Israel’s reign of terror in Jerusalem

October 28, 2015

Sarah Levy explains the factors that gave rise to a new round of violence centered in Jerusalem--with Palestinians facing the overwhelming brunt of the suffering.

"LET THE people of Israel enter the gates and kill Arabs."

This is one of the chants that became popular in Jerusalem as anti-Arab lynch mobs, backed up by Israeli soldiers and security forces, swept through the city, terrorizing the Palestinian population.

On October 3, hundreds of Israeli Jews, mostly youth, gathered for a revenge demonstration in Jerusalem's central Zion Square shortly after a Palestinian fatally stabbed two Jews earlier that night. According to reports, marchers shouted "Death to Arabs!" and "Burn them in their villages!" One woman addressed the Israeli police: "Where were you at seven in the evening? Go beat up Arabs."

While extremist mobs like these certainly haven't disappeared since the racist frenzies during last year's summer assault on Gaza, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that this demonstration, and others like it that followed, stood out for the way it was "accepted by Jerusalemites with understanding, if not downright approval."

The trigger for the latest wave of anti-Arab hysteria was what the media has taken to calling the "knife Intifada" or "child terrorism." In the month of October, eight Israelis were killed by individual Palestinian attackers, most of whom wielded knives or screwdrivers, or used vehicles. In nearly every instance, whether the assault was lethal or not, the attacker was shot within seconds by Israeli police, security guards or soldiers--ensuring that the attacks were, in reality, of a suicidal nature.

Israeli soldiers surround the body of the Palestinian man they shot
Israeli soldiers surround the body of the Palestinian man they shot

This has led Israel to increase the number of police in Jerusalem by a factor of five, according to residents. After drafting all of its border police into service, the government is now using military forces to "secure" buses in the city, as took place during the second Intifada in the early 2000s. Gun sales in Israel have skyrocketed since Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat publicly encouraged Israelis to carry weapons in order to counter attacks.

But notable besides the commonplace weapons used by many of the Palestinian attackers was their ages. Out of five Palestinians who used knives in four separate incidents on October 12, three of the assailants were under the age of 18.

As Orly Noy of 972Mag wrote: "Kids and teens are assuming entirely age-inappropriate roles, and they are also being treated accordingly: In a video clip of the aftermath of the stabbing, 13-year-old Ahmed Manasra is seen shot, lying on the ground, and the crowd gathered around him is yelling at the security forces to kill him, a 13-year-old boy lying in a pool of his own blood."

These details about Palestinian attackers predominate in U.S. media coverage of the violence in Jerusalem--but that leaves out the larger part of the story: For every Israeli killed in October, at least eight Palestinians were murdered, either by the Israel Defense Forces or Jewish settlers.

And that's not to mention the thousands of Palestinians injured by live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets or tear gas inhalation during protests and clashes that have been increasing in frequency and intensity from Jerusalem to Hebron to Bethlehem to Nablus to Gaza.

MANY NEWS outlets have jumped on this opportunity to depict Palestinians as bloodthirsty anti-Semites, armed and dangerous--for example, a despicable Atlantic article titled "The Paranoid, Supremacist Roots of the Stabbing Intifada."

A less fanatically pro-Zionist media might ask another question: What would drive a young person to commit what amounts to a murder-suicide to claim an Israeli life?

According to most Palestinians, at the heart of the recent violence is the struggle over the Haram al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem's Old City, which contains the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and is one of the holiest sites of Islam.

In 1967, Israel promised that it wouldn't change the status quo around al-Aqsa and would allow only Muslims to pray at the site. But over the last 30 years, extremist Jewish groups have organized to demand access to this area that Jews call the "Temple Mount" and consider to be the holiest site of Judaism.

While orthodox Jewish doctrine believes that the Temple Mount is not to be accessed or built until the Messiah comes, a growing wing of religious extremists is pushing for a change of the status quo that would equalize the praying rights of Muslims to the praying rights of Jews, who are currently forbidden by Israeli police to worship at the site and are only allowed to visit several hours a day. A segment of this movement has voiced its desire for the destruction of al-Aqsa and its replacement with a newly constructed Jewish Third Temple.

