The Splendor of Cities

A personal assessment of the Palestinian situation following the tumultuous events of 2021.

Protesters gather around the Omar Mosque in Lod/Lydd, May 2021 (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

In 1964, three years before the Six-Day War, the legendary Lebanese singer Fayrouz visited Jerusalem. The visit left her with strong emotions, after seeing up close the suffering of Palestinian refugees displaced from their homes and lands in 1948, who had found refuge in the eastern part of the city and across the West Bank.

Fayrouz commemorated her visit, and the cause of Palestine and Jerusalem more generally, in many songs. Two of these are engraved in the collective pain that unites the Arab nations. The first is “Old Jerusalem,” written and composed by the Rahbani brothers. The second is “The Splendor of the Cities,” also dedicated to Jerusalem, and written after the occupation of the eastern part of the city by Israel in 1967.

It is difficult to find an Arab who does not identify with “The Splendor of Cities.” It is also difficult to hide the chill that runs through the body when listening to the song.

I, like others, grew up on the songs of Fayrouz, despite being born in the 1980s. For me, Jerusalem is a special place. As a teenager, I was reminded of this every time I traveled the more than hundred kilometers from Fureidis, my home village just south of Haifa, to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque and to walk through the Old City.

However, Jerusalem faded in my consciousness over time. As I grew older, I became more interested in Tel Aviv, due to my studies at Tel Aviv University and the career I developed in the city. There, I focused on my personal survival in the relentless Middle East pressure cooker. Ongoing events contributed to my distance from the tension of Jerusalem. The tense situation encouraged me, and other Palestinian citizens of Israel, to fight in every non-violent way possible for our rights, in direct confrontation with the Israeli establishment. Our aspiration is to reduce the gaps and discrimination that the state has created between its Arab and Jewish citizens. For Palestinian citizens of Israel, the focus of this struggle has been more on rights rather than physical places, and Jerusalem became a city to remember only during holy events, like Ramadan and Friday prayers.

After the 1967 war, a complete separation was created and perpetuated between the various Palestinian communities, which became detached islands, disengaged from each other. These islands fall into five categories: Palestinian-Israeli citizens who remained in their land after 1948; Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank; Palestinians in Gaza; the Palestinians in East Jerusalem; and the Palestinian refugees around the world. This separation between communities has been a useful tool for Israel, not only in expanding control of the territory and strengthening the Jewish settlements, but also in facilitating a more effective supervision of all Palestinians—thus preserving the status and supremacy of the Jewish state.

Despite tearing Palestinian communities apart, Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque have always constituted a clear red line. For Muslims, one of the most important events linking Jerusalem with Islam is the ’Isra and Miraj’ story (the ‘Night Journey’), in which the Prophet Muhammad traveled at night from Mecca to Jerusalem, carried on a mythological animal called Al-Buraq (which means lightning). In Jerusalem, the Prophet prayed at Al-Aqsa Mosque and from there he ascended to heaven to meet his Lord, where he received the first and most important obligation in Islam, which is the five daily prayers. Every attempt by Israel to cross this red line, however slight, has ignited an explosive barrel that spilled blood like water, in the city streets and throughout Palestine. At the end of September 2000, the then leader of the Israeli opposition, Ariel Sharon, decided to go to Al-Aqsa Mosque, with the approval of Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. Violence was the inevitable outcome; clashes at the mosque grew into confrontations between Israeli police forces and Palestinian citizens of Israel. These resulted in the deaths of thirteen civilians from police fire in October 2000, and the outbreak of the Second Intifada in the Occupied Territories. The latter, over time, claimed thousands of Palestinian and Israeli lives.

The Power of a Protest

I recently started studying for a law degree at Tel Aviv University. There, I met Ghassan, a friend from Jerusalem, with whom I recently had a fascinating conversation. Ghassan was also the name of the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanfani, assassinated in Beirut on July 8th 1972, presumably by the Mossad. My friend Ghassan, who was born in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa, is a young man who was born after 2000. Given the generational gap between us, his identity as a Palestinian intrigued me.

During our conversation, I asked him what he thought was special about Jerusalem. This made him laugh—the question seemed too simple. Although he himself was not born in East Jerusalem or in one of its neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah, his father was born in the heart of the Old City, in the Muslim Quarter, where his grandmother still lives.

