The real roots of violence in Jerusalem

Prior to the outbreak of violence in Jerusalem last summer, some believed a new trend of 'Israelization' within Palestinian society in East Jerusalem offered a 'solution' for securing Israeli dominance in the city. But true equality carries a cost Israelis are not necessarily ready to pay.

On Jerusalem Day, it is worth asking what effective response we can offer for the violent crisis that has raged in the city for almost a year. Some observers blame ongoing discrimination against East Jerusalem residents for the rage and violence that erupts from the Palestinian population in the city. The response they propose is based on narrowing gaps and ending discrimination. This is also the solution proposed – at least declaratively, and after a wholesale “strong arm” approach – by right-wingers, who do not conceal the fact that their chief motivation is to prevent the division of the city. However, the immediate motives behind the wave of violence that began last summer were not the shortage of classrooms, dilapidated infrastructure, or even house demolitions. The tinder-box was ignited by the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the war in Gaza, and the pressure applied by the Jewish Temple Mount organizations – all factors at the heart of the wider national conflict.

The current reality in Jerusalem is unique against the background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jerusalem is the only place where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live in daily friction with Israelis and with the Israeli authorities. There is no Israeli presence in Gaza, and the same is true in Areas A and B in the West Bank (with the exception of military incursions, which can create havoc but do not occur on a daily basis). In Area C, which is under full Israeli control, there are no large Palestinian population centers capable of waging a struggle that can challenge Israel. This reality enables Israel to have its (occupation) cake and eat it, too. Jerusalem is the only place where Israel has not managed to “disengage,” and accordingly, it was predictable that it would be in Jerusalem that the illusion of the “shrapnel in the rear-end” would be shattered. (Naftali Bennett famously compared the Palestinians to shrapnel left in the body that one must simply learn to live with.)

In other words, even if it was only up to the Palestinians, there could be no solution to Jerusalem that did not involve a solution to the national conflict. In reality, of course, it will take two to stop the violent tango. I intend to devote most of this article to the Israeli partner in the dance, which under present circumstances is naturally the dominant of the two.

In order to understand the context, let’s go back two or three years. In 2012-2013, there were very few violent incidents of a national nature in Jerusalem. This period represented the peak of a process that had continued over almost an entire decade. At the same time, Palestinian residents began to be increasingly present in areas that have previously been almost exclusively Israeli, such as the shopping centers in the west of the city and the Hebrew University (including the first generation of East Jerusalem high-school graduates who chose to take the Israeli matriculation examinations rather than the Palestinian Tawjihi). And what seemed to be the most significant development of all, was the new phenomena of Palestinians moving to live in Israeli neighborhoods such as French Hill, Pisgat Zeev, and Gilo.

A Jewish settlement is seen in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, East Jerusalem, March 28, 2007. (
A Jewish settlement is seen in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, East Jerusalem, March 28, 2007. (

In Israel, there were those who rushed to offer a far-reaching interpretation of these developments: the residents of East Jerusalem had ended their opposition to Israeli rule, it was claimed, and were embarking on a process of Israelization, i.e. assimilation within Israeli society. Commentators repeatedly quoted an isolated survey in which many East Jerusalemites stated that they would prefer to remain under Israeli rule even if a Palestinian state were established – while ignoring the fact that a larger number of Palestinians did not share this position. It was repeatedly noted that an increasing number of East Jerusalemites were applying for Israeli citizenship – while concealing the fact that Israel “balances” the number of new citizens by revoking the residency status of an equal number of East Jerusalemites. It is certainly possible, and indeed vital, to challenge this interpretation. But it is far more important to understand how Israel responded to these processes.

Ostensibly, the Israeli establishment and public should have encouraged trends that, from their perspective, strengthened Israeli control of Jerusalem. In reality, this was far from the case.

