Jerusalem On A Knife-Edge

The current round of Palestinian-initiated violence has been going on long enough that it would once have been reasonable to expect that, by now, the daily reporting of events would also be accompanied by attempts to place these events in context. However a combination of a change in the nature of journalism and the increasing desire by the protagonists to play what they believe are self-protective blame games have prevented an open and broad discussion of many of the substantive issues that have produced the violence.


Journalism has changed beyond all recognition in the past decade. Internet publishing has led to a plethora of new news and opinion outlets. However, there has been insufficient advertising to support old-fashioned, well-researched, multiple-sourced journalism. Today, web sites specializing in the news rely more heavily than ever on young, tireless workers whose writing and editing skills can be bought cheaply. These drones are expected to crank out huge amounts of what is euphemistically termed “content” to very tight deadlines. They therefore have little time, and their bosses are unconcerned, with dealing with issues in depth. Events and statements by politicians, officials and protesters are usually reported accurately because of a fear of libel suits. However, too often the content producers have neither the time nor the experience to check the veracity of the statements or to provide background or context to the events taking place and the statements being made. Some wags have come to call this new craft “churnalism.”


Partly for that reason, politicians and officials have found it easier to obfuscate than ever before; and their flaks and acolytes have found it easier than ever to pass off self-serving fluff as serious “advocacy.”


Try as I might, I have yet to see any serious attempt to explain comprehensively why the current round of Israeli-Palestinian violence has broken out. With that in mind, I have decided to craft three articles to highlight at least a few of the issues involved. The first two are intended to provide some historical background, while the third will attempt to provide some current context for the events that are taking place.




Five years have now almost passed since the so-called “Arab Spring” began. Tens of thousands of articles—and maybe even more—have been written about the upheavals taking place throughout the Arab world, including the West Bank and Gaza. However, I have yet to find a single reference to what I believe is one of the most elemental issues that the violence has raised.


That issue is: “How can and how will the Middle East finally cope with the legacy of the Ottoman Empire?” If one looks closely, those Arab countries that strayed the most from the Ottoman model of rule, but did not implement true democracy, were the ones that witnessed the most bloodshed.


In almost all aspects of governance, it is almost impossible to overestimate the long-term impact that the 700 years of Ottoman rule has had. The very idea—that the Ottoman way of doing things is still having an impact on events in the Middle East almost a century after that empire was dismantled— should actually come as no surprise. After all, the Ottoman Empire was one of the most successful exercises in political governance in human history; and so it would be strange if at least some of its most salient features did not continue to have an atavistic hold on people.


The dynasty was founded in 1298 and reached its peak of power in 1567, when it controlled the Levant and also ruled over large chunks of Eastern Europe. To give you some idea of its size at that time, 37 modern states have since been carved out of the lands once ruled from Istanbul.


Unsurprisingly, the empire did go through a whole series of ups and downs; and by the end of the 19th century, it was derisively referred to by Europeans as “the sick man of Europe.” Nonetheless, it took a massive military campaign by the British, the French and their allies during World War I before the empire finally collapsed.


Historians have tended to emphasize the mistakes the Ottoman rulers made after the 16th century. But the fact is that the Ottomans had to have done something right to have lasted as long as they did.


Recently, political pundits have focused almost single-mindedly on the post-Ottoman period, and especially the impact that the recent Arab revolts have had on what is generally termed the “Sykes-Picot Agreement.” The terms of that bilateral agreement enabled the British and French, after World War I, to carve up the Ottoman Empire and establish their own colonial rule in the Middle East.


As part of that process, the new colonialists chose to impose a new system of rule based on a concept that was almost totally foreign to the residents of the Middle East—except in one respect.


In general, the Europeans tried to recreate European-style nation-states, but could find no adequate, popular replacement for the centralized, authoritarian leadership structure that had been created by the Ottomans, and which had remained in place for so long. At the end of their tenure, the colonialists did try to introduce that other strange Western import called “democracy,” as a replacement for authoritarianism. However, democracy never really caught on because most of the residents of the Middle East continued to perceive of themselves in macro socio-political terms such as “Arabs” or “Moslems,” or in micro political terms such as being a member of this extended family or that, or this clan or that, or this tribe or that.


Democracy has difficulty in taking root when either or both of those approaches are present. The former tends to reduce minorities to the status of second class status, while the latter tends to lead to social fragmentation and inter-tribal conflict.


