West Asia

Another Intifada?

Print edition : November 27, 2015

Protesters tear down a section of a border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip on October 12. Photo: MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

A Palestinian demonstrater tries to destroy a part of the controversial wall separating the West Bank city of Abu Dis from east Jerusalem during clashes with the Israeli security forces on November 2. Photo: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: REUTERS

A general view of Jerusalem's Old City showing the Al Aqsa mosque, known to Jews as the Temple Mount. Photo: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

Occupied Palestinian territories are in turmoil as right-wing Jewish zealots persuade the Benjamin Netanyahu government to place further restrictions on Palestinians going to offer prayers at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

Violence gripped Jerusalem city and the occupied territories in October after Palestinians took to the streets to protest against the various restrictions placed by the Israeli authorities. Civilian casualties were reported almost every day. By October end, 72 Palestinians had died at the hands of Israeli security forces and vigilante groups. A Palestinian child was among those killed near Bethlehem on October 29. Eleven Israeli Jews lost their lives at the hands of knife-wielding Palestinians. A Jewish mob killed a 29-year-old Eritrean migrant worker in Beersheba city suspecting him to be a Palestinian. The victim happened to be near the scene of an attack in which a Palestinian Bedouin killed an Israeli soldier and wounded 11 civilians. The Benjamin Netanyahu government has deprived many Bedouins of their citizenship. It recently announced plans to evict 40,000 Bedouins from their homes in the Negev desert.

Much of the violence was initially concentrated in the occupied city of Jerusalem and has since spread to Israeli cities and the West Bank. In the last week of October, Hebron, the West Bank’s biggest city, became the scene of a violent confrontation between civilians and Israeli soldiers. The security forces killed 20 people, including two teenaged girls. The Israeli authorities accused them of trying to kill their soldiers. Netanyahu’s Likud Party was elected in March this year on a racist anti-Arab platform. Netanyahu heads a government formed with the coalition of extreme right-wing Zionist parties. Ultranationalists have encouraged the creation of vigilante groups, with the tacit approval of the government. The vigilantes often go unpunished for their actions against Palestinians, including murder. Earlier this year, Jewish extremists burnt alive an entire family at Duma in the West Bank. No arrests have been made in this connection although Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon had claimed that the authorities knew who the culprits were.

The latest round of violence erupted after right-wing Jewish zealots persuaded the government to place further restrictions on Palestinians going to offer prayers at the Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest place of worship for Muslims worldwide. People belonging to other religions are allowed to enter the mosque only as tourists. Right-wing Israeli groups and politicians want to change the rules and allow free entry to Jews. In biblical times, the Temple Mount, sacred to Jews, had stood where the mosque stands today. Muslims call the site Haram al Sharif.

A provocative visit by Ariel Sharon, the right-wing Israeli leader, to the Al Aqsa compound 15 years ago triggered the second Palestinian “intifada” (uprising). Hundreds of Palestinians were killed in the violence that followed. Sharon went on to become the Prime Minister of Israel later. His predecessor, Ehud Barak, had pledged that Israel would under no circumstances cede sovereignty of the mosque to Palestinians. His successors in office have only hardened their stance on the issue despite international opprobrium. The Netanyahu government, which depends on the support of the extreme Right for its survival, has been busy laying the groundwork for a clandestine takeover of the administration of the mosque. Under the peace agreement signed in 1967 following Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the site where the mosque is located is under the administration of the Jordanian government.

In mid-September, 40 Jewish settlers in occupied Jerusalem accompanied by Israel’s Agriculture Minister, Uri Ariel, and backed by Israeli security forces, forcibly entered the Al Aqsa compound. Force was used to disperse Palestinians who had gathered to protest against their entry. The Israeli authorities repromulgated the prohibitory rule, which allows only Palestinians above 50 years of age entry into the mosque. This rule has been in practice since Sharon’s visit.

Hannan Ashrawi, the Palestinian Authority’s (P.A.) Executive Committee member, has said that the Israeli game plan to formalise control over the Al Aqsa mosque has the potential to plunge the entire region into turmoil. “Israel is playing with fire. Clearly, Israel is deliberately creating and escalating a situation of instability, insecurity and violence, thereby incrementally assuring by force its power/security control in preparation for the total annexation and transformation of Al Haram al Sharif.... By imposing its own version of the concept of the Temple Mount on the third most holiest Islamic site, Israel is not only provoking Palestinians but the entire Muslim world,” Hannan Ashrawi said.