‘Let them build a mosque in your neighborhood’

Two years ago, right-wing activists organized a conference on the subject of planning policy in East Jerusalem. Their goal was to show that the claims of planning discrimination and housing shortages in the Palestinian neighborhoods were spurious. Two of the speakers, Nadav Shragai and Yair Gabbai, who both represent extremely hawkish right-wing positions, attempted to claim that there is no need to develop the Palestinian neighborhoods: “If someone can’t buy an apartment in Isawiyya, let them move to French Hill.” Naturally, the flip side of the coin from their perspective was that the Jewish settlements inside the Palestinian neighborhoods are a legitimate phenomenon, and the Israelis involved are “simply” choosing where they wish to live. It was amusing to see the reaction of the right-wing audience at the conference. Residents of the seam neighborhoods responded to the invitation extended by Shragai and Gabbai to Palestinians to move into their areas by standing up and protesting loudly, interrupting the speakers as if they were the worst of bleeding heart leftists. “How would you feel if they built a mosque on your street?!” It emerged that the last thing many Israelis want is to have a Palestinian family living in their apartment block.

It would be simplistic to suggest that these objections are due solely to racism. The expectation that two populations entangled in a bloody national conflict will be willing to live alongside each other as model neighbors (let alone succeeding in doing so) is unrealistic. The above anecdote shows that even if there are Palestinians who, for their own reasons, are willing to integrate in Israeli society, many Israelis are forcefully opposed to this.

The ‘Israelization’ of East Jerusalem’s Palestinians comes at a price Israeli authorities refuse to pay.

This opposition is much more than an anecdote. As Palestinians moved into Israeli areas of Jerusalem, a rising wave of Israeli rejection could be seen. The “Israelization” that the decision makers had tried to market as the best way to solve the conflict (instead of the “foolish idea of Oslo”) was perceived by many Israeli Jerusalemites as a threat rather than a solution. The report Jewish Nationalist Violence in Jerusalem” (in Hebrew), published by Ir Amim in March 2013, described the increasing manifestations of Jewish racism in the city that appeared as a direct result of the weakening of the segregation between Israelis and Palestinians. Some of the violent incidents were spontaneous, but in many cases they were well-organized protests against the renting and sale of apartments to Arabs. Palestinians working in shopping centers in the seam neighborhoods were attacked, and activists demonstrated and incited against the joint employment of Jews and Arabs. From time to time this foment erupted into acts of serious violence, such as the serious assault of Jamal Julani by dozens of Jews in Zion Square. It is no coincidence that Aryeh King was elected to the Jerusalem city council at the peak of the period of Israelization on a platform based on the call “to judaize Jerusalem,” the campaign against the call to prayer from the mosques, and so forth. The racist Lehava organization emerged during this period: Bentzi Gopstein, Itamar Ben Gvir, Baruch Marzel and their comrades skillfully identified and co-opted this foment for their own purposes in their intense incitement campaign that began long before the summer of 2014.

So far we have focused on Israeli citizens. How did the Israeli authorities respond to these developments? The declarations by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and by Naftali Bennett (who served as Minister for Jerusalem Affairs in the previous government) left no room for doubt: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is passé, Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and it will remain under Israeli sovereignty forever. Barkat and Bennett claimed to have provided budgets and encouragement for policies intended to narrow gaps in the city. For their part, the Palestinians can sense the change and wish to remain under Israeli control, rather than subjecting themselves to the corrupt rule of the Palestinian Authority or violent chaos as in Syria.

Garbage collects near the separation wall in the Shuafat Refugee Camp inside Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, November 19, 2014. Despite being inside Jerusalem, the city does not provide municipal services like trash collection to neighborhoods beyond the concrete barrier. (
Garbage collects near the separation wall in the Shuafat Refugee Camp inside Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, November 19, 2014. Despite being inside Jerusalem, the city does not provide municipal services like trash collection to neighborhoods beyond the concrete barrier. (

An examination of the facts yields a very different picture. The budgetary gaps are still enormous (only 13 percent or so of the municipal budget is devoted to meeting the needs of the Palestinian population, which accounts for 37 percent of the population of the city). There has been no real improvement in the massive shortage of classrooms, which currently stands at 3,055. No detailed plans have been approved that could permit the development of the Palestinian neighborhoods. The proportion of East Jerusalem residents living below the poverty line has reached the incredible level of 75.3 percent.

