Why Jerusalem tensions have reached a boiling point

Analysis: Competing claims and ongoing settlement fuel tensions that have escalated security crackdowns

An Israeli security crackdown and increased settlement activity in Palestinian neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem have fueled tensions that exploded into violence this week, analysts tell Al Jazeera.

On Wednesday, a 21-year-old Palestinian from the neighborhood of Silwan crashed his car into a crowd of people at a light-rail stop. An infant died of injuries sustained in the incident, which Israeli authorities described as a “terrorist” attack, and eight others were injured before the driver was shot and killed by Israeli police.

The driver, Abed al-Rahman al-Shaludi, had served time in Israeli prisons, Israeli authorities said — a claim that was corroborated by his family, according to Yousef Munayyer, executive director of The Jerusalem Fund in Washington, D.C.

“He’d been arrested and detained multiple times by Israeli security services. He was allegedly tortured,” Munayyer said. “It’s clear that this seems to be a young man who was caught up in the same security apparatus that affects the lives of countless young Palestinians in Jerusalem protesting encroachment on their towns and villages.”

According to Munayyer, Israeli forces had detained al-Shaludi — along with his father — during a night raid on his family home, during which his grandmother was allegedly injured. Al-Shaludi’s mother, according to Munayyer, said his doctor had recommended psychiatric treatment just days before the incident at the light-rail stop, adding that her son was never the same after the arrest.

Munayyer warned that there was a danger that more young men could snap under the pressure of Israel’s system of security control in their neighborhoods. Silwan, where the al-Shaludis live, has become a flashpoint because Israeli settlers have been moving into the neighborhood, in what many Palestinians say is an attempt to cement Israeli control over parts of the city occupied since 1967 and which Palestinian negotiators claim as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Tensions in Jerusalem had risen to a boiling point over the summer, when Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and burned alive by Israelis, who said they were avenging the murder of three Israeli teenagers near Hebron.

Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem erupted in protests, prompting an Israeli crackdown. At the same time, angry crowds of Israelis marched through the city’s streets demanding revenge.

At least 760 Palestinians, including 260 children, were arrested in the security sweeps that followed, according to the Israeli news outlet Haaretz.

“The mass arrests in Jerusalem … the settlers’ invasion of Arab neighborhoods with the support of the government and courts … all this will have a price,” Israeli columnist Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz on Thursday. Between 1967 and 2013, he wrote, Israel revoked the residence status — or the identification card that allows Palestinians to live in East Jerusalem — of over 14,000 Palestinians, “with strange claims that don’t apply to any of its Jewish residents. Isn’t that apartheid?”

If Wednesday’s deadly attack on the light-rail station was a politically motivated act, it shouldn’t be surprising, analysts told Al Jazeera.

Israeli leadership has touted the public transportation system as a symbol of “coexistence” to the international community. But many Palestinians view it as another example of Israel creating “facts on the ground,” referring to Israel’s efforts to displace Palestinians and assert control over parts of Jerusalem where Israel’s sovereignty is not internationally recognized.

Although successive Israeli governments have claimed Israeli sovereignty over all of its “eternal, undivided capital,” not even Israel’s closest ally, the United States, accepts those claims. Indeed, the U.S. embassy remains in Tel Aviv despite nearly two decades of efforts by the U.S. Congress to move it to Jerusalem.

“[The light rail] is definitely a symbol of Israel’s view of Jerusalem as one contiguous Jewish territory and to that we have to add the continuous settlement and occupying of east Jerusalem,” Daniel Goldenblatt, Israeli co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), told Al Jazeera.

Goldenblatt said that settlement in East Jerusalem occurs through Palestinian homes and apartments being secretly purchased by straw companies, which then transfer them to Israeli ownership, resulting in the eviction of the Palestinian residents. Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, as well as all other territories occupied in the war of 1967, is considered illegal under international law according to the United Nations Security Council.

The municipality of Jerusalem also encourages settlement in Arab neighborhoods beyond the Green Line — the 1967 boundary. Any buying or selling of homes in that area is strictly controlled by the municipal authorities and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, Goldenblatt added.

Jerusalem has been a volatile and emotive factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it houses sites considered holy to all three major Abrahamic faiths — most notably, the Al-Aqsa mosque and the remaining wall of the city’s ancient Jewish temple.

“In recent weeks, tensions have been ratcheting up because of circumstances on the ground,” Munayyer said. “You’re seeing much stricter Israeli policies when it comes to who gets to go where, including Muslims going to pray in Al-Aqsa mosque.”

Increasing visits by Jewish groups to the precincts of Al-Aqsa, while keeping the Palestinians out of the compound, is adding “fuel to the fire,” Goldenblatt said.  

Just weeks ago, tensions over the site prompted Israeli authorities to close Al-Aqsa to all but elderly Muslims, sparking mass protests and clashes between police and Palestinian demonstrators.

“The issue of the Temple Mount is getting more attention, and it obviously has the potential for something very, very large and very, very bad to come out of any type of small incident on that place — it’s really scary actually,” Goldenblatt said.

Many view a controversial visit to Al-Aqsa by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as the spark that ignited the Second Intifada, or uprising, in 2000.

“There are a whole lot of very explosive relationships, interactions and sites that makes Jerusalem today one of the most explosive places in the world,” Goldenblatt said.

And while any sort of political solution to the conflict becomes increasingly elusive, analysts fear that stepping up security measures will only inflame tensions.

“Israel’s response to what happened has been more security, greater presence and involvement of Israeli security intelligence forces in the lives of Palestinians in the city,” Munayyer said. “That won’t contribute in any way to a solution when it is, in fact, the underlying cause of the problem.”

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