The Conflagration in Jerusalem

Following days of intense clashes between Israeli police and far-right Jewish activists on the one side and Palestinians on the other in East Jerusalem, the tensions between the two sides have escalated with Hamas launching attacks in Israel and Tel Aviv retaliating. The security forces in the Holy City were particularly brutal in their treatment of Palestinian demonstrators against whom the forces wielded stun grenades and rubber bullets. Some videos that showed a gang of police officers setting upon a Palestinian went viral on social media.

Things began to spiral out of control when the Israel police chief blocked the area around Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, an area where Palestinians gather after breaking their fast in the holy month of Ramadan. Though the order was revoked subsequently, it sparked protests with Palestinians coming out onto the streets to rail against an ‘alien’ people hurting their sensibilities. East Jerusalem had been under Israeli control since 1967 when Tel Aviv defeated its Arab enemies in the ‘Six Day War’ and absorbed territory that belonged to the vanquished. Jordan had taken possession of the West Bank in the 1948 war and resettled Palestinian refugees who were expelled from mainland Israel by the infant Jewish state’s armed forces. In 1967, Israel managed to retake the West Bank which remains under its control to this day. Some time after the war, Israel decided to annex East Jerusalem into Israel’s sovereign territory. In other words, whilst the rest of the West Bank is occupied territory, East Jerusalem forms part of the sovereign Israeli state.

The violence in recent weeks was precipitated by a controversial court case that might evict hundreds of Palestinians from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Sheikh Jarrah is one of many neighbourhoods that Palestinian refugees fleeing bloodshed in Israeli-controlled territory in 1948 were settled in by Jordan. After Israel took back control of the West Bank, however, Jewish settlers have claimed that they have the right to evict the Palestinian residents in those neighbourhoods because they were the original owners of the territory in 1948 before Jordan took control.

But Israel denies the right to return of Palestinians who were banished from Israel proper in 1948, let alone their right to ownership of the land. Following the expulsion, Israel expropriated the lands belonging to “absentee” Palestinian owners and they are currently inhabited by Jewish Israeli citizens. However, the institutionalised racism in the Israeli political system causes serious worry that the court might rule in favour of Israeli settlers which would mean the eviction of hundreds of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, where they have lived for several decades now.

The Sheikh Jarrah issue has garnered enormous attention across the world, leading to a rise in sympathy for the Palestinian cause and a distaste for Israel’s discriminatory practices against Palestinians. One reason it has turned a lot of heads is because the issue is seen as a microcosm of the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict; a conflict in which a sovereign coloniser dispossesses, discriminates against and deprives the stateless lot of their land and livelihood with utter impunity, if not outright international support. Even before the latest bout of clashes came to the fore, Israel’s invidious political system that has been built specifically to disadvantage one community over the other has been called out by highly reputed human rights organisations.

The Israeli Human Rights Establishment B’Tselem declared resoundingly in a document earlier this year that Israel’s actions in the territory it controls between the Meditarranean Sea and the Jordan River constitutes apartheid. The New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch also used the word apartheid to describe Tel Aviv’s treatment of the Palestininans in a recently released report. These two reports call attention to the systematic way in which non-Jewish people are discriminated against in Israel and the occupied territories. For instance, Palestinian East Jerusalem residents are accorded ‘residency rights’ that can be revoked if they live elsewhere for a long period. Whereas Jewish residents of the same city can get citizenship of Israel with no strings attached.

The predicament of West Bank residents is even worse with their land increasingly being colonised with Jewish settlers from elsewhere who can legally obtain Israeli citizenship, something denied to the indigenous Palestinians. A number of Palestinian organisations have previously called out this overtly invidious system as one that constitutes apartheid. But the recently produced reports by Israeli and American organisations have contributed to the galvanizing of public opinion against Israeli oppression even more than Palestinian condemnations, pointing to the inherent privilege American-Israelis have in the conversation over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Add to this combustible mix of institutionalised apartheid, violation of religious sentiments and impending eviction from the homeland, another factor that is meant to rub salt on these wounds. Far-right Jewish activists with connections to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who have been playing provocateurs in East Jerusalem, attempted to go on a march through the city last Monday marking Jerusalem Day. The Day commemorates Israel’s “reunification” of Jerusalem following its victory in the 1967 war. On this day, Jewish activists parade through the city in a notorious march in which they sing songs insulting Palestinians and chanting discriminatory slogans. The week preceding Jerusalem Day, which falls on May 10, they chanted ‘Death to the Arabs’ as they marched boisterously through the streets. This further provoked the Palestinians causing a fracas against the police. As the situation seemed to spiral out of control, PM Netanyahu ordered that the Jerusalem Day march refrain from entering the Palestinian parts of the city and take a different route. Despite the orders, however, some Jewish extremists entered Palestinan quarters with an intention to cause trouble.

It was at this point that the militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, keen to have a say in the violence being unleashed in the Holy City, fired rockets into Jerusalem and mainland Israel causing deaths to a number of Israeli citizens. Israel retaliated by launching its own attack in Gaza, killing Palestinians living there and destroying a sky-scraper building thought to be an operating ground for Hamas. Hamas had been preparing to contest elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council which was scheduled to take place on May 22. But the President of Palestinian National Authority (PNA) Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah leader cancelled the polls, much to the dismay of Hamas. Therefore, some suggest that Hamas is trying to project its clout through different means and affirm its position as the true saviour of Palestinians not just in Gaza but also in West Bank, who have been beleaguered by incompetent Fatah leadership.

The latest episode of violence in East Jerusalem and Gaza has drawn particular attention to the role of the international community, particularly the United States (US), as an enabler to the conflict. A statement from the State Department when violence against Palestinians escalated “urged both sides” to de-escalate, without calling out Israel’s system of apartheid or denouncing the impending dispossession of Sheikh Jarrah residents. But it’s statement after Hamas and Israel exchanged fire specifically condemned the former for escalating tensions. Statements from the European Union (EU) and other international organisations said they were “extremely concerned” by the situation in Jerusalem and hoped for a quick end to hostilities. It is precisely these kinds of statements that make the international community complicit in Israel’s reckless treatment of Palestinians. Because, they refuse to recognise the reality of the situation that one side is obviously superior in terms of military strength and possession of the tools of administration that oppresses the other party in a systematic manner by deploying violence. By portraying such blatant acts of oppression as “clashes”, the international community sends the message that it is a fight between two equals, which it is patently not. Being “deeply concerned” when police brutally attack unarmed Palestinians whilst condemning Hamas for its use of violence is nothing short of a double standard.

With Palestinians set to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the nakba on Saturday, the remnants of the catastrophe that befell them in 1947-1948 remains in their national life. They continue to be dispossessed, continue to be expelled, continue to suffer violence and contumely at the hands of their Jewish masters and continue to be betrayed by their fellow Arab brothers.

-Prasanna Aditya (Freelancer)

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