By Yossi Mekelberg
1 October 2015
In a week in which two of the holiest dates in the Muslim and Jewish calendars coincided (Eid al-Adha and Yom Kippur, respectively), the city of Jerusalem, which should bring all people together, is more divided than ever, ridden by hatred and violence. The recent flare-up in violence is a reflection of the unsustainable pretence of a united Jerusalem under Israeli ‘sovereignty.’
Moreover, Israeli decision-makers frequently fail to internalize that what happens in Jerusalem has a great impact on relations with the rest of the Palestinians, the Arab and Muslim worlds, and with large parts of the international community. This dire situation was reflected in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday.
Once again, the Netanyahu government’s short-sighted approach may end up exacerbating already tense relations.
He chose, in his opening remarks, to warn the international community about the “grave dangers of what is happening in Jerusalem, where extremist Israeli groups are committing repeated, systematic incursions upon Al-Aqsa mosque.”
The situation in Jerusalem, combined with what Abbas outlined in his speech as Israeli violations of the Oslo Accords, led him to declare that Palestinians are no longer bound by this agreement that was signed 22 years ago.
Regrettably, Jerusalem endures periodical surges of violence. Images of Palestinian youths hurling stones and firebombs at Israeli security forces, and civilians facing excessive force - even brutality - from Israeli military and police is all too familiar. In one tragic incident two weeks ago, an Israeli motorist lost control of his car due to stone-throwing, and was killed in the resulting crash.
Violence cannot be condoned, nor is it the solution for the predicament of the Palestinian people in Jerusalem. However, only those who are naïve or choose to play innocent would expect for a moment that constant deprivation of the basic rights of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, as well as Israeli religious-political provocations on one of the holiest places for Islam, Haram al-Sharif, would not eventually be met with resistance.
Even if youth anger is at times manipulated by politically-vested interests, it is a genuine response that also represents anger by older Palestinians, who are for obvious reasons more reluctant to take to the streets.
Last week, the Israeli security cabinet approved much tougher measures to crack down on rock-throwing and firebomb attacks. The new draconian measures include a mandatory four-year minimum sentence for adult stone- or firebomb-throwers.
The setting of minimum sentence by politicians is always a grievous encroachment of the executive branch into both the legislative and judicial ones. This unequivocally undermines democracy within Israel proper, and marginalizes courts’ power to exercise judgement. Even the efficiency of this new directive is questionable. If stone-throwers are ready to face potential death or severe injury, why would a lengthy prison sentence serve as a deterrence?
Israel and Jordan need each other in order to deal with the enormous challenges both face.
The cabinet decision not only allocated long sentences for those who oppose the occupation, but also relaxed restrictions on using live ammunition against demonstrators. Under the new procedures, police forces are now authorized to use Ruger rifles that fire 22-caliber bullets at demonstrators, not only when their lives are under threat, but when they judge the situation as posing “an immediate and concrete danger to civilians.”
This type of ammunition is not as lethal as others available to the Israelis, but it can still cause fatalities or at least severe injuries. It is not only the morality of this measure that is questionable, but more than anything it is likely to be counterproductive, particularly in the absence of a genuine peace process to present an alternative to violent resistance.
The anger among Palestinians directed at Israelis in Jerusalem is mainly the product of conditions in the city. High levels of poverty and unemployment among the 300,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, the feeling of urban suffocation due to the building of Jewish settlements around Arab East Jerusalem, and constant discrimination against the Palestinian population add to the ever-growing discontent.
Many of the clashes take place around and on Temple Mount. Israel is right to demand that stones are not thrown at Jewish worshippers praying in front of the Wailing Wall. However, constant provocation, including that by members of the government about the right of Jews to pray close to Al-Aqsa mosque, only fuels tensions and subsequent violent clashes.
In addition, violating the status quo on Temple Mount has implications for Israeli-Jordanian relations - it is critical for King Abdullah, especially at this very uncertain moment in the kingdom’s history. Israel and Jordan need each other in order to deal with the enormous challenges both face.
Jordan faces threatening instability close to its borders, as well as internal challenges posed by the country’s demography. The king cannot afford to be seen as cooperating with Israel when Palestinians are killed and arrested in increasing numbers, and when the sovereignty of Islam over Haram al-Sharif is questioned by Israeli politicians. His widely-reported refusal to meet with the Israeli prime minister is a clear indication of his growing frustration with Benjamin Netanyahu.
Once again, the Netanyahu government’s short-sighted approach may end up exacerbating already tense relations. This might lead to increasing bloodshed at home, and growing tensions with countries in the region that despite a commonality of interests with Israel, would have to distance themselves from it.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.