Jerusalem is the eye of a looming religious conflict
Relations between Israelis and Palestinians have descended into a dangerous melee of tit-for-tat attacks and killings, with the violence of the past few weeks centred on Jerusalem. The city, claimed by Israel as its “undivided capital”, has been torn apart by clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian residents since the summer, when Mohammed Abu Khdeir was burnt alive by Jewish extremists.
Subsequent attacks by Palestinians culminated last week in a shooting and stabbing spree by two cousins at a synagogue that killed four Jews and an Israeli policeman. In this atmosphere, both sides have warned that the political conflict is mutating into a religious one.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, cautioned that Israel’s intensified efforts to extend its control over the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City risked plunging the region into “a detrimental religious war”.
Yoram Cohen, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service, concurred. He warned last week that Israel was stoking religious discord by encouraging Jews to pray at the site. Government ministers, meanwhile, accused Mr Abbas of masterminding the violence in Jerusalem.
Ari Shavit, an influential Israeli analyst, also blamed what he termed an emerging “holy war” not on oppressive Israeli policies, but on the spread of an Islamist extremism.
Mr Shavit and other Israelis have preferred to overlook the obvious parallels between last week’s killings and an even graver incident 20 years ago. Then, Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler, entered the Ibrahimi mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron in his Israeli army captain’s uniform and opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 29 and wounding 125.
Israel’s responses to these two massacres are helpful in illuminating the fundamental causes of the recent surge in violence.
In Hebron, Palestinians rather than the settlers paid the price for Goldstein’s slaughter. Israel divided the Ibrahimi mosque to create a Jewish prayer space and effectively shut down Hebron’s commercial centre, displacing thousands of Palestinian residents. Israel subsequently allowed the number of settlers to grow at record pace.
Although the anti-Arab Kach group Goldstein belonged to was outlawed, it has continued to operate openly in the settlements, including in Jerusalem. Goldstein’s tomb, next to Hebron, is a site of pilgrimage for thousands of religious Jews.
Palestinians, not Israelis, are again the ones suffering after last week’s synagogue attack. Israel has begun demolishing the homes of those involved in recent attacks and is drafting laws to jail stone-throwers for up to 20 years.
On Sunday, the interior minister revoked the Jerusalem residency of a Palestinian convicted of driving a suicide bomber into Tel Aviv 13 years ago – a prelude, according to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to many more such revocations.
Israel is also preparing to relax gun controls to allow more Israelis to carry weapons at a time when Palestinian taxi and bus drivers say they are regularly being assaulted. Last week, a bus driver died in mysterious circumstances, which Palestinians suspect was a lynching.
It should be no surprise that Jerusalem is the eye of the storm. For more than a decade it has served as a laboratory for the Israeli right to experiment with a model of political despair designed to make Palestinians either submit or leave.
House demolitions for Palestinians and settlement building for Jews, brutal policing and the encouragement of crime as a way to recruit collaborators are happening more aggressively in Jerusalem than anywhere else in the occupied territories.
Since the second intifada in 2000, Jerusalem has been a political orphan. Israel expelled the Palestinian Authority and jailed or deported Hamas leaders. Since then, Palestinians in Jerusalem have been defenceless against Israel’s intrigues.
Mr Netanyahu and the right have made little secret of their wish to export a similar model to the West Bank, gradually eroding the PA’s control. But the spiralling violence in Jerusalem has exposed the paradox at the heart of their strategy. Palestinian anger in the West Bank is every bit as intense as in Jerusalem but Mr Abbas’s security forces still have the will and the upper hand to keep a lid on it.
In Jerusalem, on the other hand, protesters face off directly with Israeli police. Because the city lacks organised Palestinian groups, the security services have been unable to penetrate them with collaborators. Instead Israel has been caught off guard by unpredictable attacks as individual Palestinians reach their own breaking point.
By refusing to recognise any Palestinian national claims in Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu has forced the population to recast the conflict in religious terms. Unable to identify politically with either Fatah or Hamas, Jerusalem’s Palestinians have found powerful consolation in a religious struggle to counter the mounting threats to Al Aqsa.
From this perspective, Mr Netanyahu’s efforts to undermine Mr Abbas and the PA appear self-destructive. Without them, the West Bank will go the way of Jerusalem – an ever more unmanageable colonial conflict heading towards religious conflagration.
Jonathan Cook is an independent journalist based in Nazareth
Updated: November 25, 2014 04:00 AM