The latest Palestinian uprising has exposed the heavy-handed brutality of Israeli occupation.
“They have killed the city,” remarked one Palestinian street vendor in a nearly empty Damascus Gate. The place that once crackled with energy and people is now bereft of life. Instead of hearing street vendors call for the sale of their goods and seeing children and adults climbing up and down the Damascus Gate stairs, all you can hear is the noise of a few buses in the evenings.
“People are just afraid. The executions, the traffic tickets and fines that we get for nothing, the random arrests … we don’t feel safe in Jerusalem in the evening,” said a bus driver, who was forced to pay US$300 in traffic fines in the last week alone. He believes the Israeli police are using traffic tickets and fines to frame Palestinians and make their lives even more unbearable.
People who have nothing urgent to do after 6 p.m. choose to remain confined in their homes. It is a self-imposed curfew that Palestinians have been compelled to adopt due to Israeli violence.
“I would have loved to see the Old City, and particularly Damascus Gate, this calm and serene at night if it had not been for the consequences of the Israeli occupation,” commented a Jerusalem native as we walked from the Salah Eddin Street towards Damascus Gate, hardly encountering any passers-by. On ordinary days, this area—a busy and dynamic shopping street—is known to be among the most crowded spaces in the occupied city; it’s virtually impossible not to bump into people.
But then again, the last 50 days or so in Jerusalem have been anything but ordinary.
Shortly after Palestinian law student Muhannad al-Halabi killed two Israeli settlers in the Old City’s al-Wad Street—on the street that is now commonly named after al-Halabi by Palestinian locals—Israeli occupation forces imposed unprecedented restrictions and closures on Palestinian neighborhoods and villages in Jerusalem.
A few days of continuous individual attacks by Palestinian youth were sufficient for the Israeli political, military and security establishment to realize that extreme means were required to quell this uprising. And so extreme measures were applied, some of which were not seen even during the height of the second Intifada.
Working-class neighborhoods such as al-Issawiyeh, Shu’fat refugee camp, Silwan, and Jabal al-Mukabber are no strangers to checkpoints and closures. But it wasn’t since the first Intifada that a collective closure was ordered against Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
Checkpoints and cement blocks were even installed in places that house Western consulates and foreign, EU-funded NGOs, such as the upscale parts of Sheikh Jarrah.
While Israel did gradually ease some restrictions and remove some checkpoints as individual attacks were halted, the city remains on edge.
Israel’s security and military presence remains ubiquitous in the Old City even when there are hardly any Palestinians around.
Residents believe that this heavy presence aims at intimidating Palestinians and regaining a sense of false sovereignty over Jerusalem.
Since the appearance of calm and sovereignty was all but shattered by Palestinians, Israel has been forced to resort to naked repression and outright violence to reassert control.
Symbolic violence, masked repression and suffocating bureaucracy, aspects that characterize Israel’s colonial rule in Jerusalem, could no longer contain Palestinians and guarantee their obedience.
The carrots that the Jerusalem occupation municipality tried to hand the Palestinians after the uprising, following the burning to death of Palestinian schoolboy Muhammad Abu Khudayr in July last year, could not fool Palestinian youth into submission.
The month following the Abu Khudayr uprising saw several visits conducted by the Jerusalem occupation mayor, Nir Barkat, to Palestinian neighborhoods. He was present in Palestinian schools and kindergartens, pledging to put an end to the decades-long policy of negligence and marginalization. The occupation municipality has stepped up its efforts to weaken the national consciousness among Palestinians by encouraging youth to enlist in the “national service,” an alternative to military recruitment, and promising them several benefits in return.
Extracurricular activities carried out by Israeli-funded “community centers” have been held in several Palestinian neighbourhood as part of the plan to mitigate rock-throwing against Israeli police.
A few roads were paved and Palestinian students have been actively encouraged to study in Israeli universities.
The Stick Comes Out
Those attempts stemmed from the view that, in order to guarantee Palestinian obedience, it is necessary to improve their economic conditions while completely sidelining their national and political identity.
Despite a few months of relative calm, the fragility of those policies was soon exposed.
The spirit of resistance that swept through Palestinian areas in Jerusalem during the Abu Khudayr uprising was revived in October. Diplomatic attempts by the occupation municipality to kill that spirit, assuage Palestinians, and deceive them with false promises of economic improvement and better infrastructure, proved futile. And as Palestinians in Jerusalem threw the carrots served to them by their oppressors away, the oppressor was forced to brandish its sticks and pull them out.
Few places have experienced the ruthlessness of Israel’s siege and raids than Issawiyeh. The rebellious village, a site of regular confrontation with Israeli occupation forces even during the relatively calmer periods, has paid a heavy price during the current uprising too. All but one of the entrances to the village have been sealed with concrete cement blocks in October.
Huda Darwish, a 65-year-old woman from the village, was a victim of the closure. After falling ill and needing treatment due to inhaling tear-gas fired by Israel at her house, the woman was delayed on her way to the hospital due to the closure, resulting in her death. The closure also affected thousands of the village’s students and workers, who only last year had to deal with a similar closure for nearly two weeks.
Closures, siege, collective punishment and increasing militarization all aim at stifling communities, breaking any spirit of rebellion, and alienating the people against the youths leading the resistance.
Some Palestinians, however, managed to see a silver lining.
“As frustrating as it is to go through all of these checkpoints and to navigate your way through the closure, I am happy for one thing,” said Jihad Khatib, a young activist from Jerusalem. “I’m happy that people realized again that we are under military occupation, because Israel has always tried to portray its control over Jerusalem as civil and peaceful.”
Perhaps one of the most remarkable achievements of the current uprising is that it removed the pacifist mask with which Israel tried to shroud its repression and policies of colonization.
The uprising has also torn asunder, yet again, the myth of the “unified capital” that Israel has worked desperately hard to buttress over the last five decades.
Israel has employed an array of repressive and punitive measures to subdue the current youth uprising, including summary executions and mass arrests; torture of child prisoners; punitive home demolitions; threats of residency revocation and expulsion; withholding the bodies of at least 30 Palestinian martyrs killed since October, including 11 from Jerusalem; closures, movement restriction and arbitrary traffic fines; and the list is likely to be expanded.
Those tactics might have succeeded in stopping individual attacks for now, but they are yet to crush the uprising.