Jerusalem – The violence in Silwan and other East Jerusalem neighbourhoods has subsided somewhat after two bloody weeks, but tensions continue to mount amid ongoing arrests and a massive crackdown by Israeli police.
Last week a gunman tried to assassinate a right-wing activist, Yehuda Glick, who remains in serious condition in a Jerusalem hospital. Police blamed the shooting on Mutaz Hijazi, a Palestinian man from Abu Tor, and killed him on Thursday morning in a massive raid.
The shootings sparked fears of further unrest in a city that has seen nightly protests since July, but the situation has calmed down, owing at least in part to the weather: The winter’s first heavy rains fortuitously arrived on Friday.
But the sense of siege in East Jerusalem has not lifted. One thousand extra police officers have been sent to the city, and they are a visible presence, with groups of armed men lingering on many streets. Almost 150 Palestinians have been arrested over the past two weeks, according to both local activists and police, on top of 700 others already detained since July.
Police were deployed heavily around Silwan on Monday and Tuesday, where they stopped most Palestinian drivers entering the neighbourhood. Residents of Silwan and other areas said dozens of cars have been towed, and small businesses ordered shut because of minor violations such as unpaid parking fines or municipal taxes.
“They towed my car on Thursday because I owed 300 shekels [$80] to Bituach Leumi,” the Israeli national insurance programme, said one resident of Shuafat who asked not to be named to avoid further legal trouble. “They’re punishing all of us.”
A spokesperson for the Israeli police did not respond to requests for comment.
The unrest in Jerusalem started in July, after a Palestinian teenager named Mohammed Abu Khdeir was murdered in an act of revenge for the killing of three Jewish Israelis in the occupied West Bank. Nightly riots have continued since then, fuelled by a mix of grievances: Israel’s long-standing neglect of East Jerusalem, ongoing Jewish settlement, and provocations on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, among others.
Glick works with the Temple Mount Faithful, an organisation that tries to promote the construction of a third Jewish temple on the plateau. The complex is sacred to both Jews, who believe it was the site of the Biblical temples, and to Muslims, because it houses the Al-Aqsa mosque. Jewish prayer is currently banned on the mount for fear of religious violence.
We don't feel comfortable in our own neighbourhood now. There are armed men, the police come through every night. The situation is tense.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said he does not want to change that status quo. On Sunday, however, Moshe Feiglin, a deputy Knesset speaker and a senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, ascended the plateau under heavy police guard. Palestinians fear that groups such as Glick’s want to restrict their access to the site.
Some of the worst unrest has been in Silwan, perched on a steep hill south of the compound. It started on September 29, when a group of Jewish Israelis moved into 22 homes purchased by a pro-settler group called Elad. Dozens more moved in later in October; those newcomers were affiliated with Ateret Cohenim, a competitor to Elad that also runs a religious seminary in the city.
Daniel Luria, the group’s executive director, said Ateret Cohenim did not buy the houses directly, but gave “guidance and advice” to a “group of investors” which purchased them, apparently through straw buyers. Luria said the newest arrivals were a group of Yemenite Jews.
The Wadi Hilweh Information Centre, a Palestinian activist group, said residents vacated the homes about four months ago after selling them. Neighbours said the houses were sold to Palestinian middlemen, and the previous owners have fled the city.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, a supporter of the settler movement, said the purchases in Silwan were a step towards ensuring a “Jewish majority” in East Jerusalem. Israel occupied the eastern half of the city in 1967, and settlements here are considered illegal under international law.
Groups such as Elad and Ateret Cohenim hope that settlement will make it impossible to divide the city in any future two-state solution. “The entry of more settlers into Silwan is another step towards closing the window for a diplomatic solution,” said Oshrat Maimon, from the Israeli rights group Ir Amim.
Silwan has begun to look a bit like Hebron, the West Bank city where a few hundred deeply ideological settlers live under heavy military guard. Private security officers linger in the streets in Silwan, and the settler homes have been outfitted with window bars and heavy metal gates. Jewish and Palestinian residents barely interact, save for hostile glances.
“We don’t feel comfortable in our own neighbourhood now,” said Ahmed Abu Ramuz, walking home after getting off a bus. “There are armed men, the police come through every night. The situation is tense.”