July 2003

Israeli police sealed off areas around the Old City in East Jerusalem last Friday in an attempt to severely limit the number of Muslim worshippers reaching the mosque compound of the Haram Al- Sharif to pray. Of those who got past the cordons, only Muslims over the age of 40 were allowed to enter the area, which contains Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock mosques. Officials said they had imposed the measures to prevent rioting at Friday prayers, the occasion for past violent confrontations between Palestinians and the Israeli security forces.

Confronted by a new generation of Arab-Israeli leaders challenging the Jewish state’s claim to be democratic, Israeli authorities have stepped up their battle to control the country’s indigenous Arab minority according to leading Israeli analyst Asad Ghanem. The two most charismatic figures among the Palestinian minority, Islamic leader Sheikh Raed Salah and secular nationalist Azmi Bishara, have been victims of concerted campaigns aimed at delegitimizing them as politicians, and charging them with criminal offenses. Both have fallen foul of the political establishment due to their skills in articulating opinions that challenge the legitimacy of a Jewish state.

The Israeli Supreme Court heard three major cases this week involving army policies in the Occupied Territories, which, according to human rights groups, either grossly violate the individual rights of Palestinians or inflict unfair collective punishment on the civilian population. In separate hearings, Israeli and Palestinian lawyers asked the judges to ban extra-judicial assassinations of Palestinian leaders, to end the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields and to lift the curfew that has been in place in Hebron for the past six months. In the Hebron case, the judges rejected outright the grounds for the petition, which argued that the continuous curfew prevents the city’s 120,000 inhabitants from safely getting food and medicines. Instead the court accepted the army’s claim that the measure was necessary to allow soldiers to carry out operations against “terrorist cells.”

The inhabitants of Nazareth, Israel’s only Arab city, often talk of the “invisible occupation”: although they rarely see police — let alone soldiers — on their streets, they are held in a vise-like grip of Israeli control just as much as their ethnic kin in neighbouring Palestinian cities like Jenin and Nablus are. In September 2000, for example, when Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens, including Nazarenes, demonstrated against Ariel Sharon’s visit to the mosque compound in Jersualem — known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount — 13 of their number were shot dead by police in four days. Not a single protester had been armed.

Israeli Prime minister Ariel Sharon has been quietly flexing his muscles against Israel’s two Islamist movements in recent weeks, leading one of the organization’s political leaders to call the crackdown a “declaration of war on Islam.” Last week Sharon sent hundreds of heavily armed policemen into the center of Nazareth, Israel’s only Arab city, to demolish the foundations of a mosque being built there, in a dramatic strike against the southern Islamic Movement. The party’s leader on the city council, Salman Abu Ahmed, was among half a dozen Muslims arrested at the site.

Isolating Jerusalem

3 July 2003

History was made last month in Jerusalem’s municipal elections when the city elected its first ultra-Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski, backed by a majority bloc of religious representatives on the city council. It was an outcome that reflected two of the key demographic factors that have been shaping life in the city since the war of 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank, including the eastern half of Jerusalem, and began “unifying” the city as its capital. The first was the decision taken by the Israeli leadership in the aftermath of the war to tighten its hold on Jerusalem, and the surrounding area, by transforming the city from a historic and religious symbol for the Jewish people into the concrete heart of the modern Jewish state, pumping the settlement project deep into the occupied West Bank.

Divide and destroy

3 July 2003

Hundreds of heavily armed special forces sealed off the centre of Nazareth, Israel’s only Arab city, yesterday, as the foundations of a large mosque being built next to one of the Middle East’s holiest churches was demolished. The invasion began shortly before 5am, as Nazareth was still sleeping. The first warning was the drone of a police helicopter overhead followed at about 5.30am by a voice — quickly cut short — calling over the mosque loudspeakers on Nazarenes to defend their city. In the heart of the Nazareth, riot police and government officials sealed off the main road, arresting several religious leaders who tried to defend the site, including the deputy mayor, Salman Abu Ahmed. Then three bulldozers began tearing apart the concrete of the mosque’s base, watched from behind cordons by a growing crowd of onlookers.