I returned home on 3 October 2015 after a one week visit to New York to attend our annual meetings at Catholic NearEast Welfare Association (CNEWA), only to find a Jerusalem that was completely different than the one I left a week earlier. Upon returning, it took me close to two hours to arrive to my home in the Old City of Jerusalem, though it was a Saturday and traffic is usually very light. I found out later that the deadly stabbing of two Jewish people inside Damascus Gate coincided with my landing at the airport. We all thought this was an isolated incident and the situation will quiet down and remain under control. Little did I know then! Is this the beginning of a new Intifada? I guess at this point, it would be anyone’s guess, and there are no experts in this particular field. We were caught off guard in 1987 with the first Intifada, and again in 2000 with the second Intifada, and also with the successive wars on the Gaza Strip, the last of which ended in August, 2014. Who would have thought then that it would last for 51 days? And what about the incidents when we thought that an all-out Intifada just started, and again we were all proven wrong.I remember in early July 2014, when the 16 year-old Palestinian boy Mohammad Abu Khdeir was kidnapped from his East Jerusalem neighborhood by Jewish extremists and later burned to death-we all thought this brutal action would spark an Intifada. For a full month there after, we slept on the sound of gunshots and helicopters flying overhead as every neighborhood in East Jerusalem demonstrated every night against the occupation. However, it all stopped about a month later and life went back to the usual ‘Status quo’.However, the occupation continued,and Palestinians continued to be humiliated and subjected to all the injustices that come with it.
One needs to mention that what is moving the masses today is the underlying threat to the Al-Aqsa Mosque – a mosque revered in Islam as the third holiest place on earth for 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. More importantly, the brutal force used by the Israeli police against women, the elderly and youth who keep watch inside the mosque, and the repeated police raids on the entire compound has lead to arrests, beating and even tear gas fired around and inside the mosque, which is certainly not helping to calm the situation. There seems to belittle respect to the compound as a Holy site. The Palestinian perception today is that Israel is trying to change the ‘status quo’ and move in a direction to limit access for Muslims and allow more access for Jews. Even though the Israeli Prime Minister has repeatedly assured everyone that Israel will continue to honor the ‘status quo’, actions on the ground appear to be quite different. Allowing Jewish extremists to enter the compound and the mosque on a daily basis under heavy police guard while attempting to limit the hours when Muslims can enter the compound, are very provocative. Various statements by other Israeli politicians and right wing settler leaders indicate their intentions to demolish the entire site and build a temple in its place which has certainly inflamed this delicate situation.
Since the 3rd of October, and according to various press reports and government sources, over 30 Palestinians have been killed and some 1,900 injured while on the Israeli side, 6 killed and some 70 injured. Those Israelis killed were attacked by Palestinian youth who were acting on their own, outraged by the occupation and inspired to defend Al-Aqsa. On the Palestinian side, only a small number of those killed were actually directly attacking Israelis; however, a worrying majority of those killed were actually innocent bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The remaining were active participants in demonstrations in various parts of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.
New Israeli Policies and Directives
What has increased the number of civilian casualties on the Palestinian side are the government’s’new directives’ which grant the army, police and even ordinary citizens who have gun licenses, to “shoot and kill” any Palestinian who acts suspicious. Thus a number of killings seem to fit under the category of “extra-judicial executions” where there was no evidence of any risk to Israelis and yet Palestinians were still killed by trigger happy Israelis who were following these clear instructions from the political level. The footage of some of these incidents circulated on local networks as well as Facebook would make any normal human being sick to his stomach. One video of the 13 year-old Palestinian boy who was hit and ran over by a settler car and left bleeding on the tram tracks in the Israeli settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, showed police at the scene, continuously kicking him and stepping on him while Israeli passersby’s were cursing at him in Arabic and demanding that he be shot in the head immediately and even paramedics who were also at the scene stood idle and letting him bleed, lending many to believe that true humanity was certainly lost on the streets of Jerusalem. These scenes inflamed the masses and has inspired others to “resist” and act alone to regain lost dignity!