While this movement may seem crackpot and marginal, history shows that Muslims may have good reason for concern. Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque also went through a transfer of access from Muslims, to Muslims and Jews, to ultimately Jews-only after an American-born settler massacred 29 Palestinian Muslims during dawn prayers two decades ago--Israel capitalized on the crisis to bar Muslims from the site.

Palestinian concerns have also been fueled by large archaeological excavations Israel has been conducting in the area around al-Aqsa, another method that has been used in the past to force Palestinians off desirable land.

In recent years, growing numbers of Jewish groups have been visiting the Haram al-Sharif compound, leading to constant frictions as Muslims are often barred to make way for Jewish visitors. On many days, Muslim women have entirely banned from the site, along with men under the age of 50.

Tensions boiled over following the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah in early October, when a particularly large group of Jewish visitors was granted access while Muslims were barred, sparking clashes that went on for weeks. Since then, supposedly in response to the rioting, Israeli police have stepped up the arbitrary barring of Muslim men, as well as some women's groups.

Hence, Palestinians across the country see al-Aqsa as one center of the current struggle. Marches in Gaza have been organized in solidarity with the "Jerusalem uprising" in defense of Al-Aqsa. As Abed al-Karim Lafi, who served for years as the head of a parents' council in eastern Jerusalem, told Orly Noy:

Over the past two months I have been summoned for interrogation twice [by the Israeli authorities]...They told me, "Abed, Jerusalem is moving toward an Intifada, a war," and then wanted me to help them calm the tensions. I told them, "You can calm the tensions. This whole mess started when you let Jews enter al-Aqsa Mosque. Al-Aqsa is religion, not politics. And when a person feels that his religion is under threat, no one in the world can predict what he or she will do." I can calm down my son, but who am I to say anything when some crazy woman shouts "Muhammad is a pig" inside the mosque.

ADDING TO the tensions about al-Aqsa specifically is the general context of the Israeli occupation.

After the 1967 war, Israel annexed the eastern part of Jerusalem, including the Old City, as well as more than 20 villages and towns surrounding it. As Noam Sheizaf explained in 972Mag, what is referred to in the Israeli media as "East Jerusalem" is actually 10 times larger than the eastern part of the city that was under Jordanian rule before 1967. More than 300,000 people live in this area, including more than 50,000 refugees in the Shuafat refugee camp.

Although these Jerusalemite Palestinians are granted blue Israeli ID cards, they aren't legally citizens. They are instead classified as "permanent residents," a status which has few rights and can also be revoked. Essentially, the Israeli government has been able to take the land, but not have to care about the people living on it.

Thus, these Palestinians live in a kind of limbo state, neglected by the Israeli government and not under the control of the Palestinian Authority, with basic infrastructure such as schools, roads, trash disposal and hospitals sorely lacking.

Palestinians living in eastern Jerusalem also have a hard time acquiring building permits. When they are refused, they are forced to choose between terrible options: build illegally and risk their structures being demolished at some point; move out of the city and risk losing access to their family and homes; or squeeze dozens of people into small dwellings.

In countless cases, Jewish settlers have simply broken into Palestinian homes and forcibly taken them over--something that Israeli courts rarely challenge. And all the while, illegal Jewish settlements continue to expand.

Compounding the tensions, the Israeli government regularly cracks down on residents of eastern Jerusalem as a form of collective punishment--both in response to particular events, and generally as a way to make life miserable enough that Palestinians will choose to abandon their land and their homes. Children are regularly arrested in night raids under the often-baseless charge of "throwing stones."

Abed al-Karim Lafi described for Noy the impact of all this on children growing up in the area:

Many Jews prefer to either forget or deny the fact that Palestinian children have been living in a war that has, in fact, always affected them. Tell me what other country arrests a 5-year-old child. Even if he had a stone. Even then. Five years old! They have no shame...

