Opinion | What Was Different about the Latest Riots in Jerusalem

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Jerusalem bird's-eye view

Three weeks ago, my family and I went to East Jerusalem and the Old City. We ate hummus at our favorite hummus hole-in-the-wall restaurant, downed some of the best knafeh in the region, and finished with great cappuccino. East Jerusalem was calm, people were friendly, and businesses were happy to see tourists and Israeli Jews. When Jerusalem is quiet, Jews feel comfortable crossing into East (Palestinian) Jerusalem and Palestinians into West (Jewish) Jerusalem, and we celebrate the city’s glorious diversity.

Two weeks ago, a Palestinian gunman shot and killed a Border Police officer at a checkpoint in the Shuafat refugee camp, which is located within the borders of municipal Jerusalem. Searching for the attacker, Israeli security forces closed off the camp, which meant that none of its approximately 60,000 residents could get in or go out for several days.  

East Jerusalem broke out in riots, as mobs, made up mostly of young men, threw Molotov cocktails, pelted Mayor Moshe Lion’s car with rocks, and clashed with police forces. A Jewish family, including a toddler and two babies, driving home on a main road that passes by the affluent Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina, was attacked by locals. The family managed to escape without injury, although the car was severely damaged. At a demonstration in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, far-right extremist MK Itamar Ben Gvir (Jewish Power party) pulled out his gun and, while waving it in the air, called on the police to use live fire and threatened to “mow down” a group of Palestinians who were clashing with the police.

It was the worst bout of unrest in months. In my neighborhood, when the wind carried the sound, we could sometimes hear the clashes. Helicopters and observation drones hovered in the air, the noise pounding into our brains. When Jerusalem is violent, we stay in our part of the city and circle our wagons.

This week, it’s quiet again. The first rain, marking the end of the scorching summer, just washed the city, and the air is fresh.

Just another violent eruption in the holy, contested, eternal city, the pundits explained. Like all the previous times, until the next time. 

But Jerusalemites know that this time was different. This time, the tone was angrier and the rioting more hateful. Unlike most previous episodes, this spate of violence was not set off by religious zeal or a military campaign in Gaza or the West Bank. And this time the rioting spread to the more upscale parts of East Jerusalem that, until now, had not participated in the violence.

These riots weren’t about religious or even nationalistic fervor. They were a desperate expression of hopelessness and rage by Jerusalemites about the situation in Jerusalem.

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Officially, the approximately 350,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem, close to 40 percent of the city’s population, are “permanent residents of the city.” This peculiar status entitles them to work and travel freely throughout Israel, to receive welfare and health benefits, and to vote in municipal elections.

But they are not citizens of Israel or any other country. They have no right to vote in national elections, and, unlike citizenship, residency status can be administratively revoked—and often is—by the Israeli authorities. 

Since taking over East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel has consistently shown that it cares about the geography and Jewish demography of Jerusalem, but not about the Palestinians who live here. In order to maintain a Jewish majority, Israel has scooped up villages that historically were never part of the city into its municipal borders, while excluding some of the residents of those neighborhoods. This has forced Palestinians to adapt to new patterns of life and identity and separated families. Massive construction of Jewish neighborhoods, and Jewish settlements within Arab neighborhoods, have encroached on their lands, their livelihoods, their freedom of movement and their right to the city.

And if Israeli officials have thought about Palestinians at all, they have thought about them as a potential security threat. Israel’s policy toward East Jerusalemites has been predicated on the idea that providing them with more services and rights than those accorded to Palestinians living in the territories would placate them and make them docile. To assert its rule over a population that does not want to be ruled, Israeli authorities have adopted a “carrot-and-stick” approach, hoping that social benefits will compensate Palestinians for lack of full civil rights and will dull their political aspirations. And when they don’t, Israel firmly, often violently, suppresses any signs of Palestinian national or even cultural identity.

But it is short-sighted and foolish to suppose that the Palestinians will have no response to being cut off from their holy sites, sources of income, families and identity as Jerusalemites, Palestinians and Arabs. The carrot of better financial conditions does not soften the stick of the disenfranchisement from their rights to their city.

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Although Israeli officials regularly and passionately declare that Jerusalem is Israel’s undivided and indivisible capital, in reality, the city is deeply divided between East and West. In practice, East Jerusalem receives few public services and even fewer building permits for its growing population. West Jerusalem is a jumble of ancient architecture and modern sophistication; East Jerusalem is a jumble of urban neglect. Streets in many of the neighborhoods are unpaved, and infrastructure, including electricity and sewage, is nonfunctional. There is a drastic shortage of classrooms and other educational facilities, and there are almost no playgrounds, sports fields or other public facilities.

According to data provided by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, 72 percent of all Palestinian families in Jerusalem live below the poverty line (more than double the rate among Jewish families). Some 32 percent of Palestinian students in Jerusalem do not complete 12 years of schooling. 

To be sure, over the past five years, there have been attempts to improve the situation. In May 2018, the Israeli government called for economic and social investments in East Jerusalem on a significant scale, potentially as much as 2.1 billion shekels over five years. The decision includes six key areas of activity: education and higher education; economy and employment; transportation; improving civic services and quality of life (leisure infrastructures and water and sewage infrastructures); health; and land registration.  

The budget appears to be adequate and the implementation seems to be efficient, but it will take more than this to close the gaps created over five decades of Israeli control over East Jerusalem. And as generous as this carrot is, it is, in actuality, merely a recognition of what the Palestinians are entitled to as tax-paying residents of the city. Furthermore, it offers no political solution and does not address any of the no-less-crucial questions of human rights and national belonging. And to those young men who rioted earlier this month, who have grown up and continue to live under Israeli neglect, it can only be seen as a somewhat improved but ultimately unsatisfactory version of the depressingly hopeless status quo.  

On November 1, Israelis will vote for their government. Despite the violence, neither Jerusalem nor Palestine, and certainly not Palestinian Jerusalemites, are on the campaign agenda. And even if they were, as mere “residents,” Palestinian East Jerusalemites would not be able to vote for the Knesset that will have the power to make the decisions that will deeply affect their lives.

We call Jerusalem our eternal city. But eternity has little meaning when so many of the people who live here have no hope for their future.

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