat of Israel in front of Palestinian mass mobilisation. The occupation authorities removed newly installed metal detectors and surveillance cameras from the entrance to the al Aqsa Mosque and eventually had to give access to the Mosque to all worshippers, scrapping a previous ban on men under the age of 50. This victory against Israeli attacks on Palestinian rights and existence in Jerusalem has come at a crucial moment for the city and is bound to lastingly transform power relations.
The recent outbreak of revolt in Jerusalem is an inevitable response to decades of Israeli apartheid policies that aim to erase Palestinian presence from their capital.
50 years after the occupation and subsequent illegal annexation of East Jerusalem, the Israeli regime is closing the noose around the Palestinian population in the city. The construction of over 180 km of apartheid Wall around Jerusalem - a massive operation of demographic engineering to advance the Israeli project to ‘Judaise’ the city - is almost finished. It isolates 225,000 Palestinians in 22 villages from the city while integrating 210,000 settlers in four big settlement blocks within its boundaries.
Israel has in the last years bolstered this settlement ring around Jerusalem. Over the last year alone, it announced 58 thousand new housing units in these settlements in order to close the last gaps in the buffer zone of settlers between the heart of Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied West Bank.
Inside the Old City and surrounding neighbourhoods settlers take over Palestinian homes, and settlement construction has dramatically increased. This aims to break up Palestinian society and life, to provoke continuous tensions and create unsustainable living conditions.
Additionally, Israel imposes heavy taxes and a costly permit system for any sort of activity. Palestinians receive much less public services than Jewish settlements but this way finance Israeli ethnic cleansing practices, including the occupation’s annual budget of NIS 6 million for the destruction of Palestinian homes in Jerusalem. The forcibly induced economic de-development has forced already some 25% of Palestinian shops in the Old City to close.
In place of the Palestinian presence, Israel rapidly advances its own symbols of dominance in the Old City. The transformation of the Palestinian residential area of Silwan into the archeological tourism site of the Jewish ‘City of David’ is just one example.
The attacks on the Esplanade of the Mosques are therefore the attempt to take over the last bastion of Palestinian authority in Jerusalem and to control its future - the al Aqsa Mosque stands as the symbol of sovereignty in the entire city.
Already during his first term as prime minister in 1996, Binyamin Netanyahu started the excavations of tunnels below the al Aqsa Mosque. After Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Esplanade that sparked the second intifada, Israel positioned its police force at the entrance gates to the mosque, introduced ID card checks and imposed restrictions of access to the al Aqsa Mosque to men over 50 and women over 40. With Netanyahu’s election in 2013 the presence of Israeli police and Jewish settlers even inside the Esplanade increased.
Palestinians in Jerusalem know Israel targets their very existence in the city and defending their rights to the Esplanade of the Mosque, which is historically and geographically at the core of Jerusalem, is a fundamental urgency for all Palestinians. Not by chance, Christians have been out in the streets praying together with Muslims in a joint defense of their right to exist.
Nothing more predictable than the massive public response to the latest round of tightening Israeli access controls. Nevertheless, Israel completely underestimated the determination of the people and its impact.
With Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) cooperating to block gas and electricity supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip, the Hamas administration is struggling with a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding there. In the West Bank, the PA has lost any vestige of credibility in front of its own people and has become completely dependent on Israel for money transfers and as its main source of legitimacy.
The Arab governments deeply enmeshed in different wars and crises, have displayed no interest to seriously challenge Israel. On the contrary, rapprochement with Israel has hardly ever been so unashamed.
It seemed that governments would not be ready to stand up to Israeli attacks in Jerusalem.
Israel forgot the people in the equation – the people in Jerusalem and in the Arab world did make the difference.
In Jordan, mass protests mixed support for Palestinians with outrage over their government’s connivance in guaranteeing the impunity of Israeli diplomatic staff that killed a Jordanian citizen. Anger rose in many other places putting pressure on Arab governments to put Palestine on the agenda.
The PA was forced to announce a suspension of ‘security cooperation’ with Israel. In the last few days, PA police refrained from acting as buffer between the protestors and the Israeli military during demonstrations in the West Bank.
The most important and transformative change that happened over the last days was indeed the empowerment of the people in Jerusalem.
In an impressive show of self-organisation, a tide of people came out on the streets asserting their right to the city. They claimed not only the Al Aqsa Mosque but the entire Old City as theirs.
They adopted common tactics: People made the situation unsustainable for the Israeli occupying forces by their sheer presence. They controlled the streets, blocking them in collective prayer. They got dispersed by Israeli attacks and tear gas only to gather soon after at another spot again. No stones were thrown this time.
This uncontrollable presence of Palestinians is in itself a defeat of all Israeli attempts to ‘judaise’ Jerusalem and disappear them from the life of the city.
The youth of Jerusalem, the driving force behind the protests of the last week, have proven against all odds that they cannot be ignored and are far from being a ‘lost generation’: Israeli policies of denial of educational opportunities, the ban on all Palestinian cultural and political activities, the destruction of Palestinian economy and job opportunities and Israel’s policy of easy access to drugs have not stopped their resilience.
The youth of Jerusalem today are a model for all our youth.
Already the 2014 revolt was triggered by the Jerusalem youth after Muhammad Abu Khdeir was burned alive by Israeli settlers. For months, Palestinian youth would be out in almost daily struggle. In Jerusalem, protest and disobedience defying Israeli restrictions and claiming Palestinian presence in the Old City have lead the way to protests all over Palestine. It has been an important learning ground for this new generation of our liberation struggle.
Today we have to take once again the lead from Jerusalem. It has become a model for resistance that can flourish when parties and other organised political expressions are inexistent, banned or failed. Jerusalemites have shown unity in action and develop with every wave of rebellion new ways of coordination and struggle.
This self-confidence of the people undoes one of the most pernicious effects of the Oslo Process, which sidelined grassroots organising in favour of negotiations in the corridors of the officialdom.
It is a clear message for all those that argue the futility of resistance in the face of a lack of leadership by the PA or Palestinian political parties.
The current wave of protests may die down or be brutally repressed by Israel but there is a lasting spark of hope and empowerment that emanates from Jerusalem.
For us in Palestine it is a duty to kindle it and let it grow. For the rest of the world, Jerusalem may serve as inspiration for their own struggles for social and political justice.