It Will Always Be about Jerusalem

By Joharah Baker

“To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Sir Isaac Newton postulated his law of motion eons ago and today, it still rings true, not only in the laws of physics but right here in the streets of Jerusalem.

No doubt, certain modifications come into play when the matter at hand is not pure unadulterated physics. But nonetheless, the law is there, glaringly evident of an undeniable force of nature that proves true no matter how much it is denied.

A 49-year old rabbi was stabbed and lightly wounded on March 18 inside Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, apparently by a Palestinian man who later fled the scene. The rabbi, on his way to a seminary inside the walled city, was accompanied by an armed bodyguard at the time of the attack.

The stabbing comes less than two weeks after eight right-wing Israelis were gunned down by another Palestinian in a west Jerusalem seminary.

While violence cannot and should not be condoned in and of itself, it is obvious that Newton’s law of motion is working overtime in this city. In other words, it is no coincidence that Palestinian attacks have increased in Jerusalem in this past month after a relative hiatus over the last few years. Before the yeshiva shooting on March 6, no major Palestinian operation against Israeli targets had taken place in the city since 2004.

For one, Palestinians are not divided, as much as Israel would like this. It has tried for decades, and has largely succeeded, in creating a reality on the ground where the people are physically unable to unite. Still, when hundreds of Palestinians are killed in Gaza including men, women, children and even babies, Palestinians everywhere – Jerusalem not excluded – are affected.

This is not to say that the “action and reaction” theory is literal and completely concise. Not every Israeli action is met with an equal and opposite Palestinian reaction, most obviously because the Palestinians hardly have the military means to match Israel’s might. However, actions, and reactions for that matter are manifested in a myriad of ways, shootings and stabbings only being the most ocular and emotionally charged.

So, why are the Palestinians seemingly refocusing their resistance efforts in Jerusalem? One obvious reason is Israel’s adamant refusal to heed both international law and its own commitments to halt settlement construction and expansion, particularly in and around Jerusalem. On March 17, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reiterated that he would continue to expand east Jerusalem settlements, regardless of any international criticism. Olmert was referring to the Har Homa settlement, north of Bethlehem and which is built on Palestinian land from Beit Sahhur, Bethlehem, Sur Baher and Um Tuba. With Israel’s unilateral and therefore illegal annexation of east Jerusalem in 1967, the Abu Ghneim Mountain on which the settlement now lies was included in the newly designated Jerusalem borders.

Olmert’s statement came during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and was perhaps emboldened by the German stateswoman’s “holier than thou” attitude in terms of her country’s support for Israel.

"Everyone knows that there is no chance that the State of Israel will give up a neighborhood like … Har Homa. It is an inseparable part of Jerusalem," Olmert said.

Jewish settlements notwithstanding, Palestinians are also facing other threats in Jerusalem, including a growing radicalization within Israeli society towards them. Following the eight deaths at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, right-wing Israeli groups gathered in Jerusalem and stormed the Jabal Al Mukkaber neighborhood, home to the late ‘Ala Abu Dheim, the Palestinian who carried out the operation. The angry Israelis planned on demolishing the family’s home but were foiled by Israeli police. The mob did, however, manage to cause damage to several homes and cars in the neighborhood before being dispersed.

This seething hatred towards Palestinians was also evident immediately after the attack when right-wing Israelis gathered outside the scene of the attack chanting “Death to the Arabs.” Jerusalem and the settlements around it are home to some of Israel’s most ideologically driven and radical Jews who believe living in the city is essential to solidify a constant Jewish presence in the face of the “Arab” demographic threat.

In December, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel noted in their annual report that the number of Jews expressing hatred towards Arabs has doubled from previous years, adding that 55 percent of Jewish respondents said the government should “encourage Arab emigration.”

This hostility is literally seen on the streets of Jerusalem, both east and west. In the western sector, Israeli police and border guards patrol the streets, randomly stopping young men and demanding their ID cards. Armed security guards patrol the entrances to restaurants and shopping malls while soldiers and settlers walk the streets freely with automatic machine guns slung casually across their shoulders.

In the eastern Palestinian sector of the city, the occupied/occupier mentality is even more palpable. The tiny offspring of ultra-orthodox Jews walk hand in hand through the Muslim quarter of the Old City, flanked by two hulky and belligerent looking security guards, their fingers provocatively on the trigger of their semi-automatic guns, their eyes riveting back and forth to the dozens of Palestinians walking beside them, all of whom are considered “potential threats.”

Radical settlers also choose the Old City as a frequent venue for “celebrations”. Groups of young and zealous Jewish settlers, many armed, march confidently through the streets, banging on Palestinian shop doors and homes, waving oversized Israeli flags and chanting loudly in Hebrew. Of course, the heavily armed police and security guards are always on hand, ready to crack down on anyone who even contemplates “crashing the party.”

So, Jerusalem, more than any other area of Palestine, has and continues to be fertile ground for these “actions and reactions.” Both sides claim the city as their capital and both have significant religious ties to it. The difference, however, is that Jews have unfettered access to all sectors of Jerusalem whereas the majority of Palestinians are denied entry to it. The constant tug of war over Jerusalem both at the leadership and the grassroots level has created a dangerous dynamic where Jerusalem has become the microcosmic embodiment of the conflict as a whole. To win Jerusalem would ultimately mean to win the conflict. When Israel strikes Gaza, it is striking Jerusalem, the quintessence of all Palestinian struggles. It is not by chance that military wings include Jerusalem in their names. The Islamic Jihad’s military wing is “Al Quds [Jerusalem] Brigades” and Fateh has chosen “The Aqsa Martyrs Brigades” [The Aqsa being in the heart of Jerusalem] as their military wing.

Of course, there is no solid proof that operations such as the stabbing of the rabbi was in direct response to the expansion of Jewish settlements or the bloodshed in Gaza. However, it is also inconceivable that Israeli actions such as these would pass without reaction, especially since they symbolize a greater policy of expansion and colonization embraced by Israel since its creation. The fact that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is existential in nature rather than economic or even colonial, means both sides are propelled by deep-rooted convictions that are not easily shaken.

And for the Palestinians, Jerusalem has and always will be at the heart.

-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (This article was published by Miftah.org, March 19, 2008)

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