Why Jerusalem is seething

A disputed holy site was the immediate focus of the Jerusalem tensions, which spiked after the attack on a Jewish activist and the killing of his suspected assailant. But a new generation of Palestinian protesters has been in the streets for weeks.

Mahmoud Illean/AP
Palestinian youths throw stones during clashes with Israeli border police after Moatez Higazi was shot in east Jerusalem, Thursday, Oct. 30.

The attempted assassination of a prominent Jewish activist and the police killing of the Palestinian suspected in the attack have caused tensions to spike in Jerusalem, which is witnessing the most serious and prolonged period of unrest since the second intifada began waning nearly a decade ago.

The target of the assassination attempt was Yehuda Glick, who advocates the return of Jews to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism and the most sensitive area in Jerusalem.

Known by Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, it is also considered the third-holiest site in Islam, with the Al Aqsa Mosque and photogenic Dome of the Rock. In recent months, the man-made plateau in Jerusalem’s Old City has become a focal point for rising tensions between Jews and Arabs.

Israel closed the Muslim-administered area Thursday morning for the first time since 2000, a move denounced by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as “tantamount to a declaration of war.”

Mustafa Barghouti, a senior Palestinian Authority official, issued a press release announcing that a third intifada was underway, and, in anticipation of the Muslim prayers on Friday, calling on the “Palestinian people as a whole to defend the Al Aqsa Mosque, the dignity of the Palestinian people, and their freedom.” Israeli police said Thursday night that the site would be reopened for Friday prayers, but with access limited to men over the age of 50 and women of all ages.

Just south of the Old City, in the Abu Tor neighborhood, Israeli special forces earlier cornered Muatnaz Hijazi, the Palestinian suspected of trying to assassinate Mr. Glick, and killed him on his roof in what they said was a shoot-out. Amid stinging clouds of tear gas, friends, relatives, and officials who came to the Hijazi home said the Israeli actions will only provoke further violence.

“As the attacks increase, our steadfastness will increase, with God’s help,” says Adnan Ghaith, a local leader of the Fatah party headed by Mr. Abbas. “Jerusalemites will not sit on their hands. They will resist.”

The uptick in tensions has been triggered by a series of discrete events, but is fueled by deep grievances that some say have created the worst schism between the city’s Jews and Arabs since the 1967 war.

On the frontlines of daily clashes, a new generation of Palestinian protesters appears to be emerging – kids and teenagers over whom their elders are either unwilling or unable to exert control.

“Israel doesn’t know that they educate children to hate Israel,” says community leader Jawad Siyam of Silwan, who says he has argued in vain with his 10-year-old son to stop throwing stones. “They are not afraid of Israel at all, they don’t believe in living with Israelis at all.”

“This is the kind of anger that can’t be manufactured, that can’t be turned off,” says Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer who has long worked in East Jerusalem.

Israeli police response

Israeli officials have painted the tensions largely in security terms, boosting the number of police in the city from 3,000 to about 4,000 in the past week and deploying three security balloons equipped with powerful cameras.

"The disturbances are at a peak since the second intifada,” says police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, adding that arrests are now being made as soon as disturbances break out with the help of increased surveillance. More than 1,000 Palestinians have been arrested in Jerusalem since early summer, when the kidnappings and murders of three Israeli teens and one Palestinian teenager led to the Gaza war. 

But Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as their capital and make up a vast majority of residents there, say the violence stems from long-simmering social issues and political oppression that has created a hardened young generation.

The attack on Glick and the killing of Mr. Hijazi mark the second serious incident in Jerusalem in a week. On Oct. 22, Abdul Rahman al-Shaludi drove his car into a crowd waiting at a light-rail stop on the seam between East and West Jerusalem, killing a Jewish baby. Israeli police shot him and he later died.

Israel decried the attack as terrorism and said Mr. Shaludi was a member of Hamas, an Islamist group whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel. His family says he may have been influenced by Hamas in prison, but describes the incident as an accident perpetrated by a young man whose spirit had been completely broken by repeated Israeli interrogations, beatings, and intimidation.

Shaludi grew up in Silwan, one of Jerusalem’s most restive neighborhoods, which abuts the city’s holiest sites. It was one of the key launching pads for the first intifada in 1987, and has been one of the major flashpoints since the beginning of the summer.

Archaeological flashpoint

Mr. Siyam, director of the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan, says the school dropout rate for the neighborhood is as high as 65 percent, with teens often leaving school to help earn money for their families. The rate is well over the already high average of roughly 50 percent for all of East Jerusalem. (By comparison, the rate in West Jerusalem is 7 percent.)

Idle youth often throw stones at Israeli security forces in the area – including those deployed to protect a small but increasing Jewish population. According to Israeli archaeologists, the upper part of Silwan sits atop ancient Jerusalem, and in the past two decades Israelis have created the City of David archaeological park that today draws half a million visitors a year.

“The ancient city of Jerusalem is where it is. You can’t change that,” says Ze’ev Orenstein, director of international affairs at the City of David, adding that about 700 Jews now live in the area.

But Palestinians see it as an attempt to use archaeology to cement Israel’s grip on East Jerusalem and deny their claims to the area.

It was in this environment that Shaludi grew up and began throwing stones. According to his mother, he was repeatedly arrested, interrogated, and beaten up from his mid-teenage years on. Sometimes, she says, Israeli forces would also rough up his brother Abdullah and his father in front of the younger children in the family.

Pressure from Shin Bet

She says Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, would repeatedly call him and pressure him to become a collaborator. But the last series of interrogations, in February this year, broke her son, she says. A week before the attack on the light rail stop, she says, he had started hearing voices and being suspicious of everyone around him. She took him to a psychiatrist the morning of Oct. 22. The doctor encouraged her to take him to an emergency ward the following morning.

That afternoon, he drove his car into a crowd, was shot, and died shortly thereafter.

“I feel like they took him, they destroyed him,” she says. “They brought him to that point, whether intentionally or not.”

In a 2013 report, the UN children’s agency UNICEF said that more than 7,000 Palestinian youths aged 12 to 17 had been “detained, interrogated, prosecuted and/or imprisoned within the Israeli military justice system” in the previous decade in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

“Abdul Rahman is not a special case, there are lots of cases like him,” says Asmaa Sharbat of the Arab Counseling Center for Education. “The only difference is the reaction,” she says.

Danny Kopp contributed reporting and translation, and Michael Holtz provided research assistance.

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