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The Islamization of East Jerusalem

In Arab East Jerusalem, Islamist groups are gaining more of a foothold through charity, such as free iftar meals during Ramadan, opening schools, and offering services.

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In the past, this role was occupied by Faisal Husseini, who since the 1993 Oslo Accords was the Palestinian Authority's Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, based in East Jerusalem's Orient House. Mr. Husseini died in 2001, and during the height of the intifada, Israeli authorities shut the Orient House and did not allow it to reopen.

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"East Jerusalemites are experiencing the worst situation economically, politically, and socially," says Rasem Abaidat, an East Jerusalem writer and activist. "In the 1980s we tried to adapt to the Israeli way of life. But this turned to disappointment that they felt during the late 80s and early '90s, in terms of house demolitions, imposing of heavy taxes along with lack of services, and this has made them realize that the Israeli occupation is not a fair ruler."

At the same time, he says, the Palestinian Authority headed by Yasser Arafat was incapable of assisting East Jerusalemites, in part because of the amorphousness of their situation. They hold Israeli-issued identity cards, but vote in elections for Palestinians.

"Arafat was not able to fill the vacuum. On the contrary, East Jerusalemites watched as the West Bank and Gaza got international help to flourish, while no one gave them any attention in terms of aid and funding," Mr. Abaidat continues. "Therefore their only hope was God."

Meanwhile, there have been disagreements over which Islamic Waqf, or religious body, controls Jerusalem's holy places. Both a Jordanian one and a Palestinian one claim to have ultimate authority over the Harem es-Sharif, or Noble Enclosure, which includes Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock.

"Sheikh Salah has managed to fill the vacuum left by the internal fighting between the Jordanian Waqf and Palestinian Waqf, and has succeeded in highlighting the conflict over the Al Aqsa Mosque locally, regionally, and internationally," he says.

The result, he says, is an increasing identification with an Islamic agenda. "The people of East Jerusalem have been swept into this wave of Islamicism and are enjoying the attention given to them by such activities."

The trend comes against a backdrop of an upswing in attacks on Israeli perpetrated by East Jerusalemites, who had not been particularly active in the midst of the last intifada. This week, a 19-year-old from East Jerusalem ran over a group of Israeli soldiers outside the Old City, injuring 17 of them before being shot to death. It was the third such attack since July.

Taher Ghbarieh, who works for Salah's organization in Umm el-Fahm, says he is worried about a flare-up in violence after a right-wing Jewish group opened a synagogue this week in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

"Our institution has been following up on this building and drilling under the synagogue, and we consider this latest situation as one of the most dangerous the Al Aqsa Mosque has been put in," says Mr. Ghbarieh. "This is the straw that breaks the camel's back. People are fed up with the way Israel is dealing with Palestinians."