My friend Ghassan told stories about his childhood in the Damascus Gate area—running in the alleys of the Old City, playing games in front of Al-Aqsa Mosque. When we talked about the mosque and the relentless attempts by Jewish Messianic groups to take it over, he took a breath, inhaled from his cigarette, and said something I will never forget: “You must understand, whoever tries to touch Al-Aqsa will have to pass over the bodies of Palestinian Jerusalemites first.” The sentence struck me like lightning, illustrating why resolving the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis cannot happen without touching on the most important issue in the region: Jerusalem and the holy sites.

In addition to being a national-political conflict, it has symbolic religious characteristics that carry many meanings for all those who believe in one of the monotheistic religions. Before the establishment of the State of Israel, there were many clashes between Muslims and Jews regarding the holy places, for example the 1920 Nebi Musa riots.

In recent years, Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque have steadily become more heated, via a series of significant events that brought the conflict to the boil. First, on the morning of Friday July 14, 2017, three young Palestinian citizens of Israel smuggled firearms into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and then attacked policemen near Via Dolorosa, killing two. The three Palestinians were shot and killed.

Following the incident, the mosque was closed for two days, with Friday prayers forbidden on the day of the incident. As part of its response to the attack, the Israeli government decided to place metal detectors at all entrances to the mosque compound. This infuriated Palestinians, an anger translated into mass protests led by young Palestinians, in which Palestinian citizens of Israel also participated.

The masses gathered for days at the entrances to the mosque compound, refusing to pass through the metal detectors and exerting heavy media pressure on Israel. The stand-off lasted two weeks. At the end of the tense fortnight, the Israeli government reversed its decision, and the metal detectors were removed from the entrance to the Al-Aqsa compound.

This victory for Palestinians breathed new life into the Palestinian struggle against the oppressive system of the Israeli establishment. A sense of Palestinian unity filled the void, particularly resonant in the face of the Palestinian leadership’s helplessness in the West Bank and Gaza, and the ineffectiveness of the Arab politicians in the Knesset.

Jerusalem remained tense, even after the removal of the metal detectors from the entrances to the Al-Aqsa compound. The struggles of Jerusalemites now transferred to the plight of Palestinians threatened with eviction from their homes, a threat hovering over the heads of thousands of Palestinian families in various parts of East Jerusalem, including Silwan, Al-Tur, Isawiya, and Sheikh Jarrah. The protests at the last of these neighborhoods has gained a momentum of its own in recent years, thanks mainly to the twins Muna and Muhammad al-Kurd, who used their expertise in social media activism to bring their family’s struggle to the mainstream.

Connecting the Mosaic

The struggle in Sheikh Jarrah touches on almost all the sensitive points of the Palestinian struggle. The residents are refugee families, most displaced during the Palestinian Nakba of 1948. They found refuge in the eastern part of the city, where they were housed by Jordanian authorities in property owned by Jews before 1948. After the occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli authorities did not recognize Palestinian ownership of the land and took legal action against them. State authorities made use of the controversial “Legal and Administrative Arrangements of Law Act,” enacted in 1970. By virtue of this law, the first Palestinian family was evacuated from Sheikh Jarrah in 2008.

The Al-Kurd family’s struggle received end-to-end support from around the world, as they embarked on the task of documenting harassment by settlers forcibly evicting the Palestinian residents in situ, and oppression by Israeli police. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has contributed to an increase in social media usage, helped a great deal in broadening exposure of the struggle, and in changing the discourse surrounding the Israeli occupation and the state’s attitude toward its Palestinian population. In 2021, the symbolic struggle of one neighborhood in Jerusalem reached millions of users around the world, able to see what was happening in East Jerusalem in real time.

In many ways, the stubborn struggle of the families of Sheikh Jarrah was a bright spot, ensuring that the suffering of the Palestinian people would not be forgotten. Even though all Palestinian communities between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea continue to have injustices inflicted upon them daily by the Israeli establishment, most people were focused mainly on survival in the shadow of the global pandemic.

Elsewhere, the Gaza Strip has remained under a blockade imposed on its two million inhabitants by both Israel and Egypt since 2007. If 2020 was a nightmare for the average person living in reasonable conditions of freedom, for those living in Gaza it was a year of continuous torture and collective punishment. Gaza was, and remains, a cruel prison run by the extremist Hamas organization and controlled from the outside by the State of Israel. It is the largest open prison in the world, with appalling living conditions, disgraceful sanitation, and a severe shortage of essential necessities such as electricity, drinking water, and basic medical services.

