Israel/Palestine – Ten days that shook the occupation

“A zigzag that cannot be explained”. That’s how the right wing Israeli commentator Amit Segal summarized Netanyahu’s decisions regarding the change of the security and entrance arrangements to the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem. There’s no doubt that the removal of the metal detectors and the infrastructure for security cameras less than two weeks after they were installed, was an embarrassing U-turn and political defeat for the government and the Prime Minister.

But the explanation for this is rather transparent. The Prime Minister, the minister of internal security and the chief of the police wanted to seize the 14 July incident of the shooting and killing of two border police at the entrance of the mosques compound, to demonstrate sovereignty in occupied east Jerusalem. But they were forced to back down by the impressive popular protest that developed during ten stormy days among the Palestinians in east Jerusalem.

The protest developed from below among one of the most oppressed and poor communities between the river and the sea that’s not represented officially by any institution, including the Palestinian Authority. The protest grew from one day to the next with growing support in the occupied West Bank, the Arab-Palestinian towns in Israel and in the nearby countries. The protest also led to not insignificant layers among the Israeli Jewish public questioning the motives of the government.

The installation of the metal detectors and security cameras was not an attempt to step up security but to tighten Israeli control in occupied east Jerusalem. In fact, it was a set-up of eight new checkpoints staffed by border police, at each of the entrances to the mosques compound, that is attended by tens of thousands of worshipers each week. The prayers take place five times a day.

The compound is also used by the Palestinian residents of the city as a park and an urban centre, with school and public buildings. The fact that it is administrated autonomously by the Waqf, an Islamic religious trust subordinated to Jordan, makes the Israeli occupation in the compound less evident and visible. Therefore, the new checkpoints were not only another attack on the freedom of worship of the Muslims but also on the freedom of movement of the Palestinians in east Jerusalem and the nearby area.

Beyond the violation of basic rights, it was also a political statement. Even elements from the police admitted at the peak of the crisis to an Israeli news channel that “the installment of metal detectors become a symbol. It’s a dispute about territory: who is the owner of the place”. In the background, senior politicians from the ruling party Likud and from its far-right coalition partner the “Jewish Home” party, have intensified the religious and nationalist conflict over the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount in the last two-three years. The fanatic Jewish “Temple movement” that strives to build a Jewish temple on the ruins of the Al Aqsa mosque received unprecedented support from members of parliament, ministers, and also the chief of police in Jerusalem, Yoram Helevy, who was pictured with a group at the compound a month ago.

Arrogantly, Netanyahu announced the installment of the metal detectors minutes before he took a flight to France and Hungary for a diplomatic visit. The initial opposition among the Palestinian residents in Jerusalem made him more stubborn in his position. During interviews to journalists in Budapest he insisted that the detectors would not be removed. Yoram Helevy was disparaging towards the protests of the Palestinians: “With time they will understand that it’s not that bad, we shouldn’t be afraid of that”.

The police and the government assumed with typical arrogance that the Palestinians will get used to new restrictions just as they allegedly got used to the house demolitions, land confiscations, the neglect of infrastructure, the unemployment and the poverty that reached 80%. The protests showed that the Palestinians are not ready to accept any of the oppression, “judaization” and “Israelisation” that are imposed on them.

The dramatic events exposed not only the weakness of Netanyahu’s government but also the strength of the community in east Jerusalem and the effectiveness of the methods of struggle that were applied. The collective rejection of entering the compound through the new checkpoints was almost total. Thousands took part in demonstrations and mass prayers that became in reality, a kind of sit-in. Hundreds stayed to sleep in the ancient city of Jerusalem and stayed for days in front of the Lion’s Gate (Gate of the Tribes – Bab al-Asbat)

“In the evening, not hundreds but thousands went out on the street. Eight to ten thousand were closing east Jerusalem, closing the roads”, explained Mohammed Abu Hummus, a member of the al-Issawiya popular committee in occupied East Jerusalem, who took part in the movement that developed on the ground. In interviews with Socialist Struggle Movement he makes clear that “the protest was organized without organizations and without any leaders. It was organized by the Jerusalemites themselves. People were bringing them food and water. We heard cops talking between themselves about the fact that they receive dried out meals while we have fresh and hot food, that they receive warm water while our water is cold”.

Community-organized delivery of food and water with improvised places for first aid, medical care and stewarding helped the protest to continue around the clock. There’s reports of families in the ancient city opening their houses for those who came to participate in the protest from outside the city. Teenagers from the Palestinian neighbourhoods in the city helped to collect small donations for the protest. Owners of food stalls also gave their part. The people on the ground got organized for determined, stubborn, long-term protest.

