Recent Palestinian attacks culminated last week in a shooting and stabbing spree by two cousins at a synagogue in Jerusalem that killed four Jews and an Israeli policeman. In this atmosphere, both sides have warned that the political conflict is mutating into a religious one. It should be no surprise that Jerusalem is the eye of the storm. For more than a decade it has served as a laboratory for the Israeli right to experiment with a model of political despair designed to make Palestianians either submit or leave.
With East Jerusalem already smouldering, it emerged this week that the Israeli parliament is to consider a bill that could set the region ablaze. The measure would lift limitations on Jews visiting the al-Aqsa mosque compound, the most sensitive site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If passed, the legislation would likely trigger a much-anticipated third Palestinian intifada, and set off protests across the Muslim world.
There are no wrecked houses, no crushed or blasted bodies in Umm al-Fahm. But Israel is waging a campaign against this town of 45,000 inhabitants and its leading son, Sheikh Raed Salah, closely related to its current assault on Gaza. Salah, leader of the northern Islamic Movement, expects Israel’s war on Hamas to come knocking at his door next.
Israel is preparing to shut down the most popular Islamic party among its large Palestinian minority, apparently hoping to exploit the tide of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. “Outlawing the Islamic Movement is intended to send a clear message to all Palestinians that Israel will not tolerate political Islam,” said Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at Haifa University.
A right-wing Israeli settlement group has been put in charge of two controversial new projects to develop the area around al-Haram al-Sharif, the compound of holy sites that includes al-Aqsa mosque. Elad received planning approval this month to develop a huge visitors’ centre just outside the Old City walls in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. While the visitors’ centre will give Elad a base less than 20 metres from the Old City, a second project could extend its reach to the retaining wall of al-Aqsa mosque itself.
For Palestinian leaders, waiting anxiously in the hope that US Secretary of State John Kerry unveils a peace plan when he visits this week, the need to secure East Jerusalem’s future has come sharply into relief. The reason is simple: there can be no viable Palestinian state without Jerusalem as its capital. This was the background to a March 26 pledge by the Arab League to establish a $1 billion fund to protect East Jerusalem’s Arab and Islamic characters.
The discovery of a rare aerial photo of Jerusalem in the 1930s, taken by a Zeppelin, has provided the long-sought after proof that when Israel occupied the Old City in 1967 it secretly destroyed an important mosque that dated from the time of Saladin close to the al-Aqsa mosque. The destruction of the Sheikh Eid mosque – in an area widely considered to be the most sensitive site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – revives questions about Israel’s continuing abuse of Islamic holy places under its control.
On a rocky slope dropping steeply away from the busy main road at the entrance to West Jerusalem is to be found a scattering of ancient stone houses, empty and clinging precariously to terraces hewn from the hillside centuries ago. Although most Israeli drivers barely notice the buildings, the small ghost town of Lifta — neglected for the past six decades — is at the centre of a legal battle fuelling nationalist sentiments on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
The furore last week over Sheikh Raed Salah, described by the Daily Mail newspaper as a “vile militant extremist”, goaded the British government into ordering his late-night arrest, pending a fast-track deportation. But the outcry in Britain against Sheikh Salah has shocked Israel’s 1.3-million Palestinian citizens. For them, he is a spiritual leader and head of a respected party, the Islamic Movement. He is also admired by the wider Palestinian public.
Despite high-profile connections, Munther Fahmi’s days in the city of his birth may be numbered. Israeli officials have told him that, after 16 years running his bookshop in the grounds of East Jerusalem’s 19th-century hotel the American Colony, he is no longer welcome in Israel. Two months ago he exhausted his legal options when Israel’s high court refused to overturn the decision to deport him.
Jewish investors, led by a Jerusalem city councillor, last week foiled a bid by businessman Bashar Masri to become the first Palestinian to own a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. A coalition of settler groups and Israeli business leaders had branded as “treason” the initial acceptance of Masri’s offer late last month to bail out the settlement project’s owner, Digal, an Israeli investment company.
Israeli police have been criticised over their treatment of hundreds of Palestinian children, some as young as seven, arrested and interrogated on suspicion of stone-throwing in East Jerusalem. In the past year, criminal investigations have been opened against more than 1,200 Palestinian minors in Jerusalem on stone-throwing charges, according to police statistics. That was nearly twice the number of children arrested last year in the much larger Palestinian territory of the West Bank.
While Washington struggles to kick-start the troubled Middle East peace talks, Israel has been working quietly over the past few weeks to sabotage the US efforts with a series of measures targeting the most incendiary issue of all – Jerusalem. The latest move was the passage of a law requiring a national referendum before occupied East Jerusalem can be handed over to the Palestinians, who demand it as the capital of their future state.
A police officer known as “Major George” who is accused of torturing Arab prisoners in his previous role as chief interrogator in a secret military jail has been appointed to oversee relations with Jerusalem’s Palestinian population, it has emerged. The decision has been greeted with stunned disbelief from human rights groups, who say unresolved allegations against Major George that he brutally abused Arab prisoners for many years should disqualify him from such a sensitive post.
Israeli human-rights groups and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, have condemned a decision by Israel to expel four Palestinian politicians from East Jerusalem by the end of this week. The Israeli government revoked their residency rights in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, after claiming they were “in breach of trust” for belonging to a “foreign parliament”, a reference to the Palestinian Legislative Council. All four men belong to Hamas and were arrested a few months after taking part in the Palestinian national elections in January 2006.
Israeli authorities are pressing ahead with plans to build a courthouse complex on a large historic Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem that is already at the center of protest over plans to locate a “Museum of Tolerance” there. The proposed courthouse is expected to provoke stiff opposition, especially from Islamic groups, after it was revealed that an excavation last year for the museum, close by, unearthed as many as 1,500 Muslim graves.
The Israeli government has indicated that it will press ahead with a plan to enlarge the Jewish prayer plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, despite warnings that the move risks triggering a third intifada. Israeli officials rejected this week a Jerusalem court’s proposal to shelve the plan after the judge accepted that the plaza’s expansion would violate the “status quo” arrangement covering the Old City’s holy places.
Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in the United States this week armed with a mandate from the Israeli parliament. A large majority of legislators from all of Israel’s main parties had supported a petition urging him to stand firm on the building of Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem — the very issue that got him into hot water days earlier with the White House.
Hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli security forces across East Jerusalem yesterday in the worst rioting in years, after Hamas called for a “day of rage”. Police fired rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas at protesters who hurled stones and set up barricades with rubbish bins and burning tyres. In one neighbourhood, Israeli police officers disguised as protesters wrestled demonstrators to the ground and handcuffed them. Sixteen Palestinians were taken to hospital with broken bones, eye and stomach injuries.
Israel announced yesterday that it was to build 1,600 new homes in an illegal Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, hours after the visiting US vice president, Joe Biden, had described renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians as “a moment of real opportunity”. The White House’s top spokesman said the United States condemns Israel’s approval of settlements.
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