Palestinians have called the October uprising the “Jerusalem intifada”. Other factors that have contributed to the latest uprising include Israeli restrictions on Palestinian rights in the occupied West Bank and the continued encroachment by Jewish settlers. As for statehood, even the P.A. has acknowledged that Israel will never accept a two-state solution. For most Palestinians, a third “intifada” is the only option left to end the Israeli occupation. From available indications, the current uprising has been spontaneous, with the Palestinian youth being in the forefront. However, major Palestinian parties have not taken the lead. In fact, the P.A. leadership has been urging the protesters to use peaceful means. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has been vocal in its support of the protests but has been careful not to get actively involved, fearing Israeli military reprisals on the Gaza Strip. One year after Israel’s last war against Gaza, the people there have seen their living standards fall drastically. The 2014 attack on Gaza claimed the lives of 2,251 Palestinians, most of them civilians.

The anger of the Palestinian youth was palpable when President Pranab Mukherjee visited the West Bank in the second week of October. Palestinian students staged a protest during his visit to register their anger against the close security and political ties between India and Israel. Mukherjee’s visit was ill-timed, coming as it did in the midst of the turmoil in the occupied territories. Not many heads of state, even from Western countries, like to visit Israel these days. Many world leaders and prominent international personalities have labelled Israel as an “apartheid state” intent on permanently reducing Palestinians to the state of second-class citizens.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on October 28, appealed for a “strong and decisive” international intervention to stop the ongoing bloodshed. He said the human rights situation in the occupied territories and East Jerusalem was at its worst since 1948. “We need protection and we look to you to protect us,” he told the assembled delegates. Reiterating the statement he made at the U.N. General Assembly in September, the Palestinian leader said that the time for negotiations with Israel was over. “It is no longer useful to waste time in negotiations just for the sake of negotiations; what is required is the ending of the occupation in accordance with international legitimacy,” he said. Speaking in Geneva on the occasion, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zied Ra’ad al Hussein said that if the present situation in the occupied territories was not controlled it could result in a “catastrophe” for the region. He said disproportionate force was being used against Palestinians and that “extrajudicial killings are suspected”.

Temple Mount project

Netanyahu continues to protest feebly that his government has no plans of taking over the holy site. But many senior members of his Cabinet are making the demand openly. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said that she would like to see the Israeli flag flying over the Temple Mount. Extreme right-wing groups, which now have a say in the running of the government, want the Temple Mount to be rebuilt. The government has been financing the Temple Institute, a non-governmental organisation that has been publicly advocating the building of a new Jewish temple on the site where the Al Aqsa mosque is situated. These groups want the mosque to be relocated. Extremist settler groups are colonising the area around the mosque by either buying Palestinian houses or pressuring Palestinians to relocate. Jews have built 10,000 new homes in East Jerusalem in the past 15 years. The U.S. State Department, in its 2009 International Religious Freedom Report, acknowledged that “many of the national and municipal policies in Jerusalem were designed to limit or diminish the non-Jewish population of Jerusalem”.

In the third week of October, Netanyahu added fuel to the fire by making yet another of his unsubstantiated statements. He alleged that Palestinians had a role to play in the Holocaust. He said that the Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj al Amini al Husseini, was the man who gave Adolf Hitler the idea of exterminating Jews. Even ardent Zionists in Israel refused to support this claim. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to reassert her country’s responsibility for the genocide of Jews. After that, Netanyahu, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, told Members of Parliament that Israel needed to “control all the territory for the foreseeable future” and added for good measure that he visualised Israel “forever living by the sword”.

The Prime Minister confirmed in the last week of October that he was seriously considering the revocation of the residency status of the tens of thousands of Palestinians staying in Jerusalem. East Jerusalem is supposed to be the capital of an independent state of Palestine.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that all areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem, were occupied territories. Israel had given permanent residency status to Palestinians after it formally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980. Palestinians residing in the city have refused to accept Israeli citizenship as such a move would give credibility to Israel’s illegal occupation. In all, 350,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have been effectively deprived of their political rights. Israel has stripped the residency rights of more than 14,000 Palestinians since 1967. As it is, Palestinians in East Jerusalem find themselves blockaded as the Israeli authorities have made even daily commuting a daunting task. Israeli military checkpoints have sprouted up everywhere. Palestinians are subjected to humiliating searches when they go for work in factories and farms outside East Jerusalem. The Israeli police have the right to randomly frisk any Palestinian and fire live ammunition even at children if they are throwing stones. Many of those killed in the recent uprising have been children and teenagers.

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