Growing hatred

In Jerusalem, the bitterness between the settlers and Palestinians shows signs of worsening as both sides increasingly use guns and knives to settle scores.

Published : Jan 06, 2016 12:30 IST

An Israeli flag atop a home of Jewish settlers in Silwan, a mostly Palestinian district abutting the Old City, in November 2014. In the background, the Dome of the Rock (left) and the Al Aqsa mosque.

An Israeli flag atop a home of Jewish settlers in Silwan, a mostly Palestinian district abutting the Old City, in November 2014. In the background, the Dome of the Rock (left) and the Al Aqsa mosque.

ALONG THE VIA DOLOROSA (WAY OF GRIEF) in Jerusalem, pilgrims walk with care. This is believed to be the route that Jesus of Nazareth took as he dragged his cross for his eventual crucifixion. The more pious let their hands linger on the stones that are embedded in the walls. Jerusalem has been destroyed so often that it is unlikely that any of these stones date back to the time of Jesus. But faith is a powerful emotion. Not far from this road are two other important sites at the crossroads of Abrahamic monotheism.

The Al Aqsa mosque sits on a slight hill. It is from here, Muslims believe, that Prophet Mohammad ascended on his night journey to heaven. Beside the mosque and the Dome of the Rock is a wall that Jews believe formed part of the Second Jewish Temple. All three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—lay claim to these sites. For centuries, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in this beautiful old city, custodians of their various beliefs. The tension now cannot be reduced to religion. That is too convenient. It makes the conflict eternal, when this is not the case. Religion plays a role here, but so does politics.


At the Wailing Wall, I meet Josh. He wears civilian clothes but carries an assault rifle. Josh tells me that he is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the United States, where his parents still live. He has been in Israel for 10 years. Why did you come here to settle, I ask him. “This is my homeland,” he says. The reference is not to his family but to his idea that Palestine has been given to the Jews by god. “I am at home here,” he says with a smile. I ask him why he needs to carry a gun. “We are in danger,” he answers but is also embarrassed. He takes his phone and shows me a picture of a woman in a hijab at the Wailing Wall. “Even Muslims come here as tourists,” he notes.

An Armenian shopkeeper, George, tells me that settlers like Josh frequently rampage around the city yelling: “Death to the Arabs”. The settlers, says George, look at the Arabs as “vermin”. He once chased after them, yelling to them not to forget the Armenians. What about us, he says to me with a smile on his face. These settlers come from the U.S., Russia and elsewhere and take up residence on the floors above the Arab shops and homes. They put up Israeli flags and torment their neighbours below them. Israeli police and security, which are ubiquitous, support their actions.

Ahmed, a sandwich maker whose shop is just inside the Damascus Gate, tells me that the settlers rarely interact with the rest of the city. As he says this, a convoy of settlers walks by. They are self-involved. “They hate us,” says Ahmed. That is a shared wisdom. His mother, who is sitting nearby, agrees. “Sometimes,” she says, “they throw their garbage on our heads.”

Nadera Shaloub-Kevorkian, who teaches at the University of Jerusalem, watches the settler project with concern. Careful study of the statistics worries her. Life for Palestinians has become perilous. Three-fourths of Palestinians in Jerusalem live in poverty, with their homes threatened constantly by demolition. Basic services are denied to Palestinians, as the Israeli government colludes with the settlers to erase them from the city. Only a third of Palestinian homes have water supply. Palestinian children routinely drop out of school. Palestinians pay taxes, which are used by Israelis to hire bulldozers to flatten Palestinian homes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatens to revoke the residency status of Palestinians in Jerusalem. The Israeli state, says Professor Shaloub-Kevorkian, seeks to “replace Palestinian Jerusalem by the Jewish coloniser”.

Knife attacks

In the already congested lexicon of violence for West Asia comes the new term “knife attacks”. Young Palestinian men with kitchen knives have set upon settlers in dozens of assaults. These have sometimes resulted in fatalities amongst the settlers but mostly have seen the young Palestinians dead. Israeli retaliation has been swift. Anyone who appears to be a threat is now a target for either the Israeli security or settlers such as Josh. The Israeli politician Yair Lapid said: “The rabbis teach that if someone comes up against you to kill you, you should kill him first.” This has opened the door for an intensification of violence.