The Occupied West Bank, of course, also plays an important role in the injustice. There, the Israeli military authorities run a system of supervision and control over Palestinian lives, in a style that recalls the infamous Stasi of East Germany. There are barriers everywhere; night raids as part of military training; live bullets used against peaceful protestors; settlement building; home demolitions, land expropriation, and daily humiliations. Meanwhile, the dysfunctional Palestinian Authority looks on, adding repression to oppression and violating human rights without blinking an eye.

The State of Israel has not spared Palestinians with Israeli citizenship from ongoing violations of their civic rights, or from being treated as second-class citizens in their homeland. The last decade witnessed any number of injustices meted out to Palestinian society in Israel: the demolition of houses and villages in the Negev, de-legitimization, and above all silence in the face of the Palestinian community’s slide into the abyss of crime, with over one hundred reported murders a year.

In recent years, the average number of murders in Palestinian society in Israel has reached five per 100,000 people. The ratio for the entire population of Israel is 1.5 murders per 100,000 people. In the face of this crime epidemic, the Israeli government has done next to nothing, shifting most of the blame and responsibility to Palestinian society and its alleged “cultural characteristics.”

A spark of hope was lit recently, with the accession of the United Arab List (Ra’am), led by MK Mansour Abbas, to the governing coalition. Last October, Abbas—who claims to have adopted a pragmatic political approach—approved, with the new government, a five-year economic plan for Arab society in Israel. This plan aims to provide a total budget of about 30 billion Shekels in various areas, for improving the life of Arab citizens in the country. In addition, a budget of 2.5 billion Shekels was transferred to the Ministry of Internal Security, to fight crime and violence in the Arab community.

This is the second time that the Israeli government has approved such a wide-ranging economic plan for Arab society. The first, during the Netanyahu era, was to the sum of 11 billion Shekels for the years 2016-2020. The plan has received significant support from the government; nevertheless, it is only a drop in the ocean compared to the abysmal gaps that have opened up between Arab-Palestinian society and majority Jewish communities in Israel over many years. This plan cannot meet the needs of Israel’s Arab community. At the moment, after more than a decade of defamation and delegitimization campaigns against Palestinian citizens of Israel and their representatives in the Knesset—whom Netanyahu often described as “supporters of terrorism”—we can only hope that in the end, we will see signs of the desired change.

But for now, it is enough to enter a random Arab village in the country and then visit a Jewish town, kibbutz, or moshav, to see extremes of discrimination that scream bloody murder: poor infrastructure, dilapidated services for citizens, under-budgeted education systems, hostile factors taking over trade, rising unemployment, inactive young people without hope, a lack of social infrastructure, and an entire doomed community denied the opportunity to integrate into society as equal partners in its development and prosperity. The State of Israel has contributed, for the most part consciously and deliberately, to the fact that its community of Palestinian citizens is at its lowest ebb.

In recent years, young Palestinians have not been waiting for the state to fill the void created. A variety of initiatives try to bridge the gaps that have been created, some independently by Palestinians and some by joint action between Arabs and Jews. One example is the increased involvement in high-tech industries that are considered one of the most prosperous industries in Israel. Initiatives such as “Hasoub” enter the field of employment by encouraging young people to integrate into computer science and engineering studies before entering the labor market. Alongside this initiative are other initiatives related to the promotion of urban planning and infrastructure improvement such as The Arab Center for Alternative Planning (ACAP), which represents the genuine needs and interests of the Palestinian citizens of Israel on issues of planning, land, housing, and development.

It is impossible, of course, not to mention the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, and the daily injustices imposed on them by the Israeli establishment. Some 200,000 Palestinians have been living in limbo. Since 1967, they have been classified as residents—and not citizens—of Israel, and so their rights are lacking. Palestinians of East Jerusalem can actually apply for a full Israeli citizenship, but only several hundreds of them do so every year: On the one hand they avoid doing so for ideological reasons and because they are occupied, and on the other hand – even if the ideological reasons do not affect the decision – Israel is not really interested in them as citizens and sets barriers to prevent the process, by demanding impossible terms for getting a citizenship.  While the East Jerusalem Palestinians are entitled to relatively extensive freedom of movement in the country compared to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, for example, they are still treated as enemies by state authorities.

