Minutes after the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir became known, the Green Line within Jerusalem’s municipal borders returned to life.
This line had vanished on all official Israeli maps, but it again emerged as a living reality when masses of young Palestinians flooded the streets and clashed with Israel’s security forces, who closed off East Jerusalem as if it were any other occupied Palestinian city.
Until these riots, the Israeli rightwing had nurtured the illusion that an iron fist, along with the “separation barrier,” had brought the country to the best possible situation, nullifying any need for a peace agreement (not to mention evacuation of West Bank settlements). No, all that was needed was to keep the status quo.
This belief depended on the balance struck in Jerusalem: Under the protection of the “separation barrier” – so the right thought – Jerusalem’s eastern borders were guaranteed, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem were cut off from the rest of the West Bank, and terrorism had stopped. Meanwhile, the Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem doubled or even trebled in size. Jerusalem had been united for eternity under Jewish rule.
Confident in this situation, the rightwing forged on toward annexing the West Bank. While campaigning in the last national elections, Naftali Bennett announced a grandiose plan with the Orwellian name, “The Israel stability initiative.” It includes annexing the entire West Bank, isolating its 2.5 million Palestinians by a system of ghettos, interconnecting the settlements by roads for Israelis only, and building walls to prevent contact between the Palestinians and the outside world, especially Jews. Meanwhile, the few hundred thousand Palestinians in Area C would receive Israeli citizenship or residence like those in East Jerusalem.
Bennett chose East Jerusalem as the place to start implementing his plan. Early last week, just before the murder of Abu Khdeir and the subsequent riots, he even managed to obtain a government decision that would grant him (in his capacity as Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs) control of 300 million NIS for a project with the stated purpose of “preventing the division of Jerusalem.” This was to be managed by Dvir Kahana, former head of the settler association Elad.
Anyone who knows East Jerusalem, however, could sense the fragility of the Right’s conception. The separation barrier, together with Israel’s institutionalized discrimination, has taken a heavy toll on Palestinians there. In less than five years, while the two first stages of the barrier were being completed, the poverty rate among the city’s Palestinians surged by about ten percentage points: it now stands between 77 and 81 percent. The Jerusalem neighborhoods that are outside the barrier, namely Kafr ‘Aqab, Shuafat refugee camp, Ras Khamis, and New ‘Anata, have become slums without services. Containing some 80,000 people, they are an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. Yet thousands from the Palestinian city center are compelled to move into them because, despite the natural growth of their families, the government refuses to give them permits to expand their existing homes. Beyond the barrier, the government turns a blind eye.
Using the illusion of a united Jerusalem, the Israeli Right was able, for a time, to conceal from the world the victims of that illusion: the 310,000 East Jerusalemites who are condemned to poverty and displacement.
The illusion died on the morning Muhammad Abu Khdeir was burned alive.
Three right-wing Jewish extremists have confessed to the crime and re-enacted it for the police. Anyone who lives in Jerusalem, Palestinians and Israelis alike, can fill you in on the background. From the moment three Jewish boys were reported as kidnapped in the West Bank two weeks earlier, the Israeli government did not stop inciting against Arabs. When the murder of the three became known, that earlier incitement bore fruit in the streets of Jerusalem. Jewish “Price Tag” gangs stormed the streets crying “Death to the Arabs!” They hunted down anyone who looked Arab to them, beat passers-by, and pulled Palestinian women off the tram. Palestinians felt that in light of the government’s incitement and the terror on the streets, they had been declared fair game.
It was in this atmosphere that reports of the brutal murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir arrived. Within minutes, the Israeli neighborhoods in East Jerusalem returned to their real dimensions as enclaves of frightened Jewish settlers within a hostile population. The notion of Israel’s Right – that the iron-fisted treatment of Palestinians had unified Jerusalem – came tumbling down.
We do not know where the events will lead in the days to come, but they show once again that no plan or concept can imprison an entire people forever, neither by walls nor by iron fist.
The price of efforts by Netanyahu, Bennett, and their friends to annex the West Bank, preventing peace, will continue to be paid by both peoples in blood, unless both have the wisdom and tenacity to stop them in favor of a true peace, based on the evacuation of settlements and an end to the occupation.
Erez Wagner is the manager of WAC-MAAN’s East Jerusalem branch
Translation: Michael Sappir