Jerusalem

As Israeli authorities declare “national parks” over residential areas in East Jerusalem, thousands of Palestinians living in overcrowded neighbourhoods close by the Old City are being trapped in a planning nightmare. Human-rights group accuse the officials of increasingly using such parks as a tool to grab control of Palestinian land and demolish homes, under the guise of archaeological preservation and tourism development.

Israel is to put financial pressure on Palestinian schools in occupied East Jerusalem in an effort to make them switch over to an Israeli-controlled curriculum. Palestinian officials have slammed the move, warning that it is part of intensified efforts by Israel to disconnect East Jerusalem from the neighbouring West Bank and entrench its control over the 300,000 Palestinians in the city.

In his Jerusalem office, Rabbi Chaim Richman has steeped himself in an unlikely mix of 2,000-year-old Judaic tradition and the latest in American cattle-breeding technology. His aim is to genetically engineer a perfect red heifer. If he succeeds, he believes it will open the way to destroying one of the holiest sites in Islam, the al-Aqsa mosque, and building a Jewish temple in its place.

Tens of thousands of visitors have come to Sheikh Raed Salah’s protest tent in the past three weeks, since Netanyahu declared his Islamic Movement an “illegal organisation”. In an interview, Salah calls the move “a declaration of war not just against our movement but against Islam and against the whole Palestinian community [in Israel]. Everyone feels targeted.”

Despite claims it is seeking to calm tensions in Jerusalem, Israel is intensifying activities to encircle the al-Aqsa mosque and strengthen its control over the holy site, Israeli archaeologists have warned. Sounding the alarm as the US brokered a deal that will see cameras installed in the mosque compound, the group accused Israel of making rapid changes to the physical landscape around al-Aqsa to obscure the area’s Islamic character and create an ever-more arduous “obstacle course” for worshippers.

Israel has little but stopgap measures to defend against Palestinian protests. Its intelligence agencies cannot predict the lone wolf, its guns cannot deter the knife, its military might cannot subdue the craving for justice and dignity. The current unrest may recede, but more waves of protest of ever greater intensity are surely not far behind.

Israeli human rights groups say videos taken on phones challenge the accuracy of official Israeli accounts of the circumstances in which police have killed or injured Palestinians. The footage provides concrete evidence that police have been “quick to shoot to kill” rather than arrest Palestinians in Jerusalem and Israel who were suspected of involvement in attacks on Israeli Jews.

Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a crackdown on Palestinian political leaders in Israel, blaming them for the current unrest, in what appeared to be an attempt to bolster his severely dented image as ‘Mr Security’. After a security cabinet meeting, Netanyahu directed officials to assemble the evidence to make possible the outlawing of the northern wing of the Islamic movement.

For the past month Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to rewrite the Biblical story of David and Goliath by declaring war on what he terms Palestinian “terrorism by stones”. The touchpaper for the latest clashes are Israeli transgressions at al-Aqsa mosque compound. Tensions have risen sharply as ever larger numbers of Jewish ultra-nationalists have ascended to the mosque area.

Officials in Jerusalem have approved a massive construction project, including plans for housing, shops and a hotel, on one of the largest and most historically important Islamic cemeteries in the Middle East. A previous project to build a courthouse at the site, part of Mamilla Cemetery, was scrapped earlier after it provoked a storm of protest.

Palestinians suffer under four types of occupation, according to the Freedom Theatre. Three, including Israel’s military occupation, are external. The deepest of all, however, is the internalization by the oppressed of the culture and narrative of the oppressor. Freedom Theatre artistic director Nabil al-Raee says: “We are trying to build a generation that can first free themselves, then fight for the freedom of others.”

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.

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