Again, however, squabbling about statistics is liable to detract attention from something that is more amazing – and more alarming – than the Jerusalem mayor’s creative approach to the truth. In the period after the Second Intifada, a new Palestinian leadership emerged in East Jerusalem that focused on civil demands, did not engage in violent resistance, and set aside national discourse in order to demand that the de facto Israel sovereign – yes, sovereign – grant the Palestinians their basic rights. This should have been a dream come true for right-wing leaders, but in practice they responded as if it were a nightmare.

Israelization in Beit Safafa: A case study gone horribly wrong

Examples are not hard to find: The campaign by the residents of A-Tur and Isawiyya against the expansion of the Mt. Scopus Slopes National Park, which would prevent development of these neighborhoods; the campaign to save the education system, which has been waged jointly by many of the East Jerusalem neighborhoods; the impressive campaign by residents of Beit Safafa against the Begin South freeway built through their village, and so forth. The leaders of these campaigns and the methods adopted form part of the process of change in East Jerusalem that we discussed above. The Israeli establishment could have chosen to see such campaigns as an opportunity to strengthen the process of Israelization of which it is so proud. Instead, the authorities – and particularly the Municipality of Jerusalem – repeatedly adopted strong-arm tactics with the goal of crushing these civil campaigns and disempowering their leaders. For our purposes, the reaction of the Israeli authorities is important not because of its inherent injustice, but because it shows that the “Israelization” of the Palestinian population in Jerusalem would come at a price that the Israeli authorities themselves refuse to pay.

Israelis should consider what we all stand to gain from a strong, free Palestinian society in J’lem.

In order to understand this truth more fully, let’s take the example of the campaign by residents of Beit Safafa against the Begin South freeway – a six-lane highway running through the village that began to be constructed in 2012. The freeway cuts the village in half along a two-kilometer section and crosses through residential areas of the village. The project causes air and noise pollution by constructing a major ring road adjacent to residential homes. The project has effectively cut Beit Safafa into four segments that are virtually disconnected. Residents left on the “wrong side” of the road will find it difficult to reach schools, clinics, grocery stores, and their own relatives in the center of the village.

Palestinian residents of Beit Safafa protest outside the Jerusalem Municipality against the construction of a highway that would intersect their village, January 16, 2013. Politicians did not consider the residents’ demands and police suppressed their non-violent protests. (
Palestinian residents of Beit Safafa protest outside the Jerusalem Municipality against the construction of a highway that would intersect their village, January 16, 2013. Politicians did not consider the residents’ demands and police suppressed their non-violent protests. (

In addition to petitioning the court, the residents and the neighborhood administration of Beit Safafa launched an inspiring civil campaign. Over a period of many months, several demonstrations were held each week inside the village and elsewhere. The campaign united the entire community. The leaders included representatives of the older and younger generations, women and men, professionals and “ordinary” people. From an Israeli point of view there was the advantage that the campaign was completely free of nationalist slogans or Palestinian flags. Indeed, the residents chose to demonstrate outside city hall, the President’s House, and even the Knesset! The campaign effectively recognized the emblems of Israeli rule that have usually been boycotted by the Palestinian population.

As if this were not enough, the residents proposed a win-win solution. They did not demand the abolition of the freeway, but instead proposed that it run underground in a section of a few hundred meters where its damage to the neighborhood would be most severe.

A choice by Israeli leaders

This was a just and well-organized campaign, run through civil and non-violent action. The residents’ demands could have been met without abolishing the plans to construct the freeway. Moreover, the mayor of Jerusalem could have gained enormous credit from acquiescing to their demands. Nir Barkat had a chance to “prove” that he really does not discriminate between Israeli and Palestinian residents (Begin Freeway runs for many miles through the city, but does not pass inside any Israeli neighborhood; the only residential area it crosses is Beit Safafa). This would have enabled him to encourage relationships of trust between the residents and the municipality and to prove to them that a civil, non-nationalist campaign is the way to achieve victories. He would also have helped to strengthen a non-violent leadership that does not promote a nationalist agenda and could compete against the Palestinian political movements or groups that support a violent struggle.

