Unless it can be touted as a harbinger of a religious war, the news from Jerusalem fails to capture world attention. Contrast, for example, the attention given to last year’s clashes at Al Aqsa Mosque with the paucity of interest in dozens of young Palestinians injured in East Jerusalem last month as they protested the killing of teenager Ali Abu Ghannam by Israeli soldiers at a military checkpoint to the east of Jerusalem.
When protests grip Jerusalem they too often get little of the media interest they merit. Likewise, Baltimore received little to no mainstream coverage before suddenly flooding our screens with largely superficial reporting, much as has been the case with the protests against racism by Ethiopian citizens of Israel. In these recent cases, the bulk of the media attention focused on the immediate protestswithout addressing the underlying injustice. Instead, focus should have been placed on the validity of protest against systematic violence meted out by U.S. police and Israeli occupation forces.
And yet, Jerusalem is at a boiling point. The reliance on framing such brutal events as a religious war turns a blind eye to the realities of daily life endured by Palestinian Jerusalemites who have been resisting longstanding Israeli plans to “Judaize” the city and empty it of its Palestinian inhabitants. Indeed, the clashes in the Holy City can only be understood as part of a larger mosaic that traces an entrenched Israeli policy of discrimination and displacement – alongside increasingly ineffective Palestinian or Arab pushback.
Despite the Obama administration’s recent efforts to mend relations with Israel, U.S. policy makers cannot afford to ignore the brewing crisis in Jerusalem.
In fact, since 1967, when it illegally annexed East Jerusalem, Israel has been transforming a multi-religious and multi-cultural city into a “re-unified” Jewish city under its exclusive control and sovereignty.
In order to achieve a ratio of 30 percent Palestinians and 70 percent Jews within the Jerusalem municipality, Israel has been carrying out discriminatory urban and zoning policies. For instance, more than one third of the land in Palestinian neighborhoods has been classified as “open landscape areas” where building is prohibited, constricting Palestinian building to only 14 percent of the land of East Jerusalem and causing an acute housing crisis.
Israel has also designated Palestinians living in Jerusalem as permanent residents, thereby revoking their natural right to the city of their birth and heritage: Israel revoked the residency rights of more than 14,309 Jerusalemite Palestinians between 1967 and 2013. Further, since 1967, Israel has destroyed 1,673 housing units.
Discriminatory Israeli policies are also apparent in the discrepancies in service provision between Palestinian and Jewish neighborhoods. Less than 10 percent of the municipal budget is allocated to Palestinian districts, partly contributing to East Jerusalem’s extremely high poverty rate (75 percent of Palestinian residents live below the Israeli definition of the poverty line); collapsing trade and tourism sectors; lack of investment; depleted health and educational services; high unemployment rates (16.7 percent in 2014); and high costs of living.
The “Judaization” of Jerusalem has been accompanied by de-Palestinianization to eradicate the Palestinian identity in Jerusalem, even renaming some streets and districts. Israeli control over the historical narrative has forced Palestinian schools to use censored textbooks devoid of any topic related to Palestinian identity and heritage.
Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem have also been targeted to erode Palestinian activism in the city. Since 2001, Israel has closed at least 31 Palestinian institutions, including the Orient House, the former headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The climate of repression led many institutions to relocate from Jerusalem and caused a huge institutional vacuum, accompanied by an absence of leadership.
While Israel is turning its vision for Jerusalem into reality via numerous policies and master plans (2020, 2030, and 2050), a coherent strategy for the future of the city by the Palestinian Authority (PA) remains absent. Despite its rhetoric of support, the PA allocates a negligible budget to the city: The around $15 million allocated in 2014, represented 0.4 percent of the total PA budget expenditure. Hatem Abdel-Qader, who resigned 40 days after his appointment as Minister of Jerusalem Affairs in 2009, said that the Palestinian “government fails to uphold its commitments to the city,” leaving Palestinians feeling abandoned and resentful towards the PLO/PA.
In such a context of subjugation, institutionalized discrimination, and dispossession, Palestinians need proactive leadership that will propel the status of Jerusalem to the forefront of government commitment and to the heart of the national struggle as a matter of urgency. It is vital that Palestinians project a clear vision of Jerusalem to counter the prevailing Israeli plan of dispossession. Information and communication are key tools to counter Israel’s re-writing of history and silencing of the Palestinian narrative.
The turmoil in Jerusalem is a warning that U.S. policy makers must not ignore. They cannot afford to let the U.S. media write off these events as an irrational “war of beliefs” but must instead address their root causes and confront the systemic violence underlying Israeli colonial policies against Palestinians and Palestinian heritage in Jerusalem.
From the U.S. to Israel, legal systems are being exposed for harsh, rights-violating police actions. American politicians should be more alert to the discrimination and dispossession Palestinians face in Jerusalem and throughout Israel’s illegally occupied Palestinian territory, particularly at a time when racial injustices are receiving heightened attention from Ferguson to Baltimore to Tel Aviv.