As if the injustices inflicted on the Palestinian people were not enough, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government received a boost from the American reactionary right led by Donald Trump. During the Trump era, several events fatally damaged the struggle of the Palestinian people for freedom and recognition of our rights. The Trump administration promoted the empty business plan dubbed “The Deal of the Century”; the US recognized Jerusalem as capital of Israel and moved its embassy to the city; and finally, Israel’s “closest ally” facilitated a number of “peace” agreements with Arab states—an act that, for many Palestinians, actually tightened the noose around the neck of their struggle against Israeli colonial practices.

But as Israeli repression intensified, so too did the protests of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, led by the al-Kurd twins, telling their story in the face of eviction and dispossession. The year 2021 was an opening for a stop to the anesthetization of the Palestinian struggle, with the end of the Trump and Netanyahu administrations in the United States and in Israel.

In April 2021, Jerusalem returned center-stage, most of the tension this time focusing on Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem. The flare-up began in the month of Ramadan, sparked by videos uploaded on Tiktok which documented young Arabs abusing and mocking young Ultra-Orthodox Jews. These videos provoked much outrage, and led to Jews attacking Arabs. The response of the government, in the person of Minister of Public Security (and Likud MK) Amir Ohana, was to instruct the police to prevent gathering at Damascus Gate. This decision did not bring peace. On the contrary, it exacerbated tensions and led to further violence.

From this point on, events began to unfold in a kind of snowball, gathering up all the points of tension between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The ban on gatherings on the steps of Damascus Gate was, for Jerusalemites, as impactful as if Central Park in New York was closed to the city’s residents at Christmas. In parallel with the events in the Old City, protests in the neighborhoods continued to gain momentum against a backdrop of violent incidents across Jerusalem, including assaults and unbridled police violence against the masses who refused to obey police orders.

Violence flowed from Damascus Gate to the promenade of Al-Aqsa Mosque, where violent clashes broke out between tens of thousands of worshipers and police forces. These prompted the government to block Muslim worshipers from entering the Jerusalem area. And so, towards the end of Ramadan, on Lailat al-Qadr, the night that Muslims celebrate the birth of Islam, the entry of buses carrying worshippers to the mosque was banned.

The police claimed at the time that they had received intelligence of buses bringing in rioters; nevertheless, they chose to apply a blanket ban on all buses transporting Muslims to Jerusalem. The worshipers disembarked from the buses and made their way towards Jerusalem on foot, Palestinians from nearby villages provided them with transportation. This specific event was symbolic of the renewed sense of unity between Palestinians, as was the successful general strike on May 18th during the operation in Gaza. Here, everyone understood that there was one oppressor responsible for all the injustices—the government of the State of Israel.

Who Guards the Walls?

Tensions in Jerusalem deteriorated into acts of violence and reciprocal assaults, and widespread damage to property owned by both Jews and Palestinians. As total chaos took over the country, these horrors were documented in videos distributed on social media platforms. There was no responsible adult to stop the violence. Netanyahu’s government gave the green light for the yearly Parade of Flags, a march by religious Jewish Zionists across the Old City. Palestinians know the parade well, due to the hatred directed toward them by the thousands of marchers. Many identified with radical movements attached to the Religious Zionism movement, like Knesset members from the extreme right and supporters of the “Kach” movement of Rabbi Kahana. That year, the parade coincided with the end of the Ramadan fast.

Violent discourse on social media networks and racist activities on the ground intensified; violent clashes broke out between Jewish and Palestinian Israeli citizens, and victims from both sides fell one after the other. At the same time, protests broke out across the country, especially in mixed cities. From Gaza, Hamas threatened to launch a missile attack on Israel if the Parade of Flags was allowed to take place. As warned, Hamas indeed launched missiles at Jerusalem, marking the point of no return. Within days, Israel and Hamas were in the midst of a direct armed conflict.

