The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

The key to bringing calm to Jerusalem lies in wise management of the city during in times of calm, as well as handling moments of crisis with a firm hand.

The recent violence in Jerusalem once again raises the question: What causes Jerusalem to “burn” with national-religious tensions? However, the more fascinating and important question is what keeps the city quiet and calm for long periods of time, despite intensive daily contact between Jews and Arabs?

Of course, that quiet is relative. There are continuous conflicts of a nationalist nature in Jerusalem, for example in the neighborhoods of Issawiya and Silwan. But for the most part, calm has been maintained for long periods of time, both within most of eastern Jerusalem’s neighborhoods and on the lines where Jewish and Arab areas in the city meet. 

An analysis of the reasons for this quiet, and an effort to strengthen those elements that curb tensions in the eastern part of the city, may extend the periods of time between one wave of violence and another, as well as shorten the duration of these waves. As long as the current political situation remains unchanged, the assumption is that given the intensity of the religious and national dispute over Jerusalem, violent conflicts in the city are a scenario that Israel must be prepared to contend with on a regular basis. 

Eastern Jerusalem can be likened to a bubbling, boiling pot that is usually covered with a lid. The lid keeps us from seeing the internal simmering taking place below the surface. From time to time, especially when the religious “ingredient” of the eastern Jerusalem “stew” intensifies, the pot overflows. Anyone familiar with the reality in eastern Jerusalem knows that bubbling of the stew is continuous, even when the lid creates a semblance of quiet in the absence of violent incidents. 

There are several components that affect what is happening inside the pot. This article deals only with the Arab public in the city, though the events of recent weeks also concern interactions between Jews and Arabs.

The chief component of the eastern Jerusalem “stew” is the religious and national struggle for ownership of the city. The events at Damascus Gate are a direct expression of this fundamental struggle, and should be seen as part of the broader picture. Although Israel controls Jerusalem, the Palestinians have not shown any sign of relinquishing their desire for sovereignty and rule over eastern Jerusalem. 

Over the past few years, Israeli authorities have invested considerable administrative attention and extensive budgetary resources in improving the quality of life of eastern Jerusalem residents. In some areas, such as education, welfare, employment, and infrastructure, real achievements can be pointed out in this respect. Notwithstanding, the core issues surrounding the fight for sovereignty over the city remain in full force as the basis of disagreement between the parties, and create a powerful blend of religious and national tension. (This includes matters such ​​as planning and construction in the context of the legal and historical ownership of the land, the civil status of eastern Jerusalem Arabs as residents or citizens, and, above all, issues concerning the Temple Mount and the Holy Basin). This mix of tensions intensifies during the Moslem month of Ramadan – something we are currently witnessing – with religious sentiments consuming the young people of eastern Jerusalem.

These emotions are connected to the way in which the Arabs of eastern Jerusalem position and brand themselves as the defenders of the Temple Mount (Al-Haram Al-Sharif) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The construction of the security fence in 2005-2007 severed eastern Jerusalem from Ramallah and the rest of Judea and Samaria. This separation, and their status as residents of Jerusalem, gradually led to the formation of a unique Jerusalemite identity amongst the Arabs of eastern Jerusalem (“Almakdesyin” in Arabic jargon), at the heart of which is their connection to the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, not only as an Islamic symbol but also as a Palestinian national symbol. 

The Damascus Gate, the hub of the riots, leads into the Moslem Quarter and is a main passage for access to the Temple Mount (and the Western Wall). The Palestinian struggle for sovereignty and the ability to dictate an agenda at Damascus Gate is a clear statement by eastern Jerusalemites to their brethren in Judea, Samaria and Gaza that they are completely faithful to the upholding of the Palestinian and Islamic identity of Jerusalem.

At the same time, the same young people are integrating into the city’s economy and rushing to learn Hebrew. To illustrate the dissonance in which the Arabs of eastern Jerusalem live, it is very likely that many of those who protest against the Israeli authorities at night at Damascus Gate studied those authorities’ language during the day, in the hopes of finding work in the Israeli economy. 

It may be that the violent events of recent weeks constituted an attempt by the young people of eastern Jerusalem to “choose a side” in the internal tension within themselves between their Palestinian identity and their pragmatic attitude toward Israeli institutions; an attempt to establish some kind of “balance” between these identities. 

The second component of the eastern Jerusalem stew is the profound social processes taking place among the Arabs of eastern Jerusalem, namely, the weakening of the communal and tribal-familial frameworks that exert a restraining influence. Eastern Jerusalem society is experiencing shocks that in some places create a kind of internal chaos that erupts sometimes within the neighborhoods themselves, and sometimes in places that intersect with the Jewish public. 

The eastern Jerusalem street has seen increasing cases of violence, both domestic and in the public space, a relative deterioration of the economic and employment situation, and the weakening of the status and authority of clan, tribal, and family leadership that has acted as a restraining influence. On top of this there is the distress that traditional families in eastern Jerusalem are experiencing with the rise in divorce rates. These internal difficulties and conflicts have led to an increase in violence in the public sphere, including in encounters with the Jewish majority in Jerusalem and with the police forces. All of these trends intensified over the past year during the COVID-19 crisis, which greatly exacerbated the existing problems.

