The exchange of attacks between Hamas and Israel notwithstanding, the most important takeaway from the events of the last week is that Jerusalem is and will continue to be the center of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Politicians and even revolutionaries and militants will continue to use the city as a lightning rod for specific purposes, but that will not reduce its importance. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas may have wanted to get out of an election whose results he was unable to guarantee by using the Israeli refusal to allow Jerusalemites to participate, but the very fact he used Jerusalem to get out of the difficult poll goes to show how important the holy city is in Palestinian politics.
Even Hamas, which might have a different motivation for its actions, couldn’t help but respond to the calls for help. What forced the initial barrage of rockets — that for the first time reached the outskirts of west Jerusalem — was the fact that the Israeli provocation and refusal to respect and deal with the Palestinians and their holy sites had reached unprecedented levels.
Israelis violently breaking into Al-Aqsa Mosque, where devout Muslims were spending the last days of the holy month of Ramadan, showing little respect for the sanctity of the place and the worshippers within, brought appeals from the besieged and attacked Palestinians for help from any and all who could. Palestinian citizens of Israel were the first to respond and, even though Israeli police barred them from entering Jerusalem near the village of Abu Ghosh, they decided to walk the remaining 20 km to the Old City. As news of these restrictions spread online, hundreds of Palestinians went out in their cars and drove to the city. Meanwhile, local restaurants provided iftar fast-breaking meals free of charge to those who had come to show solidarity.
But the Israeli security forces’ aggression and their insistence on allowing the radical, anti-Arab Jews to complete their flag-waving and provocative visit to Jerusalem produced hundreds of injured Palestinians and yet another call for help. Thus came the first siren blast in the Jerusalem area to announce impending rocket fire — an act that appeared, at least temporarily, to change the balance of power. Israelis ran for cover and the sirens seemed to expose the many civilian security guards who were pretending to be part of the local scene in order to spy on the Palestinians, who had earlier broken the hundreds of cameras that were monitoring their every move inside and outside the Old City.
A debate will certainly take place as to the wisdom of introducing Hamas rockets into the conflict and whether this diverted attention from Jerusalem’s largely unarmed protests, both in Al-Aqsa and in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, where tens of Palestinian families are threatened with eviction.
Regardless of this or that argument, there is no doubt that the city of Jerusalem and the preservation of its Arab identity continues to be the most important aspect in the entire Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Ariel Sharon’s defiant entry to Al-Aqsa Mosque in the fall of 2000 produced a similar reaction by Palestinians, which was brutally put down, leaving tens of martyrs — an act that triggered what became known as the Al-Aqsa or Second Intifada. Now, Jerusalem and its most prominent site, Al-Aqsa Mosque, is again the center of the conflict and the trigger that causes all other activities and acts of resistance.
With Israel knowing the potential reaction to their violent efforts against the Palestinian people and their holy place, it remains unclear what its motivation was for escalating the situation. Did the Israelis, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid his failure to form a government, want to instigate a conflict in order to get the support of the Israeli public thanks to their expected handling of this issue, which has equal emotional and religious meaning to devout Jews? Netanyahu, who is not a devout Jew but is politically dependent on the political and religious Jewish parties, needed to have this drama around Jerusalem and the revered location of Al-Aqsa in order to gain the sympathy of the public and possibly to derail the attempts of his opponents to form a government that could replace him and his right-wing allies.
The city and its most prominent site, Al-Aqsa Mosque, is again the trigger that causes all other activities and acts of resistance.
Regardless of the motivations or whether it was Abbas or Hamas, the only game in town continues to be that of the status of Jerusalem and its identity. Courageous Palestinian youths have succeeded in standing up to the powerful Israeli military machine and have defended their Al-Aqsa with their bare chests and determination, coupled with the new fad of smiling as they are being arrested to show they have no fear of the Israelis.
The city of Jerusalem has been claimed as the capital of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. The question remains whether the Israeli side will be allowed to continue to crush the other side or whether a formula will be found to allow Palestinians and Israelis to share the city and allow its residents — whether Muslims, Christians or Jews — to live and pray in peace and without fear or intimidation.
Daoud Kuttab is a resident of Jerusalem. Twitter: @daoudkuttab