The headlines speak mainly of “clashes”, “conflict”, and “casualties on both sides”. The politicians recite bromides about Israel’s “right to defend itself”– a right that Palestinians seemingly do not have. The US government calls for “all parties to deescalate”, with no acknowledgment that it is US funds – $3.8bn a year – that, in part, make Israel’s bombardment of Gaza possible. This is the familiar American routine when Israel goes to war.
Yet before Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rockets came to dominate the news, what happened over the last week in Jerusalem was perhaps the most substantial Palestinian mass uprising in the city since 2017 – when Palestinian demonstrations led Israeli police to abandon their attempt to install metal detectors at the entrance to the Al Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem. Then, as now, it was an uprising centered in Jerusalem but about much more. And though US public attention has been diverted, the Jerusalem uprising is still ongoing. That is important not to forget.
It was not a coincidence that the uprising began in Jerusalem. Occupied East Jerusalem exemplifies in miniature the Israeli government’s endeavor to secure “maximum territory, minimum Arabs”, as David Ben-Gurion saw the goals of the Zionist movement. Israel has pursued this goal in East Jerusalem – which it occupied in 1967 and formally annexed in 1980 – by making it nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain permits to build homes, leaving thousands of people vulnerable to displacement and their homes slated for demolition. East Jerusalemites, who are not citizens of Israel but legal residents, face stringent residency requirements that make their legal status precarious. The Israeli government has also empowered Jewish settlers to seize properties inside Palestinian neighborhoods such as Silwan, Abu Dis, a-Tur, and Sheikh Jarrah – part of an explicit strategy to “Judaize” the eastern part of the city.
Israeli officials are increasingly bold about telegraphing these goals to the global public. “This is a Jewish country,” said Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, British-born deputy mayor of Jerusalem, to the New York Times, “[o]f course there are laws that some people may consider as favoring Jews – it’s a Jewish state.” But if Israeli officials are open about the discriminatory logic at Zionism’s core, most US politicians continue to deny it.
Indeed, that discriminatory logic is on full display especially in Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood where Israeli settlers are trying to evict several Palestinian families from their houses. These eight families, who fled their original homes during the war of 1948, have lived in the neighborhood for more than half a century. Now, Israeli settler organizations – funded significantly by American Jewish donors – are claiming that because such homes were once owned by Jewish groups, the Palestinian families must be forced out. Yet no reciprocal right exists for Palestinians seeking restitution for properties they left behind during the Nakba, when roughly 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their homes during the 1948 war. Under Israel’s Absentee Property Law, the property of Palestinian refugees is controlled by the Israeli state.
The ongoing Israeli efforts to cleanse Jerusalem of a Palestinian presence, particularly in Sheikh Jarrah provided the spark for the latest uprising. But it was not only in Sheikh Jarrah where Palestinians have also resisted other Israeli efforts to excise them from the city landscape. After Israeli forces set up barricades at the Damascus Gate esplanade – a popular place for Palestinians to gather, especially during Ramadan, and a main point of access to Jerusalem’s Old City – successive nights of largely youth-led demonstrations eventually led the Israeli police to remove the metal gates (though not before Israeli police allowed far-right Jewish extremists to march through the streets of Jerusalem chanting, “Death to Arabs!”).
Like in 2017, Palestinian access to the Al Aqsa Mosque has also been a focal point of the protests. Over the past week and a half, Israeli police have repeatedly stormed the Haram al-Sherif/Temple Mount complex, firing rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, and stun grenades at Muslim worshipers: videos on social media show Israeli forces shooting flashbangs and less-lethal rounds directly at people praying. Israeli police violence has injured several hundred people during these nightly raids, which have also taken place on some of the holiest nights of Ramadan. Elsewhere in East Jerusalem, Israeli police have soaked the streets and buildings with foul-smelling “Skunk” water, a chemical crowd dispersal tool. And under the tolerant eye of the Israeli police, Jewish settlers and far-right activists have attacked Palestinian protesters, going so far as to open fire on them with live ammunition.
It was the repeated Israeli police incursions into the Al Aqsa Mosque, combined with rising settler violence in Sheikh Jarrah and other East Jerusalem neighborhoods, that prompted a response from Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders had already warned that they would respond to continued Israeli violence in Jerusalem with violence of their own. On Monday, Hamas’s armed wing issued an ultimatum: Israeli forces must leave the Al Aqsa Mosque and Sheikh Jarrah or face the consequences. Seemingly underestimating Hamas’s seriousness or military capacity, the Israeli government chose the latter.
To be sure, there was no small degree of opportunism on the part of Hamas here. In early April, the Palestinian authority president Mahmoud Abbas announced that the legislative elections planned for 22 May would be delayed indefinitely. With the factions of Abbas’s Fatah badly split, Hamas was likely to have a strong showing. By taking up the mantle of defending Al Aqsa, Hamas’s leadership may have sought a show of leadership that might have otherwise been achieved through electoral means.
But the Jerusalem uprising was not Hamas’s doing. It was led by young east Jerusalemites, many of them born after the Oslo Accords were signed. And their demonstrations were successful. Before the skies darkened further, the Palestinian protests had not only led Israeli police to remove the barricades near the Damascus Gate; at the request of Israel’s attorney general, Israel’s high court postponed a hearing on the eviction of the families from Sheikh Jarrah, and Israeli police blocked the inflammatory, ultranationalist “March of Flags” from passing through Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem’s Old City. “The Jerusalem uprising had no Hamas or Fatah leadership,” tweeted Palestinian writer Aziz Abu Sarah. “Both groups want to capitalize on it and gain some popularity, knowing that their actions will hurt those they claim to want to help most.”
If there is any reason for hope, it is that public opinion in the US seems to be swinging, belatedly, in support of Palestinian rights. For the time being, such a position is hardly represented in the halls of US power. Only a handful of Democratic members of Congress have issued statements condemning Israel’s attempts to displace the Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah. But US politicians, and Democrats in particular, will not be able to ignore the calls to halt US military assistance to Israel forever. Of course, the US halting such support to Israel cannot alone end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem or the siege on Gaza. It is, however, a place to start.
Joshua Leifer is assistant editor at Jewish Currents