The third element that contributes to flare-ups is the involvement of nationalist or Islamist actors who seek to maintain a high level of tension in Jerusalem and undermine Israeli control in the eastern part of the city. These include the PA, Fatah, Hamas, the northern faction of the Islamic Movement in Israel, and groups either affiliated with Turkey or officially acting on its behalf. These actors took advantage of the recent wave of riots and did everything in their power to make them more violent. 

The question of the PA elections in eastern Jerusalem, and Israel’s refusal to comply with the PA’s request to allow them to take place, did make it easier for the PA to link the riots to the issue of elections in the Palestinian consciousness. It is safe to assume, however, that even without the question of elections hovering in the background, we would have seen the overt or covert involvement of a host of Palestinian and Islamist actors in the riots. The elections were not the source of the flare-up, but they did provide the Palestinians with an excuse that allowed them to fan the flames.

The last component is the deep penetration of mass media in eastern Jerusalem, which is a factor that shapes both consciousness and actions. The Arabs of eastern Jerusalem tend to use social media very extensively, likely at a higher rate than that seen in Jewish western Jerusalem. Out of about 350,000 Arabs in eastern Jerusalem, the estimate is that 150,000-180,000 of them have active Facebook accounts. Instagram, TikTok, and other accessible platforms are also widely used. The eruption of the wave of violence surrounding the TikTok videos revealed only the tip of the iceberg of eastern Jerusalem youths seeking fame and recognition among their peers in the context of events of nationalist violence.

Considering these four weighty elements that contribute to the unrest in eastern Jerusalem, the question arises as to how the relative peace that Jerusalem has been known to enjoy for long periods can be explained. The answer seems to lie in three factors: the increase in the eastern Jerusalem Arabs’ motivation to integrate into the city’s economy; the rigid enforcement practiced by the Israeli police in response to the waves of violence of 2014–2017; and efforts to curb escalation by Palestinian leaders who have an interest in maintaining calm and restoring order.

Over the past decade, eastern Jerusalem Arabs have been stepping up their efforts to participate in the Jerusalem economy and are willing to demonstrate some flexibility when it comes to issues relating to national and communal identity. For example, though Hebrew is the language of the “Israeli occupier,” institutes for learning Hebrew are currently one of the most flourishing businesses in eastern Jerusalem. Moreover, the demand to transition from “resident” status, which applies to most eastern Jerusalem Arabs, to “citizen” status by applying to the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, has risen by nearly 50% in the last four years. In addition, the Israeli education curriculum, offered as an alternative to the Palestinian one, which is taught in most schools in eastern Jerusalem, is gaining significant momentum in the area. The percentage of students in this track, out of all the students in eastern Jerusalem, has doubled from 7% to 15% over three years.

These integration efforts – the ultimate goal of which is accelerated integration into Israeli academia and the workforce – naturally also lead to more restrained conduct among young eastern Jerusalemites. This is because the price young people pay for being arrested during riots is becoming more and more significant. This type of detention, for offences of a nationalist nature, largely blocks off access to the Israeli workforce. Moreover, eastern Jerusalem Arabs’ growing acquaintance with their “foreign” Israeli neighbors through learning their language, working together, and integrating into the Israeli academic system leads, to some extent, to the formation of more cooperative dynamic vis-à-vis Israeli individuals and institutions.

As mentioned, another restraining factor has been the firm response, both in terms of enforcement and in terms of deterrence, that the Israeli authorities, led by the Jerusalem District Police, took throughout the waves of violence and the knife attacks of 2014-2017. This response included extensive arrests, restrictions on movement to and from the villages, and the placement by Israeli authorities of onerous municipal regulatory burdens on residents of such neighborhoods. These policies burned into the consciousness of eastern Jerusalemites the price of a violent confrontation with Israel.

Finally, the important role of the Palestinian leaders who encourage restraint must also be taken into account, with an emphasis on tradespeople and businessmen who have an economic interest in maintaining calm, alongside educators, community leaders and civil society actors who work routinely and in times of crisis to keep order and promote more cooperative models of life in Jerusalem. Turning to this leadership in an emergency may be possible only if intensive, meaningful, and continuous contact is maintained throughout routine times.

In addition to all that has been said so far, a fundamental policy that must be upheld by the Israeli side is to leave the Temple Mount out of Jerusalem conflicts, as much as possible.

In conclusion, it seems that the key to preserving calm in Jerusalem lies first and foremost in wise and routine management of the city. Strengthening civic processes that aim to improve the quality of life of eastern Jerusalem Arabs, nurturing ongoing relationships with civic and business leadership, and enhancing the capabilities and resources of the Jerusalem District Police, could lead to better future responses to crises and conflicts in the city – in the hope that these will be far and few between.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

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