Worse still, though, instead of creating nation-states in a logical fashion by gerrymandering their borders in such a way that the resulting states would be based on existing natural affinities such as ethnic and religious attachments, the colonialists drew boundaries that were convenient for themselves and their commercial and political interests. Those new boundaries created instant social instability as religious and ethnic groups that had been at war with each other for centuries, were then forced to live under the same national roof. Once these states gained independence, only ruthless, authoritarian governments could control those endemic quarrels and the hatreds they engendered.


And worst of all, the colonialists actually invited authoritarianism by retaining many of the institutional features of the old, Ottoman system of rule. Most of those institutions were fundamental pillars of the Ottoman’s strategic approach to governance. So long as they remained in place, the Middle Eastern body politic was left with only three real choices—true democracy, authoritarianism or instability…the very things we see in such sharp relief today.


The reason why the colonialists continued to employ those institutions was that they couldn’t figure out—or made no serious effort to figure out—what to replace them with. This then led to incoherence in the way the colonialists ruled the countries under their control, and eventually to the social unrest we see today in all the countries once ruled by the British and the French. The result of that legacy in most of the Arab countries—and in the areas captured by Israel in 1967 including East Jerusalem—has been misrule on a grand scale


It is therefore well worth briefly reviewing the strategy that the Ottomans had adopted that made them so successful, before going into detail about how the same elements that made up that successful strategy have since produced the instability we are now witnessing.


The strategy can be boiled down to three basic elements. First and foremost, the Ottomans produced and then consistently maintained control over the central political and social narrative. That narrative stated that the world is divided up, not according to geographical regions, as the Europeans, with their long history of petty baronies and a landed aristocracy maintained, but by religion. The Empire, therefore, was viewed as a single political entity. Islam was the primary religion of the empire. However, any religious minority could retain any and all of its beliefs and laws relating to an individual’s personal status so long as the individual adherent to that religion paid a special head tax and so long as his or her beliefs did not include a self-felt need to call for overthrowing the empire or challenging Islamic religious supremacy. This narrative had the effect of obliterating any reference in public political discussions to such potentially volatile subjects as historical ethnic or nationalistic loyalties.


Second, in order to formalize and provide an institutional basis for that creed, the Ottomans adopted what was called the millet system of governance. It was a comprehensive, strategic system of political governance that was actually invented in Persia by the Zoroastrian Sassanids in the 4th century. Under this system, political and social communities were defined by the religion of their members. Each recognized religious community was then given almost complete freedom to set its own laws and to levy taxes to pay for the running of communal and religious institutions.


Conveniently, because the sultan was considered to be a caliph, he essentially had the last word on all political and religious matters relating to the Moslem majority within the Empire—regardless of whether they lived in Armenia or Egypt.


Third, stability was ensured by the creation of a hierarchical social system where each individual was held responsible for everyone below them on the social ladder. The religious leaders, for example, were held responsible for the behavior of the members of their religious grouping as a whole. Control over individuals was effected by making each individual responsible for or dependent on the behavior of someone else. Parents were held responsible for whatever their children did or did not do. Clan heads were held responsible for the activities of all the members of their extended families. Tribal leaders and mukhtars, (village heads in places where several clans resided) were held responsible for what the clan heads did or did not do; and so on and so forth.


This hierarchical approach produced many benefits. Probably the most important of these was that it led to clear lines of communication and control between the lowest levels of society and the Sultan’s court.


The system did begin to come under threat with the growth in the concept of nationalism in Europe in 19th century, which, among other things, led to nationalistic revolts against Ottoman rule in Greece and the Balkans.


More significantly for our purposes, though, very soon, European nation-states, in their search for wealth, influence and power in the Middle East began to meld their modern concept of nationalism with the archaic Ottoman view that societies were divided by religion. This then led the Europeans to project themselves as protectors of the various minority Christian religious communities within the Ottoman Empire. Thus the Russians unilaterally took on the role of protector of the Eastern Christian communities, while France came to view itself as the protector of the Roman Catholics. At a later stage, the British chose to take on the role of protector of the tiny Protestant communities.


As might be expected, this then led to what were, in effect, proxy wars within the Empire between competing European countries. The best example of this phenomenon was the so-called “Candlestick Wars” that broke out in the 1850s in places like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Eastern Orthodox priests supported by Russia and Roman Catholic priests supported by France began to engage in huge fisticuffs over who had which rights to the shrines they shared. Which group could sweep which floors? Which group could use which stairway at particular times? And who could fix what needed repairing. As the Israelis have found to their frustration, dismay and disgust when they captured these shrines in 1967, those battles continue to this day.


