Temple Mount riot shows tough balancing act for Mahmoud Abbas

The Temple Mount riot in Jerusalem erupted after a Palestinian was killed by an Israeli security guard. Rising tensions are a challenge for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Darren Whiteside/Reuters
The Dome of the Rock is seen on the compound known to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City September 14.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hinted Tuesday night that he may stick with peace talks even if Israel doesn’t extend a settlement freeze, softening a precondition he had insisted on until then.

But an outbreak of violence around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount today suggests that Palestinian anger over an expanding Jewish presence may be reaching a boiling point. Such a disconnect between Mr. Abbas and average Palestinians could threaten or even end the talks – as well as Abbas’s political career.

“I cannot say I will leave the negotiations, but it’s very difficult for me to resume talks if [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu declares that he will continue his activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” he was quoted as saying at a dinner for American Jewish leaders in New York.

Violence in Silwan spreads to Old City

The violence began in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, a predominately Palestinian area in the shadow of the Old City’s southern walls that has become a flashpoint in broader Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

Early Wednesday morning a private Israeli security guard hired to protect some of the area’s roughly 300 Jews shot dead a Palestinian man amid a skirmish with rock-throwing protesters. Riots ensued, during which several cars were torched and at least half a dozen passers-by injured.

Later in the day, Palestinians atop the Al Aqsa mosque compound hurled stones down at Jews visiting the Western Wall ahead of the Sukkot holiday until they were stopped by Israeli police. The Jerusalem Post reports that three public buses were destroyed near the Western Wall, a driver was injured, and eight protesters were arrested. The Post quoted an interview from Israel's Channel 2 news, in which the manager of the security guard that shot the Palestinian described the event as being "like an ambush."

While the streets of Jerusalem had reportedly calmed by evening, the violence demonstrated escalating tensions around the Old City. From Sheikh Jarrah in the north to Silwan in the south, the strategic expansion of Jewish areas has sparked rising Palestinian anger – and revitalized the Israeli left, whose activists have been attending weekly demonstrations in both communities.

Palestinian youth moving toward extremism

As the Monitor reported last week, East Jerusalem has emerged as a battleground between competing Israeli and Palestinian claims for sovereignty in a city central to both peoples. Israelis see Jerusalem as the heart of the Jewish nation, and crucial to its preservation, referring to it as their “undivided and eternal capital.” Palestinians see Jerusalem, considered Islam’s third-holiest city, as the only possible location for the capital of their future state.

SPECIAL REPORT: How Israeli-Palestinian battle for Jerusalem plays out in Silwan

In an August interview in Jerusalem, Silwan resident Fakhri Abu Diab told the Monitor that young men in the neighborhood were turning to violence because of frustration with Israeli policies. “[Israeli] behavior against us here in Silwan drives them to extremism,” he said. “Any police car that passes gets hit with stones.”

Mr. Diab’s neighbor, Nasser el-Hirsh, added that his 10-year-old son was recently taken to prison at 3 a.m., frightened, and then sent home.

“My son is peeing in his pants,” said Mr. Hirsch, who recently received an Israeli demolition order for his home. “He’s demoralized and moody.”

Israel spends more than $10 million per year on private security

Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib blamed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies for Wednesday’s violence in Silwan. Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem, including Silwan, was never recognized by the international community, and Palestinians and their supporters view the application of Israeli law and policies there as part and parcel of an occupation.

“These are the trust-wrecking moves of Netanyahu, who is directly responsible to the crime in the Silwan neighborhood, and to all the crimes of the occupation regime,” Mr. Khatib was quoted saying in Ynet news. “The person who sends armed settlers to settle in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood, daily provoking the unarmed Palestinians, is paving the way for these crimes.”

The Israeli security guard who killed a Palestinian in Silwan was not part of the formal Israeli security establishment, but one of a number of armed guards hired by the state to protect Israeli Jews who are increasingly moving into sensitive areas around the Old City.

These enclaves, often conspicuously marked with giant Israeli flags, are generally guarded by locked gates and private security firms.

According to Israeli human rights group Ir Amim, Israel spends an annual average of 38 million shekels ($10 million) to protect about 2,000 Jews in East Jerusalem, with the Knesset approving an additional 15 million shekels ($4 million) in 2008 for new Jewish residents in the neighborhoods of Abu Dis and A-Tur, on the Mount of Olives.

After Wednesday’s riots in Silwan, the Israeli organization Peace Now called for an end to private security in East Jerusalem, saying that it’s a threat to peace.

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