Two men who work in the Old City tell me that they have independently seen cases of Israeli security forces attacking children who had neither a knife in hand nor an intention to cause violence. The knife attacks have given the Israeli security forces and the settlers a reason to use armed force against juveniles. One man, who did not want to be identified, told me that he watched as Israeli police shot Ayman Samih Abassi (age 17) in Ras al-Amud in East Jerusalem. Live fire was not necessary, he said. It has become the first option for the Israeli police.

What was Ayman Samih Abassi doing to cause his death? He was on the streets as the Jerusalem courts decided on the case of three Israeli settlers who had in 2014 burnt to death a young Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir. One of the accused, Yoseph Ben David, came to the court to say “I am the messiah” as a group of settlers spat on the Abu Khdeir family. Such provocations are now commonplace. Netanyahu’s Cabinet has made noises about equal Jewish access to the Haram al-Sharif, now reserved for Muslims. These followed encroachments by Israeli authorities, under the pretext of archaeological digs, into the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. Meanwhile, radical nationalist yeshiva students marched through the city on Jerusalem Day chanting, as George told me, “Death to the Arabs”.

Little wonder, then, that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently diagnosed the trauma in Jerusalem in terms sympathetic to Palestinians. “The anger we are witnessing is bred from nearly five decades of Israeli occupation,” he said. “It is the result of fear, humiliation, frustration and mistrust. It has been fed by the wounds of decades of bloody conflict, which will take a long time to heal. Palestinian youth, in particular, are tired of broken promises and they see no light at the end of the tunnel.” The magic of a city such as Jerusalem is tarnished by the presence of security forces. They are at every corner, hostile to Palestinians out of a curious mixture of racism and boredom. One soldier tells me he is fed up with his job. It has no end. But his shift is almost over. His partner is watching music videos on his phone. Dusk has settled on the city. Attacks do not come at this time.

The narrow streets of Jerusalem are quiet even in the day. The “knife attacks” have smothered the tourists. Bilal Abu Khalaf’s shop is near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is said to have been resurrected. Business is bad, says Abu Khalaf, whose family has owned this shop since 1936. His textile stock comes from Varanasi, and Palmyra, Syria. The Mattini fabric from Palmyra is now depleted and no longer available. He does not know where the Syrian weavers have gone as the civil war in that country rages on. Abu Khalaf enjoys talking about cloth. But his passion for his cloth is woven with sadness. Tourists are no longer in the city. The Palestinian Authority has offered shops some money to cover their distress. It is not enough, says Abu Khalaf. He does not want to live on handouts.

Along St. Francis Street, Walid has a small shop that sells trinkets. He shows me a picture of his street from before 1948, when the state of Israel displaced Palestinians from their homeland in what they call the Nakba (catastrophe). The picture was taken in the winter. There is snow on the ground. The street seems calm. Walid says it is not calm now. The tension in the air is real. “I am Palestinian,” he says as if this answers every question that I have.

Women and children

Nadera Shaloub-Kevorkian and some of her friends in the Old City feared for their children after the settlers’ attack on Mohammed Abu Khdeir in 2014. They began an ad hoc group to protect their children. “We wanted to let the world know that this situation is impossible,” she tells me. In 2015, as tensions increased, the group reconstituted. They formed a Court Watch to observe the judicial proceedings against Palestinian children. The women created a Street Watch to walk children to and from school in Jerusalem. These women—“from all political factions, all religions, some veiled, some not,” she tells me—have been a bulwark against violence.

At one of the schools, the teacher asked the children to write letters to the women. One child drew a picture of a clown with tears going down its cheeks. The child gave the picture to Nadera Shaloub-Kevorkian. “What is this?” she asked. The child said: “It is a Palestinian clown. It is Palestinian because it is crying.”

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