Parenthetically, today, this same desire by the Europeans to influence events in the Holyland has come to be based on a new form of religion—the belief in humanistic pluralism (whatever that may mean) as the solution to all religious or ethnic problems.


The British, once they took actual control over colonial Mandatory Palestine, made almost all the mistakes they could have when they tried to fashion an amalgam of existing Ottoman practices and more modern forms of governance. They did introduce some important, new, modern features of governance such as centralized town planning. But, at the same time, in order to protect their own authoritarian form of rule, they also kept many elements of both the social hierarchy and the millet system largely intact. Thus, for example, personal religious matters and many matters of civil status such as marriage, divorce and burial were left to religious courts and associations.


The actual practice of governance, therefore, was largely tactical in nature, designed to alleviate short-term problems—not strategic and based on a long-term vision. So, for example, when the number of Ashkenazi Jews began to outnumber Sephardi Jews in Mandatory Palestine, the British agreed to the appointment of an Ashkenazi chief rabbi in addition to the existing Sephardi one—rather than introducing a real alternative such as civil marriage.


When Israel was established, the system was modified once again—but not eliminated. Democracy became the formal form of rule in Israel. However, the religious courts were kept intact; and Israeli officialdom continued to maintain communication links with the country’s Arab citizens through consultations with the Mukhtars—even though these Arabs were at least titularly being represented by Arab members of the Knesset.


This whole grab bag system was thrown into disarray when Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967 and then decided to annex not only the Old City, but also many of the Arab villages that lay close to the previous municipal boundaries of the city. The result was an even more confused and confusing situation than had existed under the British or their Jordanian successors. The Arabs in the eastern part of Jerusalem were given the right to vote in municipal elections and the right to take advantage of Israel’s social security net. However, they were not automatically awarded Israeli citizenship. This meant that, unlike all the other Arabs living within the country’s boundaries (including those living in West Jerusalem), they had no rights to elect Knesset members of their own.


What this meant in practical terms was that the civil service bureaucracy continued to use the communication links to the mukhtars that had been in place since Ottoman times when it suited officialdom. However, the links between the East Jerusalem’s Arab population and the Israeli political echelon were left hanging.


With no clear vision of how everyone in the city should be treated, the Israeli government’s approach to Jerusalem’s Arabs became ad hoc at best and more often flighty.


In some ways, it was almost—but never absolutely, functionally—identical to the way that the Ottomans had behaved toward the minorities spread throughout their Empire. Israel first created a narrative…that Jerusalem had now been united forever, that all its citizens would be treated equally and that all the religions present in the city would be free to practice as they always had. To that end, and among other things, the government formally adopted the ruling of the IDF’s Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren that Jews were forbidden to pray on the Temple Mount. The millet system was also maintained.


Very soon, though, some of these remnants of the Ottoman system began to unravel. Because Jerusalem, at least in theory, was run by the rules of democracy, and because the Arabs refused to take part in elections, they had no official representatives who were mandated to bring their needs and desires to the attention of the political echelon. They thus lost their ability to influence both policy and budgeting within the city.


In effect, the Jews became the authoritarian ruler over the Arab areas of the city. However, two-way communication between the rulers and the ruled, one of the most important pillars of the Ottoman, British and Jordanian authoritarian system, was weakened. For that reason, from then on, the Israeli political echelon became blinded to, or, even if they were informed of developments taking place in Arab sectors of Jerusalem, deliberately chose to ignore the massive changes taking place in the newly-conquered areas of the city.


Many of those changes were the product of even greater changes taking place in the Jewish part of the city.


In 1967, Jerusalem may have been a quiet backwater of a city, where the residents turned off their lights at 10:00 at night and took leisurely naps from 2-4:00 in the afternoon. However, because of the university and because the huge national civil service that was headquartered in the city was largely manned by Central European immigrants, it was also an exceedingly cosmopolitan city. It is hard for people today to conceive of such a thing, but Jerusalem at that time supported four high-quality non-Kosher butchers.


Initially, the newly-absorbed Arabs in the city merely added to the city’s cosmopolitan character. Many of the city’s long-time residents had had Arab friends prior to 1948, and some, especially the Haredim and some older, liberal Jewish intellectuals, made a special effort to reestablish acquaintanceships with their Arab counterparts.