But the mayor chose the completely opposite approach. He refused to show any flexibility. His spokespeople and members of his faction disseminated lies to the media and even accused the leaders of the campaign of being members of Hamas. The police used violence to disperse peaceful protests and arrested demonstrators with no just cause. Even the Supreme Court failed to provide justice. In the end the superior force of the Municipality of Jerusalem defeated the civil campaign. But at what price? Tremendous anger toward the Israeli authorities and a total lack of trust in them, as well as the crushing of civil leadership and community-based organization. A Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one.

“Israelization” doesn’t mean a subdued Palestinian population that bows its head meekly. The opposite is true. Integration in Israeli society – insofar as it happens among Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem – is motivated first and foremost by the need to meet the most basic interests: proper housing, decent schools and access to higher education, freedom of movement, livelihood, and an enhanced sense of security. This is a process that strengthens the Palestinian community and enables it to insist on its rights.

Crushing the leadership, undermining civil society

The consistently hostile approach taken by the Municipality of Jerusalem and the State of Israel toward civil campaigns in East Jerusalem underscores their opposition to the civil strengthening of the Palestinian community. The authorities see this process as a threat and are doing everything they can to harm it. They have no interest in the genuine integration of Palestinians in Jerusalem, for the most basic of political reasons: maintaining the power balance, perpetuating the inequality in the allocation of resources that results from these relations, and “defending” the image of Jerusalem as a Jewish city.

Crushing the civil protest in Beit Safafa was a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one.

If anyone in the Israeli establishment really imagines that this policy can be successful, we should explain to them the direct correlation between the crushing of the civil campaigns in East Jerusalem and Israel’s colossal failure to remove Jerusalem from the cycle of violence that erupted last summer and continues to this day. As the review above makes very clear, Israel has done everything possible to thwart the possibility of effective civil campaigns by East Jerusalem residents, thereby leaving them with virtually no course of action other than violence. A civil, non-nationalist leadership with relations of trust with the establishment could have worked within its community at the wake of violence to calm inflamed passions. But Israel had made sure that this leadership was a laughing stock within its own constituency. The refusal of the Municipality of Jerusalem to respond to the campaign by the parents’ committees and to address the enormous shortfall of classes, high dropout rates, and appalling general condition of the education system in East Jerusalem has also proved to be a boomerang. The outcome of this policy can now be seen in the high proportion of Palestinian youths who have been involved in the violent clashes over the past year.

Palestinian youth burn tires during clashes with Israeli police in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya, October 24, 2014. (
Palestinian youth burn tires during clashes with Israeli police in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya, October 24, 2014. (

Israel’s attitude to the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem cannot be regarded as a mistake that can easily be rectified. A different policy can emerge only on the basis of a critical examination of the basic assumptions and beliefs that shape the self-perception of the Jewish nation in Israel, and the way we perceive the Palestinian nation. The challenge involved is enormous.

Israel has turned its back on a peace agreement in part because this would require the establishment of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem (either by way of a divided city or in a unified Jerusalem including two municipalities). Having made this choice, the ongoing crisis in Jerusalem offers an opportunity to recognize that Jerusalem is a binational city. This is an opportunity to examine what we need to do in order to stop treating the Palestinian presence in the city as a threat and to start considering what benefit we can all gain from a strong, free Palestinian society in the city. The “Israelization” of Palestinians in Jerusalem is actually a complex process that challenges both national communities in the city.

Jerusalemites often take pride in claiming that Jerusalem is the source for all the good revolutions of this country – in music, politics, progressive Judaism etc. It is tempting to fantasize that also in the context of the national conflict the Jerusalem challenge will transform the whole of Israel and Palestine.

For the present, however, all we can do is wonder whether we are up to this challenge.

Aviv Tatarsky is a researcher with Ir Amim. Thanks to Yehudit Oppenheimer for her comments on the article. A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

Top photo: An Israeli soldiers is seen jumping along concrete blocks as authorities install a new section of the separation wall surrounding the Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem, December 3, 2014. (