November 10, 2014 - Unrest in East Jerusalem, the role of Arab-Israelis, the fraying of the Netanyahu government

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This week, Alpher discusses whether the unrest in Arab East Jerusalem is just a Palestinian-Israeli issue or is it also an internal issue involving the Arab citizens of Israel; whether the unrest accomplished anything for the Palestinian cause; how committed is the Arab-Israeli to the anti-Jewish demonstrations that broke out on Saturday; how does all this affect the broader Palestinian issue, and particularly the Fateh-Hamas/West Bank-Gaza reconciliation process; the Netanyahu government's apparent fraying;

 

Q. Is the unrest in Arab East Jerusalem just a Palestinian-Israeli issue or is it also an internal issue involving the Arab citizens of Israel?

A. It's both, and therein lies an entire complex of problems for the Netanyahu government. That the violence has focused on and emanated from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif reflects the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, in some ways it projects a regional dimension of Arab-Israel conflict and even a Muslim-Jewish dimension of religious conflict.

But because greater Jerusalem, Israel's "united" capital, has to a large extent been cut off from the West Bank, the Arab camp involved in the Temple Mount unrest has been organized primarily by the Israeli Islamist movement, making this very much an issue involving Arab citizens of Israel. As of Saturday, with the death of an Arab in Kafr Kana near Nazareth in the heart of Israel, anti-Jewish unrest and demonstrations had spread throughout Israel.

 

Q. Let's begin with Jerusalem itself. Has the unrest accomplished anything for the Palestinian cause?

A. It has certainly placed Jerusalem at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And in a paradoxical outcome, Jewish-Arab friction and Palestinian attacks, including the use of vehicles to run over Israelis at tram stops, have brought about the reinstatement, for the first time since the city was united in 1967, of separation barricades along the demographic fault line. Last week witnessed the placement of such barriers in Abu Tur and between Isawiya and French Hill. Older readers who remember pre-1967 divided Jerusalem can conjure up the image that this measure projects. Along with the fact that the West Bank remains quiet under Palestinian Authority security forces, these actions facilitate the claim from Ramallah that Israel cannot restore quiet until and unless it cedes East Jerusalem to the PLO as the capital of a Palestinian state.

Another paradox of the current situation in Arab East Jerusalem is the fact that, at a day-to-day level, most East Jerusalemites actually seek greater integration into Israel. This is particularly reflected in what Palestinians say on their social networks and where prosperous Jerusalem Palestinians send their children to school. Even applications for Israeli citizenship, though still low, are rising. But Jerusalem Arab political participation--in municipal elections, for example--is negligible. Further, as in Israel proper, the political leadership of the East Jerusalem Arab community is anything but pro-integration; indeed, on the street it increasingly favors the Islamists. Meanwhile, both the government of Israel and the Jerusalem municipality fuel the fire through constant neglect of infrastructure in East Jerusalem, while responding to the unrest through a heavy and oppressive police deployment (in this case, the Border Police) that only nourishes resentment.

Here is what a Palestinian scholar of the conflict, Walid Salem, wrote me (and others) on Monday. Walid is a genuine moderate who has defiantly sought dialogue ever since I've known him. Here his missive is reproduced with my deletions but in his own English:

What does [Jerusalem] represent for me as a Palestinian Jerusalemite? Why I am excluded not only when it comes to my rights to the city, and my rights in the city, but also excluded from my right of representing it?

Like many Palestinian Jerusalemites, I have a demolition order for my house since 2002. And as with many others, a new road that links between two [Jewish] settlements in East Jerusalem started to be created passing exactly at the entrance of my house in Shuafat.

. . . . I . . . have no right to the city, I am not allowed to make a political claim that East Jerusalem is mine. . . . I have no right to represent myself politically. At the legal
level I am obliged to be defined as" A Jordanian Citizen residing permanently in Israel". . . . I have to respect the generosity of the Israel of allowing me to live in an "Israeli" territory that was annexed to Israel in 1967. . . . I also have no right to represent myself administratively, also at the community level. In this level my Arab Municipality was dissolved by the Israeli Authorities in 1967, and then I was obliged to deal with an Israeli municipality that does not represent me.

. . . . My presence in my city faces several complex challenges: Judaization
of the land . . . . Israelization of the institutions. . . .  Ethnic cleansing by using different methods of evacuating me out of my city. . . . Isolation of those who
will stay in the city after all of this by disconnecting the Palestinian neighborhoods in the city from each other. . . . Fifth and last: The closure started in 1993 by checkpoints and permit system, and ended with the creation of a Separation Wall, aiming to disconnect between the Palestinian Jerusalemites.

Should I point out to Walid that Arab Jerusalemites could radically affect their situation by voting en masse in municipal elections, thereby giving themselves a decisive voice in Jerusalem's affairs? That they could denounce the radical Islamists who galvanize the stone-throwing and terrorism against Jews in Jerusalem? That he is free to apply for Israeli citizenship? That the separation wall in Jerusalem was built to stop a real threat: Palestinian suicide bombers? It's pretty obvious that suggestions like these have little impact after 47 years of consistent Israeli mismanagement of the Palestinian issue in general and the Jerusalem issues in particular. They simply pale in the face of the systematic mistreatment and exclusion that Walid describes.