In 1967, the Arabs made up about 25 percent of the city’s population. What few people recognized at that time—or even since—was that during the time when the Jordanians controlled Jerusalem, East Jerusalem was also a backwater. The Jordanians had put most of their development efforts into strengthening Amman and the southern Jordanian Bedouin supporters of the Hashemite throne…at the expense of the Palestinians and the cities on the West Bank. However, in order to provide the manpower needed to cope with the needs of the tourist industry, they had encouraged residents of Hebron to move to Jerusalem. Hebron is a deeply religious city, and Hebronites tend to be both clannish and insular. More significantly, Hebronites are particularly strongly protective of Moslem rights to the Temple Mount. That devotion would have a major impact almost 50 years after the conquest, when Messianic Jews broke with Rabbi Goren’s and the Haredi rabbis’ rulings, and began to try to pray on the Temple Mount.


The single most important policy that the Israeli government adopted was to begin building new suburbs for Jews along the edges of the new city boundaries. The intent was basically twofold—to unite the city physically and demographically and to surround the main Arab areas with a wall of Jewish residences; and to ensure that there would be a steady stream of Jewish immigrants to the city through the provision of cheap housing. The officially-declared intent of the town planners and their superiors was to maintain the 25 percent Arab-75 percent Jewish ratio of residents in the city.


The mayor of the city at the time, flamboyant, Hungarian-born, Vienna-raised Teddy Kollek, was actually opposed to much of this construction. He wanted a dense, European-style city that would require much less new, costly infrastructure. For that reason he much preferred to simply fill in the open spaces within the existing city first. However, he was over-ruled by the central government. Today, more than half of the Jews who live in Jerusalem are domiciled in these new suburbs.


Significantly, no provision was made in the central government’s plans for the natural growth of the population in the Arab areas of the city. Today, because of their high birthrate, because of Arab Jerusalemites’ “intermarriage” with West Bankers, because of the need for workers to build homes for Jews, and because of “illegal” immigration into the city of West Bankers seeking jobs and a better life, they make up about forty percent of the city’s population.


Worse still, no thought was given to retaining the city’s cosmopolitan sensibility. Kollek did try to remedy that situation by establishing the Jerusalem Foundation, which he used to funnel donations into secular cultural projects such as the Jerusalem Theater. In addition, he also tried to ensure that new Jewish neighbourhoods would have a mix of religious and secular residents Moreover, he endeavored to build strong contacts with the city’s Arab residents by appointing sensitive individuals such as Meron Benvenisti and Amir Cheshin to maintain continuous contact with the mukhtars.


However, in the end, Kollek’s vision could not survive a whole series of external events that were beyond his control. Those events, when combined, led to a series of long-term processes that changed Jerusalem beyond previous recognition.


In particular, two elections would seal Jerusalem’s fate. The first was the victory by Berlin-born Shlomo “Chich” Lahat, who became Tel Aviv’s mayor in 1974. The second was the victory of the Likud in the 1977 national elections.


Until Lahat’s election, Tel Aviv may have been the country’s major cultural and commercial centre, but it too was a somnolent city with an aging and declining population. Lahat, though, was determined to turn it into a European-style open, vibrant city—and, over time, he succeeded. This then made it a Mecca for young secular Israelis. The advent of Israel’s high-tech industry, which had been centred initially in Haifa, but which soon moved to the greater Tel Aviv area, helped to accelerate that process. That is because high-tech produces not just well-paying jobs for young people, it is housed in large, commercial office buildings that pay a lot in municipal taxes…which, in turn can be used to fund more cultural institutions that make the city even more attractive to young new-comers.


In Jerusalem, the very opposite occurred. Once the Haredim joined the national government following the Likud’s victory, their primary interest lay in fulfilling a dream that dated back 1600 years to Yehudah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishna. HaNasi had introduced the idea that Torah study is the equivalent of prayer, and thus men’s lives should be devoted to Torah study whenever possible. Reality, especially the need to earn a living, had made that idea largely a pipe dream for centuries. However, the Haredim, once they joined the government, came to believe that they could now fulfill that dream for the first time.


To that end, the newly-arrived Haredi members of the cabinet began to demand public financing for new yeshivas for unmarried students, increased child welfare payments, and subsidies for married men studying in Kollels. Haredi members of the Jerusalem city council were also able to then wrangle all sorts of concessions such as municipal tax abatements for the poor, and free pre-school education.


