Even in “good” times tensions in East Jerusalem are usually high, not only in the Old City but also in Palestinian neighborhoods where Israeli settlers have established a presence. These include the City of David in the village of Silwan, which abuts the Old City, and Nof Zion, built in the Palestinian neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber.
But now, following the brutal massacre of 1,400 Israelis in southern Israel by Hamas terrorists on October 7, and verbal incitement against Arab society in Israel by right-wing Knesset members, civil society organizations have expressed concern that all it would take is “one match” to ignite terrible violence.
In the first days of the conflict, a Palestinian taxi driver noted that he and other Arabs in East Jerusalem were afraid to venture out, and many supermarkets and building contractors had to scramble to manage without their Arab employees who were too scared to come to work.
Strict entry restrictions were initially imposed in the Old City, and a heavy police presence largely limited entry only to Palestinians who lived there. A visit to the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City on October 17, after restrictions were lifted, revealed a quiet city without the normal bustle of tourists and pilgrims who wander along the ancient alleyways this time of year. However, shops and restaurants were slowly opening. Outside the Damascus Gate several policemen stopped two Palestinians for questioning and were checking their ID cards, while inside the old Palestinian women in traditional dress sat in their regular spot on the sidewalk and sold fresh parsley, green onions and long-leafed spinach. By the New Gate, at the small, trendy coffee shops owned by Palestinians that have popped up in recent years, a few Israelis and Palestinians sat out in the sun, drinking espresso and eating pastries. As time has passed, Arab employees have also returned to work in West Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, an October 16 report by Ir Amim, an Israeli activist nonprofit that focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem, detailed what it called collective punitive actions in the first 10 days of the conflict, including incidents of police violence directed toward Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents and violations of freedom of movement. For example, Palestinian farmers in the village of Walajeh, parts of which were annexed by Jerusalem despite being some 2.5 miles from Jerusalem’s southern border, were unable to sell fresh vegetables to the Israeli buying cooperative as they normally do because they couldn’t access their farms.
Warning that further infringements on Palestinian rights were liable to ignite violence in the city, the Ir Amim report noted that hundreds of Jewish extremists threw stones at Palestinians’ cars on the main Route 1 thoroughfare the evening of the Hamas attack. They were blocked by police from reaching the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, where already every week there are confrontations as Palestinians and Jewish activists protest the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes to allow for the entry of Jewish settlers.
“While Israel is still reeling from the horrors in the south, it likewise does not absolve the state from affording East Jerusalem Palestinians with security and upholding the rights of an innocent population,” Ir Amim said.
[Access Moment‘s ongoing coverage of the Hamas-Israel war here.]
The report noted that since the outbreak of war, East Jerusalem neighborhoods have been largely closed off with checkpoints and crossings shuttered, including the major checkpoints of Qalandia and Shuafat, which has left eight East Jerusalem neighborhoods closed off from the rest of the city by the Separation Barrier—effectively cutting off one-third of Jerusalem’s Palestinian population to access to schools, work and medical institutions.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has requested a reopening of these checkpoints to allow the entry of residents who hold legal status in Israel or valid entry permits.
In addition, Ir Amim said disproportionate police violence had increased against Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians have erupted in the neighborhoods, leaving nine Palestinians dead. Many others have been injured as live fire has been used to disperse protests, according to the report, such as in the Wadi Joz neighborhood when Muslim worshippers who had been denied entry to the Al Aqsa Mosque on Friday, October 13, held prayers in the streets and were “aggressively dispersed by the police with stun grenades and physical assault.”
Though rockets have fallen in Palestinian neighborhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem, public shelters are nearly nonexistent in East Jerusalem. And since directives from the Home Front Command are not issued in Arabic, there are significant barriers to understanding security instructions for some residents of East Jerusalem who speak neither Hebrew nor English.
In the Old City, however, there are bomb shelters. And across the street from the Damascus Gate—as cliche as it may sound—at the hole-in-the-wall Ikermawi Humus joint, there is warm hummus drenched in olive oil, fresh falafel, crisp pickles and onions, and soft pita.
Top Image: The village of Silwan, in East Jerusalem. Photo credit: Hagai Admon-Snir, via Wikimedia Commons.