The weeks of hostilities in the Gaza Strip this summer drew attention away from other worrying events taking place in Jerusalem. Since the brutal killing of a Palestinian boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, on July 2 by young Israelis (ostensibly in revenge for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers weeks before), demonstrations, riots, stone-throwing and taunting have become all too routine in and around East Jerusalem. The focal points of this violence are the Temple Mount compound and sites of Jewish settlement within East Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods, such as Ma’ale Hazeitim in Ras el-Amud and Nof Zion near Jabal Mukaber. In July alone there were 360 reported acts of violence near areas of Jewish settlement, double the number from July 2013. August was no better, with an East Jerusalem bulldozer driver overturning a bus and running over an ultra-orthodox man in the city center, a drive-by shooting of a soldier waiting for a bus near the Mount Scopus tunnel, and, when an Arab youth in the Shu'afat refugee camp was suspected of shooting toward the adjacent Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood, he too was shot by police and later died of his wounds. In those two months, there were 152 acts of "politically motivated violence," over 700 people were arrested, many of them minors, and 107 police officers were injured.
These events again underscore the complex, explosive reality that exists in East Jerusalem and the tense relationship between the city’s Jews and Arabs. JIIS researchers Dr. Amnon Ramon and Lior Lehrs examined these events, seeking to understand the background, circumstances and conditions that led to them. They say that a distinction should be made "between the explosive context and the basic elements that fuel it over time, on the one hand, and circumstantial, variable factors that fan the flames and spark occasional outbursts, on the other." They have drafted a report on the matter, to be published shortly, that includes recommendations for de-escalating the tension immediately and in the longer term.
Ramon and Lehrs outline a number of basic factors and deep undercurrents that combine to shape the volatile reality in East Jerusalem:
1. National struggle: In historical, national, cultural, and social terms, the Arab residents of East Jerusalem are part of the Palestinian society of the West Bank, and they see themselves as committed to Palestinian national aspirations. Events that take place in the arena of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly spill over into East Jerusalem as well. It is a space that cannot be isolated.
2. Continuing state of uncertainty: Since 1967 the residents of East Jerusalem have lived under conditions of uncertainty regarding their future and their fate, with no actual citizenship for most. The construction of the separation fence between East Jerusalem and the West Bank further underscored the distinction between them and the rest of their people, and the question of their future.
3. A weak, divided society without a central leadership, which is undergoing a process of change: Since 1967, East Jerusalem’s populace has shifted quite rapidly from having a traditional, patriarchal character into a modern society. East Jerusalem suffers from a lack of central leadership, while experiencing a rising trend of radical Muslim influence in the face of the weakness of the Palestinian Authority, which is precluded from operating in East Jerusalem. The local social and cultural institutions are substantively weak, which impedes efforts to strengthen civic activity.
4. Economic situation: 77% of families and 83% of children in the Arab population of East Jerusalem live below the poverty line. All the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem fall in the bottom quartile of socioeconomic indicators outlined in the databases of JIIS and the Central Bureau of Statistics.
5. Social gaps and oppression: East Jerusalem has experienced extensive, ongoing, and cumulative neglect in terms of municipal and government services in a range of social services and physical infrastructures. Notable examples include a substantial shortage of classrooms, overburdening of the welfare offices, a road system in extreme disrepair, lack of a proper public transportation system, many areas without a sewage system, a dearth of public parks, no enforcement in matters of law and order, and more.
6. Housing, planning, and construction: Since 1967 there have been almost no large-scale public housing construction projects for East Jerusalem Arabs. Public housing construction in East Jerusalem during these years has produced a few hundred housing units, as compared with thousands of housing units built for the Jewish population in East Jerusalem. Residential overcrowding in Arab neighborhoods is, on average, immeasurably higher than in Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods. The lack of land regulations and detailed plans make it very difficult to receive building permits or land allocations for the construction of public institutions or creation of public parks.
7. Separation fence: The separation fence disconnected East Jerusalem from its natural extension into the West Bank, severing family, social, economic, and cultural ties. The fence dealt a harsh blow to East Jerusalem’s economy. It removed certain areas (the Shu’afat refugee camp and its surroundings, as well as the village of Kufr Aqab) that had been situated within the municipal borders and shifted them to the “Palestinian side” of the fence, thereby creating “no man’s lands” without government or law, which are difficult for the Municipality of Jerusalem to service. The fence also resulted in residents from the suburbs moving to the city, thus further exacerbating overcrowding in East Jerusalem.
8. Complex legal status: Since 1967 East Jerusalem Arabs have had the status of “permanent residents” rather than citizens. This status grants them social rights and freedom of movement, but they do not carry an Israeli passport and cannot vote during Knesset elections. To complicate matters, this status can be revoked during long stays abroad, settlement in another state, or even relocation to suburbs beyond the municipal borders. In the past 20 years, some 14,000 East Jerusalem residents have had their residency revoked – a fact that further contributes to the residents’ sense of uncertainty and insecurity.
"Against this background, we have identified a number of variables that contribute to violent outbursts," the researchers say:
1. Violence within the city: Acts of violence by Jews against Arabs and vice versa naturally lead to escalation. The main catalyst for the recent troubles was the murder of the boy Muhammad Abu Khdeir in Shu’afat; the beatings to which Abu Khdeir’s cousin was subjected by Border Patrol policemen in the course of demonstrations protesting the murder further aggravated the feelings of rage. This was not an isolated incident and it should be seen in the context of the rise in violence and incitement against Arabs on the part of Jews. The violence is directed at Arab youths in the city center, businesses that employ Arabs, desecration of Muslim graves and Christian holy sites, the torching of cars and spraying of anti-Arab graffiti, and more. The prevalent feeling in East Jerusalem is that the Israeli establishment and the police do not respond resolutely to these incidents.