As this process gathered momentum, another phenomenon took place. At the very moment that Jerusalem was beginning to attract ever more Haredim to the city, the percentage of the Haredim who worked, and thus did not need all these government payments and tax abatements, fell from 70 percent of the ultra-Orthodox population to 26 percent. For that reason, less and less money was then available to fill the municipal treasury. The quality of municipal services began to deteriorate. Young Jerusalem secularists, who would otherwise have been in a position to pay municipal taxes, began to flee the city for Tel Aviv, thus exacerbating the situation even more.


Another phenomenon that was also taking place at the same time would eventually have a major impact on the situation. Israeli governments at the time were showing almost no interest in strengthening the rule of law. Warnings that organized crime was growing in the country were ignored, as were the illegal settlement activities of Gush Emmunim in the West Bank. Within certain parts of Israeli officialdom, what can only be described as a “cult of illegalism” began to blossom.


The basis of that cult was a belief by the authorities that they could turn a blind eye to illegal activity if they could find no practical solutions to a problem…or if it was politically or economically inopportune to implement solutions that could or had been found.


As that belief took hold and began to affect policymaking, those Jewish settlers who had trespassed on and even illegally-seized Palestinians’ lands began to view the use of the law to restrict their behavior as the work of their enemies. Very quickly Jerusalem’s Arabs found that despite the fact that the Jewish authorities were refusing to allocate land and building permits to them, they too could build homes illegally without fear that those homes would be torn down under court orders.


Soon, multi-story apartment complexes began appearing in already-crowded areas such as the city’s sole refugee camp at Shuafat.


As well, and as already noted, at the same time as the deterioration in the rule of law and the flight of secular Jews from Jerusalem was gathering steam, high birth rates were increasing the ratio of Arabs to Jews in the city. However, both the central government’s and the city council’s focus on the city’s Jewish citizens, and the increasing municipal deficit meant that fewer and fewer resources were being allocated to the city’s Arab residents. As I just mentioned, no plans were made to house the increase in Arab residents. As well, few schools were built in Arab areas, and roads and sidewalks were left rutted.


Essentially, a political vacuum had been created, which the PLO then sought to fill. It began establishing institutions of its own in the city, including a local headquarters housed in a building called Orient House and run by Faisal Husseini—a grandson of the former mufti of Jerusalem.


When the first intifada began in 1987, Jewish Israeli politicians took pride in the fact that Jerusalem’s Arab areas were generally free of the violence that had beset the West Bank and Gaza. This, however, was largely the product of continued residual, but increasingly weak contacts between Kollek and the police, and the neighbourhood mukhtars. This success in limiting violence in the city, however, then led to monumental hubris, whose consequences are only now being felt.


On the one hand, Israeli officials claimed that Jerusalem was less susceptible to violence because its Arab residents have a higher standard of living than those in the West Bank and Gaza. However, at the same time, these same officials did everything they could to prevent the city’s Arabs from maintaining that higher standard of living. Their rationale was that, if the city became too attractive to Arabs, there would be too great a growth in the city’s Arab population. That is the primary reason why the issuance of home building permits to Arabs was restricted; and municipal services in Arab areas of the city were kept to a minimum.


The situation in the Arab neighbourhoods began to deteriorate even further following Kollek’s electoral defeat in 1993. New mayor Ehud Omert’s coalition with the ultra-Orthodox was marked by extensive financial mismanagement. Moreover, large-scale violence finally did come to Jerusalem in the wake of the outbreak of the second intifada in the year 2000.


That intifada had wide-ranging consequences. For example, Jerusalem’s tourist industry virtually collapsed, as did much of the rest of the tax-revenue-enhancing leisure sector of the city’s economy. This put increasing strains on the city’s budget and led to even more cutbacks in the municipal services provided to Arab areas.


The decision to build a security fence that would run the length of the West Bank and through Jerusalem, in order to control the movements of potential terrorists had a particularly dramatic effect on the Arab sector of the city. At the time, it was estimated that the proportion of Arabs in the city had risen to 34 percent of the city’s residents. However, as noted earlier, as soon as construction of the fence began, an estimated 40-60,000 West Bankers, fearful of their economic future, took up residence in Jerusalem illegally—thus bringing the de facto proportion of Arab residents in the city up to almost 40 percent.