As a rule, Palestinian children don't really interest the Israeli public. They don't interest Israelis when the authorities fail to provide them with thousands of classrooms. They aren't of interest when security forces detain them long before they've reached the age of criminal culpability. They aren't of any interest when police spray their schools with putrid "skunk" water as an act of unabashed collective punishment. And they're not of any interest when they are shot and killed by police. They are of interest only when they have a knife in their hand, and try to kill somebody.

AMID THIS heightened atmosphere, there have been Palestinian protests throughout the West Bank and in Gaza, which have been met with intensified military brutality and settler violence.

On October 6, 13-year-old Abdulrahman Shadi Obeidallah was shot on his way home from school to the Aida refugee camp--he was still wearing his school uniform and backpack. The murder of such a young boy--who witnesses said was not participating, but merely watching neighborhood clashes as he headed home--provoked even greater anger.

Several stabbings or attempted stabbings by Palestinians in the coming days were met with intensified Israeli violence.

On October 9, an Israeli teenager stabbed three Palestinian men and a Bedouin Arab in the southern Israeli city of Dimona. The next day, Israeli settlers carried out a series of attacks across the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, spraying houses with tear gas and attacking women as they walked home. That same day, at a demonstration in Gaza along the border in support of Palestinian protests in Jerusalem, the Israeli military opened fire, killing six and wounding many dozens more.

Another major factor contributing to the escalating tensions and violence is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reinstatement of a policy of punitive house demolitions and residency revocations against the families of Palestinian attackers and suspects.

For example, on October 6, Israeli forces blew up two homes in East Jerusalem and sealed a third "as collective punishment for attacks perpetrated by relatives of the people living in the three homes," according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. The blasts destroyed two adjacent apartments that were home to 11 people, including seven children.

Demolition orders have been fast-tracked by the Israeli government, which is giving families only 72 hours to appeal the order or leave their home. And naturally, collective punishment is reserved exclusively for the family members of Palestinians--it has never been used against Jews.

These punishments come on top of the fact that many Palestinian families believe their loved ones were murdered in cold blood. "There are varying levels of nuance," 972Mag reported, but the general narrative is that Israelis and Israeli security forces are executing Palestinians on the streets and then inventing stories of stabbings or attempted stabbings in order to justify the deadly shootings."

In addition to punishment directed specifically at the families of suspects, entire neighborhoods in Jerusalem are being cut off with the location of additional roadblocks and checkpoints. As of October 21, Israel had added 35 checkpoints and closures throughout eastern Jerusalem, positioned at entry points to Palestinian communities.

So Palestinians' already limited mobility has been further restricted, with inevitable consequences. In mid-October, a 65-year-old Palestinian woman died when she was delayed at a checkpoint on the way to a hospital--a trip that should have taken six minutes ended up taking 45 minutes.

As Munia Khasem told Middle East Eye, as she watched police cranes lower cement blocks onto a road in the Old City: "Do you think this will stop violence? They are calling for violence. They are coming to tell us this is not our city. They are occupying us, we are not occupying them."

IN THE face of all this repression, Palestinian protests, including regular clashes with Israeli police and soldiers, continue. This has led many people, including supporters of the Palestinian struggle, to call the latest cycle of violence and demonstrations a new Intifada, following on the previous two in the late 1980s and early 2000s respectively.

In an article for the Nation titled "Is this the third Intifada?" Norman Finkelstein, Mouin Rabbani and Jamie Stern-Weiner acknowledge that there are some similar elements--but also critical differences, including the absence of an authoritative Palestinian political leadership. They write:

The first Intifada benefited from the fact that the official leadership was far away in Tunis, while the grassroots structures of the PLO (unions, political movements) were in place and functional, quickly coalescing to form the institutional backbone of the uprising: the Unified National Command of the Uprising.