 

Q. What about the Israeli Arab population. How committed is it to the anti-Jewish demonstrations that broke out on Saturday?

A. As noted, on Saturday the Israel Police killed an Arab youth who attacked them with a knife in Kafr Kana. The circumstances of the death appear highly controversial. Following the incident, unrest--including a general strike in the Arab sector--spread throughout Arab municipal areas in Israel and even into the heart of Tel Aviv, where on Monday a soldier was stabbed by a Palestinian from Nablus in the West Bank.

The actual number of demonstrators is relatively small. To a far greater extent than East Jerusalem, all available statistics show that a sizeable majority of Arab citizens of Israel is interested in and is increasingly achieving job and education integration. Repeated polls show that a majority consistently accepts the notion of living in a "Jewish state" as long as they have equal rights. Anyone using the Israeli medical, pharmaceutical, cable TV or construction sectors cannot help but remark on the socio-economic achievements of Israeli Arabs. The Israeli Arab rate of "volunteering" for terrorist groups, now including the Islamic State, is low by Arab world and even European standards.

Yet the Arab political sector, in the Knesset and in many municipalities, is dominated by parties that take a far more radical line--some to the extent of insisting that Israel (within the green line) become a bi-national state. Israeli Arabs generally refuse to serve in the IDF and the Israel Police, where their presence could make a huge difference in attitudes toward pluralism and tolerance (a few Christian Arabs and Bedouin are the exception). At the political level, with the rise of the ultra-nationalist Jewish right, right-wing voices of reason like that of President Reuven Rivlin are all too rare. The Palestinian conflict overshadows everything.

Most likely, if the Jewish Temple Mount rabble-rousers can shut up for a while and the extremist Islamists can be suppressed, a measure of quiet will be restored, first in Israel proper and then in Jerusalem. Until the next time: with no peace process, with settlements spreading, and with Islamic and Jewish extremism on the rise, peace and quiet can only be temporary.

 

Q. Indeed, how does all this affect the broader Palestinian issue, and particularly the Fateh-Hamas/West Bank-Gaza reconciliation process?

A. Most Palestinians presumably rejoice in Israel's troubles, from the Temple Mount all the way to Kafr Kana. They see them as contributing to a process of isolating Israel internationally. It even dovetails nicely with PLO/PA leader Mahmoud Abbas's plans to further the Palestinian cause at the United Nations and among those European countries that are prepared to recognize a sovereign (but virtual) Palestine.

Yet the real "action" in recent days has been in the Gaza Strip, where Fateh's plans to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat provoked Hamas into detonating explosive charges at the entrance to the homes of Fateh activists in the Strip, then demanding that a ceremony in the Strip be cancelled. This violent provocation took place against a backdrop of Hamas resistance to any serious activity in Gaza by the Palestinian reconciliation government and Fateh charges that Hamas is diverting international reconstruction funds to the digging of military tunnels. Hamas also announced it is raising a new "popular army" with 2,500 initial recruits.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Egyptian Sinai, the Islamist opposition group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis formally announced on Monday its affiliation with the Islamic State. Egypt and Israel both accuse Hamas of collaborating with the Sinai militants.

With intra-Palestinian political reconciliation once again floundering, Hamas again turning to military pursuits, and Hamas's allies in Sinai bringing IS to Israel's borders, the outbreak of renewed violence between Israel and the Strip seems just a matter of time.

 

Q. Meanwhile, back in Israel, the Netanyahu government appears to be seriously fraying at the edges.

A. The resignation of Environment Minister Amir Peretz (HaTnua) on Sunday was understood by many to be the first concrete indication of genuine erosion within the coalition. Peretz cited the budget as the reason for his decision, but took the opportunity to sharply criticize PM Netanyahu as a "hostage to the extreme right wing. . . . I don't intend to remain in this government. When everything around is burning, the prime minister sets the ground on fire instead of calming things down." For the moment, HaTnua leader Tzipi Livni does not plan to take her party out of the coalition, but Peretz's gesture is likely to provoke demonstrations of political support within HaTnua as well as in Yair Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid. Even Yisrael Beitenu head Avigdor Lieberman is trying to outflank Netanyahu from the center.

Meanwhile, on the far right of the coalition, pressure is growing on Netanyahu. Last week, HaBait HaYehudi head Naftali Bennet ("the government has lost its way") published his anti-two-state quasi-apartheid credo in the New York Times. One of his proposals--to impose Israeli law on Area C, constituting 60 percent of the West Bank where the settlers live--was just given preliminary approval by a coalition ministerial committee. The prime minister, who is under pressure to at least present a "two-state" facade internationally, is increasingly feeling politically isolated within his own coalition and even within his own party, where in recent weeks yet another minister (Gideon Saar) abandoned him.

On Sunday, the Likud resolved to hold pre-election leadership primaries in early January. Elections can't be far behind.

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