This then put unbearable strains on the housing pool in East Jerusalem.


Worse still, the new fence split several Arab areas, leaving parts of those areas still within the city boundaries, but cut off by a massive concrete wall from the rest of the city. Residents of these areas, who had previously had to walk only a few meters to get to the other side of their village, now found that they had to drive as much as 12 kilometers and had to go through a police checkpoint before being able to visit families and friends.


This situation then led to a cascade of problems. The housing shortage became a major source of tension. But rather than regulating building in an orderly way by creating a master plan, the authorities, by now devotees of the cult of illegalism, allowed a further, massive growth in illegal building, especially in the Shuafat refugee camp and those areas left orphaned by the fence. However, because the buildings were illegal, not only did the city have to forgo applying municipal taxes, no legal connections could be made to the water and electricity systems. Pirate connections led to frequent breakdowns in those systems.


Critically, the authorities did nothing to alleviate the deteriorating situation. The police rarely, if ever, entered the Arab areas. In the absence of law enforcement bodies, gangs of youngsters and clan-based criminal gangs began to take control of increasingly large areas of east Jerusalem. As a result, although there are no official figures on this subject, residents of the Shuafat camp relate that there are murders in their camp almost every week.


The fear of violence created by overcrowding then led garbage collectors, and electricity and water technicians to refuse to come to collect waste or to make repairs unless accompanied by armed guards; and the electricity and water companies refused in principle to repair any illegal pirate connections.


As well, because of the break in communications between the authorities and the mukhtars, the village elders have lost whatever legitimacy they might have had as local leaders—especially among the young. The strategic Ottoman-built communication channel that had lasted for hundreds of years and which was crucial to maintaining social stability had collapsed.


As a result, the cornerstone of the mukhtar structure of governance, the system of social control based on mutual dependency, also fell apart. This phenomenon would eventually lead to the advent of 13 year old Palestinian knife-wielders.


An alternative system might have been available to fill the leadership vacuum that had been created. There were attempts by local social and intellectual leaders to set up alternative grassroots movements. However, these efforts were mown down by the Israeli authorities for fear that these groups were or would become political vehicles for el-Fatah and Hamas.


These and other negative processes that had been underway for some time were exacerbated when the ultra-Orthodox rabbis chose to seize power at city hall by using their bloc voting to elect Haredi Uri Lupoliansky as mayor in 2003.


Almost immediately upon Lupoliansky’s election, in the Jewish areas of the city, ultra-Orthodox residents, abetted by the municipal authorities, began moving more and more into secular Jewish areas; and the flight of secular youngsters to the coastal areas increased dramatically. This then led to a further deterioration in the capacity of the city to maintain tax revenues. No less importantly, over the years, the secular Jewish residents of suburbs along the seam between Jewish and Arab Jerusalem, such as Neve Yaakov in the north, and Armon Hanatziv in the south of the city had developed friendly, informal ties with neighbouring Arab villages. The Haredim who bought into these neighbourhoods, though, had no interest in maintaining those contacts, and so the isolation of the Arab areas from the rest of the city increased.


As well, because the ultra-Orthodox officials in city hall were uninterested in anything taking place in the Arab areas, what few contacts had remained with the mukhtars, were cut. Then, to top things off, the increased allocation of municipal funds to Haredi institutions and causes meant that although by that time legal Arab residents made up almost 37 percent of the city’s population, only 7 percent of the city budget was being allocated to providing services to Arab areas. Among other things, at the very moment that the city was witnessing a youth bulge in the Arab areas, there was almost no new school construction.


Massive school overcrowding meant that about 40 percent of Arab students dropped out of school; and of those who reached grade 12, only about 40 percent had been schooled sufficiently to pass their matriculation exams.


This then led to growing frustration by young Arabs who could see no future for themselves, and the final breakdown of the mukhtars system, because the village elders could no longer fulfill their traditional roles of bringing complaints to the attention of the authorities and get results.


The destruction of even the smallest grassroots action groups then left young Arabs without any legal vehicle for expressing their increasing frustration.


That void would soon be filled by an unexpected source. Although considerable publicity has been given to the growth in strength by Hamas in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the fact is that the Shin Bet has been quite successful in discovering and smashing underground Hamas cells. What the Israeli authorities were totally surprised by was the move by Israel’s own Islamic Movement, and particularly its extremist Northern Branch, to fill the vacuum that had been created. The Israeli authorities should actually not have been surprised at all. After all, the Ottoman system that Israel itself had adopted in 1967 had been built on three pillars—control of the political narrative, a social hierarchy based on mutual dependence, and the division of the universe according to religion.