The protest grew from day to day and from week to week and along with it the self-confidence of the protestors. “People felt that they were succeeding. After they were dispersed, they were coming back. Not giving up but coming back in bigger numbers”, Abu-Hummus explains, “People who were not praying came to the prayers to stand against the police, after they saw how the police acted. People were coming with nothing, the police came with horses and water cannons”.

The detectors were removed on Monday 24 July, but the boycott of the entrance to the mosque continued until Thursday noon, until all the infrastructure for new security cameras was removed.

One of the teenagers that was involved in the protest brought with him books to help the protestors who stayed outside the Lion’s Gate to pass the time. He brought with him a copy of 1984 by the socialist writer George Orwell. “I was told that it’s suitable”, explained the boy. And really the book helps to understand the opposition of the Palestinian residents to the installment of the cameras, including the face scanners at the entrances to the mosques compound. The cameras are not only a symbol of Israeli occupation of east Jerusalem but also a tool of control placed at a strategic place. They can be used to track down political activists, and even people who didn’t pay fines to the municipality. According to some of the reports in the Israeli press the smart cameras can identify facebook users who have posted comments viewed as “suspicious” by the police.

The attempts of the authoritarian regimes in the region, and especially of the Jordanian kingdom (that was thrown into diplomatic crisis after an Israeli diplomat killed two Jordanians at the Israeli embassy in Amman) to reach a deal with Netanyahu’s government over the head of the protestors were rejected on the ground. “People heard the different talking of the different persons and they said: No way. We decide, not them. The decision is for the Jerusalemites, not for Abdullah [the king of Jordan] or anybody else”.

According to a report in the Israeli right-wing paper ‘Makor Rishon’, the chief of the police conducted secret talks with “senior persons from the Islamic leadership”. The Waqf, which is subordinated to the Jordanian kingdom, was ready in principal to negotiate with the police and with the government but was forced to fall into the line with the protest mood on the ground. “This is a movement of the street”, explained Ra’ad Daana, one of the leaders of the Waqf to channel 2 news; “If the street is opposing the new steps, we also oppose them”.

According to a number of reports, there was also criticism on the ground regarding the role of the Palestinian Authority and its president Mahmoud Abbas. It looks like the protestors were not impressed by the lip service he paid to the struggle and by his declared stoppage of the security collaboration with Israel that he previously defined as “holy”. Christine Rinawi, a reporter for the Palestinian Authority’s official TV station faced a wave of condemnations on social media after she thanked Abbas for the achievements of the struggle.

Inas Abad, a resident of east Jerusalem who took part in the demonstrations, wrote in an article for MME website: “The people of Jerusalem did not need emergency meetings of the Legislative Council or the Council of Ministers [of the PA] to study the situation and to come up with recommendations and develop a procedural plan to resolve the problem. The street has gone beyond all existing leaders and raised its voice”. She also said: “We did not hear, in the chants of worshipers, any statement referring to any faction. There were no calls for Hamas, nor for Fatah. We stood united in defence of Jerusalem”.

Massive repression

Most of mainstream media in Israel portrayed the demonstrations and the prayers on the ground as “violent rampaging”. In retrospect, even the mouthpiece of the settlers’ right ‘Makor Rishson’ admitted that “contrary to the impression from the pictures in the media, most of the thousands that went to the street chose a peaceful way of protest via prayers around the Temple Mount”. This impression was not coincidental. Israeli journalists who refused to recite the press statements of the police and wanted to cover the events by themselves, were blocked by the cops. The Israeli journalists’ union even sent a protest letter on that issue to the chief of the police.

As the protest developed, the disputes and disagreements intensified in the Israeli ruling class regarding how to cope with it. The tops of the Shin Bet and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (a unit in the Israeli Ministry of Defence) were concerned about the stability of the rule of the occupation that they in charge of. They warned the government of a new Intifada. The IDF (Israeli Defence Force) sent an additional five battalions to the West Bank.

But the police and the government stuck to the position that the protest can be “contained”, i.e. silenced by harsh repressive measures.

At the start of the protest the police arrested anyone who could lead it in their opinion: local leaders of Fatah and Hamas, people who are associated with the PA and known activists in the Palestinian neighbourhoods. Each evening, the protestors were dispersed with water canons and sewage-smelling liquid nicknamed “Skunk”, tear gas, combat dogs and horses, stun grenades, rubber coated bullets and live ammunition.