This body could help organize mass strikes and boycotts of Israeli products that were essential in both affecting the Israeli economy and gaining international attention for mass nonviolent actions by Palestinians.

As Finkelstein, Rabbani and Stern point out, "The situation is now effectively reversed: the official leadership is deeply entrenched inside the West Bank, and is not merely sclerotic and corrupt, but actively collaborating with Israel in the form of an efficient security apparatus."

The erosion of respect among Palestinians for the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership has been years in the making, as it proved incapable of addressing the structural violence of the Israeli occupation and instead turned to collaboration. This dynamic is at play in the current crisis. As Samah Sabawi wrote for al-Shabaka:

Israel has made it clear they expect the Palestinian security forces to work with the Israeli military to crush the protests, and so far, Mahmoud Abbas' PA has mostly complied. The de facto Hamas government in Gaza has also made it clear that it prefers not to be drawn into the rebellion. Its political bureau deputy chief, Musa Abu Marzouk, spoke firmly against firing rockets into Israel as this would "transfer the campaign to a different front, and will snuff out the popular Intifada."

This is one reason why it is difficult to talk about a Palestinian national movement today in practical terms. Besides being politically divided, Palestinians have been territorially isolated from each other, so that physical interaction between Palestinians from the West Bank, Jerusalem and inside Israel is extremely difficult--not to mention the open-air prison that is Gaza.

GIVEN THIS political landscape, the lone knife attacks are an understandable response--and in many ways, an inevitable one. The individual character is a function of a lack of organization, as is the nature of the primitive weapons used--knives, vehicles or whatever is available.

Illustrating this character of the uprisings is a Facebook post left by Baha Allyan, a 22-year-old who was involved in a lethal bus attack in Armon Hanetziv on October 13. In the post, he wrote, "I ask that the political parties do not claim responsibility for my attack. My death was for my nation and not for you."

On the one hand, the nature of this uprising presents a challenge to Israel. It is impossible to prevent random, uncoordinated attacks--and while they can't really affect the status quo, they are causing fear among Israeli citizens. In the last week, that amped-up atmosphere led to a soldier firing his rifle in a packed train after a false "terror" alarm.

On the other hand, however, the government is not as worried as the population. According to Haaretz's defense correspondent, as of October 17, the Israeli army still did "not see the need" for special measures.

Another issue is that the longer this phase of the conflict continues, the more it helps reinforce the Israeli narrative that its citizens are in constant danger amid a world of anti-Semites out to get weak, little Israel. As Finkelstein, Rabbani and Stern write:

Whereas the iconic image of the first Intifada was the stone versus the Uzi, a juxtaposition that inspired sympathy with and admiration for the Palestinians, the iconic image of the present uprising risks becoming CCTV footage of an Israeli civilian being stabbed in the street and his assailant summarily executed. This has little prospect of generating similarly widespread, unambiguous international public sympathy.

It is notable that the major Israeli assaults on Gaza (Cast Lead, Protective Edge) evoked a much harsher international reaction than has Israeli repression in the wake of the stabbings. The Middle East Quartet (the UN, the EU, the United States and Russia) recently acquiesced in Netanyahu's request to call off a planned visit, effectively granting Israel a blank check in its dealings with the Palestinians; while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has publicly affirmed--as if its survival hangs in the balance--Israel's "right to defend its existence."

As these writers conclude, "It's a serious question whether the infrastructure required to sustain the revolt can develop before it is crushed."

The outcomes of other revolts in the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 Arab Spring have shown that the question of organization is essential. From Egypt to Syria to Bahrain and beyond, popular rebellions--some with the strength to overthrow a dictator--were ultimately laid open to being mowed down by the entrenched powers of the old state.

No one should sugarcoat the grim conditions and negative balance of power that has given rise to the latest round of violence and protests. But at the same time, supporters of Palestine must rely on the advances made by the solidarity movement--particularly through the international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign--to mobilize opposition to Israel's terror and support for the Palestinian resistance.

Further Reading

From the archives