With the mukhtar system in disarray and with the Israeli narrative that the city was undivided having been shown to be a fiction, all that the Arabs were left with was their belief that communal loyalty and attachment should be based on religious fidelity. Increasingly, devout Moslems were coming to believe that the contest between the Jews and the Arabs was not a political one at all, but rather a religious one.


Hamas and the Israeli Islamic movement were greatly assisted in their endeavor to propagate this belief by the actions of extremist Jewish neo-nationalists.


In particular, and as I previously mentioned, after the 1967 war, the IDF’s Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren, basing himself on extensive rabbinical precedent, had declared that the Temple Mount should be off-limits to Jewish prayer. However, beginning in 2003, extremist neo-nationalist rabbis, led by Hebron Jewish community leader Rabbi Dov Lior, began to openly question that ruling. Initially some Jews began offering prayers on the Temple Mount quietly. However, by 2014, many were doing so openly and stridently.


Worse still, some of those Jews engaged in praying were extremist, neo-nationalist politicians who always made sure that their forays onto the Temple Mount were recorded by television news crews. The news clips that then made their way to the air were almost immediately copied and rebroadcast on extremist, Islamic, internet, social media web sites that have wide followings in both Israel and the West Bank. Unsurprisingly, extremist Moslem preachers began to use the videos as a way of rallying the masses to come out and “defend the el Aqsa mosque against Jewish encroachments and plans by Jews to alter the existing status quo.”


During this same decade, Jewish settler groups began stepping up their efforts to acquire apartments in Arab areas of the city—especially in those areas close to or adjacent to what is often called “the Holy Basin”—the meeting place of the Kidron and Hinnom valleys that surround the ancient City of David and the Temple Mount..


These activities then gave Raed Salah, the Israeli Islamic Movement Northern Branch’s leader the opening he had been seeking. Unlike the Hamas organizers, Salah, as a full-fledged Israeli citizen, was shielded by Israel’s laws protecting free speech. He soon began leading the campaign alleging that the Jews were trying to seize control of the Temple Mount and the adjacent Holy Basin. This was a claim that resonated particularly strongly among the disaffected young and those devout Moslems who had come to work in the city from Hebron.


The stage was being set for the perfect political thunderstorm that would soon engulf the eastern part of the city. All that was needed were a few more developments—and they were not long in coming.


Arguably the most important of these was a decision in 2009 by the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and their supporters, to try to take control of the Likud party. They began joining the Likud in droves. This then enabled them to pack the party’s central committee, and eventually the party slate, with their supporters—and more importantly, drive out the old-time Revisionists who had supported extensive contacts with and equality for Israel’s Arab citizens and residents. During election time, though, the settlers’ supporters voted for HaBayit Hayehudi—effectively giving them control over two parties in the Knesset.
This eviscerated the moderate wing of the Likud and the ideologically-driven Revisionists, which then led Likud Knesset members, in their competition to retain their place on the party slate, to make ever more extreme statements about Arabs, to openly support those Jews seeking to move into Arab areas near the Holy Basin and eventually to actually try to pray openly and before the television cameras on the Temple Mount. As noted, all these activities provided the best fodder imaginable for Raed Salah and Hamas propagandists.


The situation was exacerbated when the leaders of HaBayit Hayehudi, especially party leader Naftali Bennet and the then Minister of Housing Uri Ariel, began in 2015, increasing the stridency of their remarks about Jewish rights to the Temple Mount. As members of the government, they were perceived by the Arabs in Jerusalem to be voicing government policy.


Coming as they did after the failure of the most recent set of peace talks, their statements reinforced a growing belief among the Arabs that there would and could be no political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.


That long-standing belief had already been intensified in June 2014, when 3 Israel teenagers were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank. After weeks of searching, their bodies were found. During the interregnum between the kidnapping and the discovery of the bodies, young Arabs, who had found jobs in the western side of the city, began to be assaulted by gangs of extremist Jewish thugs as these Arabs returned home late at night after working in restaurants or in other places.