The repression of the demonstrations reached a murderous peak on Friday 21 July. The call for organizing mass protest prayers at the gates of the ancient city in Jerusalem was answered by a kind of blockade. The police and the border police set up checkpoints and blocked roads to prevent worshipers and protestors from entering the ancient city. Young Palestinians who were blocked in the neighbourhoods in the area of Jerusalem clashed with the border police forces that were stationed at the entrance of the city.

Three youth were shot dead in A-tur, Ras al-Amud and Abu Dis. Another youth was shot dead the following day in al-Eizariya east of Jerusalem, and two days after, a young Palestinian was shot dead in the nearby town Hizma. In addition, a 16 years old teenager was shot dead during a demonstration on the border of Gaz, a week later.

The Palestine Red Crescent treated more than 1,000 injured in Jerusalem and the West Bank during the days of the protests. 29 of them were hurt by live ammunition, and about 350 by rubber coated bullets. The medical treatment itself took place many times under repression. Border police blocked ambulances and raided Al-Makassed hospital in east Jerusalem to arrest the injured. They also tried to seize the body of one of the youth killed in the clashes. His friends managed to smuggle the body out and to bury it under the fire of tear gas and stun grenades.

The director of the hospital, Dr Rafiq Husseini, described in an interview to Gideon Levy how most of the injured wanted to get first aid and leave immediately, to avoid possible arrest by police, who they feared would arrive at any moment. For the most part, the wounds were caused by rubber-coated bullets fired from short range – possibly a new version of this type of ammunition, as the damage it caused was more severe than what Husseini says he has seen in the past.

The harsh repression is the wider context to a number of individual attacks that occurred during the two weeks of the protests and afterwards. Deep despair from distressful life under the occupation, along with disbelief after decades of defeats that mass struggle can be victorious, pushed a small number of youth (compared to the number participating in the protests) to destructive terror actions like the one that occurred in the settlement of Halamish, where three members of one family were stabbed to death. The killing of the family in Halamish along with the stabbing of a bus driver, a resident of Arara, in Peteh Tiqva, and the stabbing of a supermarket worker in Yavne, were used cynically by the government to step up repression and mobilize support among the Jewish public.

Turning point?

In a poll conducted by Israeli channel 2 news, a few days after the removal of the metal detectors and before the overall removal of the checkpoints, 67% stated that Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis was not good. 77% stated the government backed down when it removed the metal detectors and 68% stated that the installation of them was correct.

It looks like the majority of the Israeli public is ready to accept, at this stage, the claim that the metal detectors were installed for security reasons. It was not exposed to the popular protest because of the distorted media coverage. No less important, while the government and its spokespersons tried to label the protest as a “security threat”, the leaders of Labor and Meretz criticized Netanyahu’s conduct but without opposing the arguments of the right wing. The number of left organizations in Israeli that supported, along with Socialist Struggle Movement, the popular struggle in Jerusalem can be counted on one hand.

The success of the protests pushes the government and its head to try to prove that they are still the ‘bully of the neighbourhood’, albeit the political defeat they suffered. Since the decision to cancel the change in the security arrangements in east Jerusalem, Netanyahu declared the renewal of the building of a new settlement for those evicted from “outpost Amona”, his support for the execution of the attacker from Halamish, and support for the change in the ‘Jerusalem Law’ which aims to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian capital in the city.

The police have already started a wide arrest campaign with night raids in A-tur, Shuafat, Biet Hanina, Wadi Jozz, Ras Al Amud, Isawiya and the ancient city. Tens were arrested including 13-17 year olds.

The government tries to ‘charge a price’ from Palestinian residents after the impressive victory they achieved, but it will confront a different situation on the ground. Among the Palestinians in Jerusalem there’s some fears about what comes next, but also a growing self-confidence and strong desire for more achievements. “The question everyone is asking now”, writes Nir Hason in the newspaper Haaretz, “is whether this struggle can be extended to other issues like home demolitions, the severe shortage of classrooms, bureaucratic abuse and perhaps even the occupation itself. In other words, have these two weeks been a passing phase in the history of Palestinian Jerusalem, or a turning point?”.

The establishment of democratic action committees or the upgrade of the follow up committees that are already active in some of the neighbourhoods can help to give a positive answer to this question. The committees can plan the next actions, to help to mobilize wider layers of the public to the struggle, to organize community support, and also self-defence from the lethal repression of the army, the police and the armed settlers.

Not less important: the committees can help to develop discussion about the conclusions from the last protest and how a mass struggle for national and social liberation of the Palestinians can be organized, and even serve as a base for a new political formation. The urgent need for new left parties of the working people, on both sides of the green line, only became more evident by the events.

Yasha Marmer, Socialist Struggle Movement, Israel/Palestine

 

From the CWI website