The events of May 2021, which the Palestinian citizens of Israel call Habbat al-Karama (Dignity Uprising), served as a renewal of the popular Palestinian struggle. For many years, Palestinian citizens of Israel had been rejected by the Israeli establishment; but they were not accepted as full Palestinians by the Palestinian people either, and sometimes were seen only as Israelis by their brothers. But after this, the Palestinian community of Israel regained the right to be considered an integral part of the entire struggle of the Palestinian people: to exercise our rights and to demand redress for injustices committed against Palestinians by Israel.

Palestinian general unity was celebrated on social media. For a moment, the Palestinian public seemed full of life, despite all the loss and destruction. But with the end of the fighting in Gaza and the cessation of firing at Israel, life began to return to its normal, semi-tense course from before the events of April and May. Everyone talked about victory and unity in all parts of Historic Palestine; the separation walls and barriers between Palestinian communities became just a meaningless concrete railing.

Perhaps one of the most significant changes over the past year has been the reshaping of Palestinian identity among its younger generation. This generation, like my friend Ghassan, deeply understands that the whole picture of the struggle in Palestine is both about the national identity and achieving their rights, besides the moral dimension of belonging to the land, its features and sanctities. They are no longer confused about the question of their complex identity. They do have Israeli citizenship, but their national identity has never been clearer: they are Palestinians, without restrictions, without conditions. This is already a new stage, a significant turning point in the long road the Palestinian people are traversing in their struggle against the practices of erasure and oppression committed by the State of Israel.

In the shadow of this significant change, it is difficult to ignore the purportedly game-changing political move taken by MK Mansour Abbas, whose United Arab List joined the governing coalition last year, after the events of Habbat al-Karama. The question that arises is this: will this move lead to a drift towards Abbas’s pragmatic political style? Or, will it have no real effect on the ongoing crystallization of the Palestinian communities, or on the processes of connection that could create a path of renaissance for the Palestinian people?

Meanwhile, Abbas is currently facing a complex problem. A confrontation recently erupted between the state and Bedouin Palestinians in the Negev, considered loyal voters of Mansour Abbas. The Bedouins oppose the planting of trees by the Jewish National Fund (known by its Hebrew abbreviation, KKL) on land the Bedouins claim as their own. Demonstrators asserted their presence in the village of Sa’awa, joined by Palestinians from across the country. The police forcefully and brutally suppressed the demonstrations, revealing in the process the thin threads of Israeli politics. The incident showed that the government still does not fully understand the depth of the difficulties in Palestinian society. It is not just a matter of budgets: more important is dialogue at eye level, the cessation of the use of excessive force, and the understanding that the State of Israel must respect civil rights with complete sincerity and no bias.

Epilogue

I am not naïve about the complexity of the conflict between the two peoples. Both have deep connections to the country and its history; both, in my view, have the right to live here in peace and security, with full civil liberties and without being subjected to discrimination in any form. The road there must begin with the genuine desire to recognize the humanity of the other side. The State of Israel, which has power and control over the territory, must change its attitude toward the Palestinians, and treat us as human beings. The Palestinian side must also be creative in striving to establish a common life between Jews and Palestinians.

Our two peoples are amongst the smallest peoples of the nations, but we have had a unique impact on the world. We both must approach each other with clean hands, showing a genuine desire to march towards each other in trust-building steps while recognizing each other on a human basis. The Jewish people have suffered greatly throughout history. Nevertheless, they do not have the right to carry out injustices against the Palestinian people. The Palestinian people have never experienced liberty and have suffered for many years. Still, it is not right, on our part, to encourage hatred towards Jews or the use of violence for the sake of exercising our rights.

The conflict will end one day when the forces of light, which believe that wars, violence and weapons are not the solution to achieve stability, are victorious. These forces, represented by the young generation, are armed with an aspiration for dignity alongside respect; a sense of freedom besides valuing multiculturalism and diversity, and finally being capable of thinking of shared values and the future. On that day, Palestinian and Jewish peoples will enjoy the fruits of bringing the conflict to an end, living peacefully and growing together.  These forces already have buds among the two peoples: we are witnessing a raft of initiatives, seeking to bring the communities together and to create a common space that serves us all. Anyone who believes that Palestine-Israel can be an island of sanity must support these initiatives.

Above all, this is the only option for all of us here, Jewish people and Palestinian people, to live here under a regime of freedom, justice, equality; in a thriving society that respects its cultural diversity, a society that works to strengthen the commonalities of all its communities.

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