Then the war in Gaza during the summer of 2014 also had a major impact. Despite the massive damage inflicted by the Israelis on the Gazans, Hamas emerged from the war with a narrative that resonated strongly among the disaffected Arab youth in Jerusalem. Their version of events was that the Hama leadership had been untouched by the Israeli attacks and that Hamas had resolutely succeeded in confronting the Israelis as no one else had ever done in the past. This resoluteness and a willingness to continue to use violence, Hamas propagandists, argued, should serve as a model for Jerusalem Arabs too.


As I have shown often in the past, under circumstances such as these, all it takes is a small spark for violence to erupt. The spark this time, however, was a very large one. The day after the three kidnapped Jewish youngsters were buried, three Israeli youngsters kidnapped, beat and then burned alive a Jerusalem Arab teenager, Mohammed Khedeir. Not long before, the Israeli authorities had reinstituted a policy of destroying the houses of those Arabs found to have engaged in murderous attacks on Jews. When the homes of the Jews who killed Khedeir were not destroyed, the city’s Arabs took that act of omission as the final and absolute sign that there was no, and there would never be, equality between Arabs and Jews when it came to treating criminality.


Compounding the problem further was a decision by the government at that very moment to begin construction of a new Jewish suburb on Givat Hamatos. That decision meant that the only primary road enabling Palestinians to travel easily between Ramallah and Bethlehem would finally and permanently be cut. In effect, it was a declaration by Israel that a political solution to the division of Jerusalem had been wiped off the peace-making agenda.


Almost immediately, all the violence that had previously been confined to the Arab neighbourhoods burst out into adjacent Jewish suburbs. It should have come as no surprise to anyone that one of the primary targets of the rioters was the ultimate symbol of the Jewish narrative about a united city—the light rail that ran through both Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods.


In an act of utter stupidity that only reinforced the Palestinians’ perceptions that Jerusalem was a divided city, the police were ordered by the government to set up roadblocks at the entry points and exits from Arab neighbourhoods. Fortunately for everyone in the city, the police were wiser than their impetuous political overlords and the roadblocks were dismantled as soon as the politicians’ eyes shifted direction.


The violence in East Jerusalem began to abate somewhat in December 2014. The winter rains and cold night-time temperatures, combined with an increase in the number of border police in East Jerusalem did dampen the Arab youngsters’ enthusiasm for rock-throwing. However, all the factors that had led to the outbreak of violence remained in place. Thus, the current round of violence should be viewed as a continuation of the open conflict that erupted in 2014, and not as something new.


So, in sum, over a period of more than forty years, the Israelis have managed to destroy one of the most important pillars of Ottoman rule—the mukhtar system of universal dependency. However, it has found nothing to replace it with. The current mayor, Nir Barkat, is trying to spend a bit more money on projects in the Arab sector of the city However, he simply does not have the amount of money he needs. And after so many years of neglect, it would take a massive and massively-expensive rehabilitation plan to make even a dent in the current situation.


The only available, possibly-effective alternative—democracy—has been rejected by the Israelis and Palestinians alike. The Jerusalem Arabs do not want to participate in municipal elections for fear of being branded “collaborators.” And Israel refuses to allow local, organized, Arab political activity for fear that it will enable Hamas and other terrorist-supporting groups to institutionalize their presence in the city.


For years, the Israeli authorities were convinced that Arab violence in the city would eventually die down because the Arabs would fear losing their jobs. However, the ranks of the protesters have now been taken by three groups—youngsters wielding rocks and Molotov cocktails who are considered to be too young to be subject to criminal law, lone would-be killers who are being influenced by calls for personal jihads that are being posted on social media web sites, and Israeli Arabs who are answering the call to defend the Al-Aqsa mosque with their bodies.


As happened so often before, the Israeli government has ordered more Border police into Jerusalem to control the violence. However, none of the underlying issues that precipitated this round of stone-throwing and the knifings of Jews in the Old City are being dealt with. For example, in early 2015, the city of Jerusalem did finally give names and house numbers to the streets in the Shuafat camp. However, that did not result in mail deliveries to that area for the first time. The only known use that has been made of this development is that the city has begun to demand payment of municipal taxes even by the owners of illegally-built dwellings, and the Shin Bet has found it easier to discover the whereabouts of protesters and arrest them.


For that reason, even if there is a near-term reduction in the level of violence as the government hopes, the underlying issues will remain unresolved. And even if the coming rains again dampen the current level of rioting, it is highly likely that Jerusalem will see a renewal of the violence once the ambient temperature again matches the heat of passion that has become endemic to the Arab areas of the city.

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