What is exasperating the situation are the new policies and directives of this right-wing Israeli government – the most right wing in the history of the State of Israel. In response to yesterday’s incident when 3 Israelis were killed, the Israeli government decided to adopt a series of measures in East Jerusalem- a ‘collective punishment” since they are intended to humiliate the population rather than bring security. Some of these measures included sealing off and imposing a curfew on Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhoods if needed – already which have been implemented overnight on the Mount of Olives, Sur Baher, Jabal al Mukabber, with others on the way including Shuafat and Beit Hanina to the north. The withdrawal of residency status of any individual involved in attacks (whether proven or not) and their family members; confiscat in gall of the family’s properties and assets, demolishing their family’s homes and confiscating the land and deeming it government property.
Furthermore, the government granted the right for ordinary Jewish Israeli citizens with gun licenses to carry arms (not to mention that all Israeli Jews are required by law to serve in the military). The incitement of the current government is unprecedented, creating a culture of hate and racism against anything Palestinian. The heavy handedness is intended to solidify Israel’s position that the country is for Jews only and is certainly a clear message to the Palestinians that they have to be ‘content’ to live as second class citizens with no rights. Additionally, thousands of border police reserves and army battalions are being called in to restore order, especially in East Jerusalem, in order to give a sense of security to the Jewish population. The official Israeli policy now appears to humiliate, demonize, kill, burn, demolish, confiscate and do whatever it takes, to restore order. Questions can be asked later, thus giving total impunity to the military and police, and even regular citizens who are now allowed take law into their own hands.
And what about the Palestinian position?
The Palestinian leadership finds itself in a very difficult position indeed. President Abbas has been very clear that he and his leading Fatah party wish to see the current cycle stop immediately, do not wish to see a third Intifada and has repeatedly made very unpopular statements to the Palestinians to stop any violent activity directed against the Israelis. Additionally, the Hamas leadership has repeatedly declared that they are not interested in any escalation with Israel which was articulated by written directives in Gaza who even declared a 500 meter zone closed military area on the border with Israel. Thus, the Palestinian leadership’s position is against any escalation at this time. However, the question is whether they will be able to control the angry population and ifso, at what price?
The sad reality for young people today
The current developments have created a situation that is very scary for the Palestinian population at large, especially for Palestinian children and youth. Parents worry about their children going to school for fear of being “executed” if they simply look or act suspicious. For a Jewish settler to shout “there is a terrorist here who tried to attack me” is sufficient to get a Palestinian youth killed – not subdued – even if they have done nothing! Instructions are being given to school children on how to behave if approached by fanatic settlers whose new motto is “Death to Arabs”; or approached by jittery police officers who suspect that these students may have a knife in their pocket or in their school bag. “Keep your hands out of your pockets and do not run away from any scene even if you are frightened or attacked” were my own instructions to my 14 year-old son as he was heading to school last Monday! I feel sorry for yet another generation of Palestinians whose childhood is being lost as they face pure hatred, racism and polarization. In this regard,all Palestinian schools in Jerusalem have been shut down since early this week as a precautionary measure, and it is expected that they will return to classes by Saturday.Today’s generation of Palestinian youth,unlike their predecessors, have greater access to main stream technology and social media which is brimming with terrible images and videos that stereotype like never before, painting an evil picture of the people across the divide.
Where do we go from here?
As I mentioned before, it is not possible to predict when or how this cycle of violence will end. One needs to continue to focus on the larger picture; the Palestine issue which began 67 years ago and the occupation that began 48 years ago; ending the occupation of over 4.5 million Palestinians against their will and coming to a just solution. Pressure should be exerted by the international community to end the occupation as nothing short of free dom for the Palestinians will end the vicious cycles of conflict. Even though the reasons change every time violence erupts, the common denominator – the occupation, remains the same. Unless the root cause is dealt with and resolved, then this will go down in history as part of another cycle that will eventually end, but will be followed by more cycles in the future that will be more deadly, and more vicious!
On a more practical note, one needs to highlight the continued important work carried out by Christian institutions working in education, health, and social services that continue to provide safe havens and quality services with the Christian values at heart. If there is an added value of our Christian institutions, it is during times like these -of crisis, killing, hopelessness, and despair. The message of peace, respect, tolerance, forgiveness, and acceptance continues to filter through, hoping that this will make a positive contribution in the societies where PMP operates. The poor and the weak become more desperate during times of crisis and this is when we need to intensify our efforts to ensure that faith and hope are not lost. Please continue to keep us in your prayers.
By: Sami Al- Yousef, PMP Regional Director