2. General developments in the Israeli-Palestinian arena: The recent events took place against a background of general tension stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, initially in the West Bank – in light of the arrest of hundreds of Hamas activists following the kidnapping of three teenagers in Gush Etzion – and later in the Gaza Strip in the context of “Operation Protective Edge.” The events also acquired a religious dimension, as they took place during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, leading some to refer to the “Ramadan Intifada.”
3. The Temple Mount: Developments pertaining to the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa compound consistently lead to escalation. Of note in this context are the recent police restrictions that prevented Muslim worshippers of certain ages from entering the compound for Friday prayers, for reasons of security and public order. These restrictions led to massive protests in the form of prayer gatherings outside the walls of the Old City. The tension was further fueled by acts that were perceived as an Israeli attempt to alter the status quo in the compound, including the increased volume of Jewish groups seeking to pray at the Temple Mount, controversial statements by government ministers and Knesset members, and more.
4. Jewish settlement in Arab neighborhoods: The promotion, by ideologically driven Jewish groups, of Jewish settlement in the heart of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem constitutes another factor that clearly exacerbates tension in East Jerusalem, causing friction and periodic outbursts of violence. The Arab residents feel that the settlement endeavor deals a harsh blow to the social fabric of their lives and the character of their neighborhoods, and indicates an intention to "Judaize" these neighborhoods.
Though the situation is grim, Ramon and Lehrs are not without recommendations. They propose a number of immediate and longer-term measures to help de-escalate the tensions and enable the management of East Jerusalem’s affairs "sensitively and peaceably." The short-term measures include:
1. Curbing the violence: A determined and relentless struggle should be launched to prevent acts of violence and incitement by Jews against Arabs in East Jerusalem, and vice versa. This struggle should include, among other elements, public declarations by national and municipal leaders condemning these actions, paying attention to the incitement that takes place in social networks, rigorous police enforcement, and firm punishment. In other words, the message should be clear: Violence will not be tolerated on either side.
2. Temple Mount prayers: The possibility of easing the restrictions on Muslim worshippers who can enter the Temple Mount compound should be considered, in order to prevent massive prayer gatherings at the gates of the Old City, which frequently lead to confrontations with the security forces. All possible measures should be taken to prevent friction between Jewish and Muslim visitors to the Temple Mount, and to make it clear that there is no intention of altering the existing status quo whatsoever in the area.
3. Sensitive and peaceable administration: For highly sensitive processes and projects in East Jerusalem, particularly in the Historic Basin or Jewish settlement in the heart of Arab neighborhoods, activities that upset the delicate and sensitive state of balance – thereby increasing tension – should be avoided.
Meanwhile, their recommendations for longer-term measures range from:
1. Improving the quality of life: Large-scale and effective action is needed to improve social services in East Jerusalem in a host of areas (welfare, healthcare, employment, and the maintenance of law and order) and to upgrade physical infrastructures (water supply, sewage system, and the roads). Efforts must be made to improve the quality of education substantially, in terms of physical as well as pedagogical infrastructures. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has sought to promote a municipal policy that reduces social gaps, but the resources available for this undertaking are meagre. Recently the government of Israel took a number of important decisions that address the ongoing neglect of East Jerusalem, and it allocated some resources towards this end. This is an extremely important measure that should be implemented systematically and extended further.
2. Housing and construction: In the area of planning and construction, large-scale housing solutions should be pursued and long-delayed plans should be executed. Land allocation should be pursued, as should the approval of master plans aimed at removing difficult barriers in this area, which – more than any other – generates feelings of oppression and bitterness in East Jerusalem. The Municipality of Jerusalem recently took an important step in pursuit of housing solutions, when the local commission approved a plan for the construction of approximately two thousand housing units in the neighborhood of Arab a-Sawahara.
3. The population’s status: Consideration should be given to the possibility of strengthening and securing the residency status of East Jerusalem Arabs, and of ensuring the rights associated with this status as well as minimizing the likelihood of its revocation as much as possible.
4. Entrepreneurship and the economy: Assistance should be provided to the private sector to harness its potential in areas such as tourism, trade, and high technology, with a view to strengthening East Jerusalem’s economy and encouraging the activities of the Unit for Development and Entrepreneurship, which began operating recently. Authority and responsibility for the provision of services in certain sectors could be transferred to community councils.
5. Institutionalization and promotion of dialogue mechanisms: Channels for regular, ongoing dialogue between the municipality and the police, on the one hand, and representatives of local neighborhood communities, on the other, should be promoted. Simultaneously, dialogue meetings between representatives of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods should be encouraged.
Ramon and Lehrs state that "the Israeli authorities must play a more central and dominant role in the processes unfolding in East Jerusalem. Their policies and actions have the potential to bring East Jerusalem's population closer or drive it further away, to moderate and de-escalate or to exacerbate the situation. There is a need for a comprehensive Israeli policy that includes massive investment in East Jerusalem in the social sphere as well as regarding physical infrastructures." They are calling on the authorities to take heed of their recommendations, in order to defuse tensions as soon as possible. They will present their report to government and municipal policy makers next month.