Palestinians ‘suffocating’ in Jerusalem

Palestinians in Jerusalem complain of police persecution and threats of violence, as Gaza war escalated tensions.

Clashes broke out in Jerusalem after the killing of Palestinian teenager Mohammad Abu Khdair in June [EPA]

Jerusalem – After local media reports broke that Israeli settlers had attempted to kidnap a Palestinian childin the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Hanina last Wednesday, Mirna Ansari’s parents, lifetime residents of the Old City, sat down their five children for a family meeting.

“My mom doesn’t usually follow politics,” Ansari, 23, a recent university graduate and administrative assistant at a local development agency, told Al Jazeera. “But she is really scared about my 13-year-old brother walking to school alone right now. I’ve never seen her that worried before. It used to be normal for us to go to school by foot.”

Last month, Palestinian teenager Mohammad Abu Khdair was kidnapped by Israeli settlers in the Shuafat area of the city and his body was later found in a nearby forest, burned alive. Only a few days later, Israel launched its ongoing military offensive against the Gaza Strip which has killed more than 2,100 Palestinians in the coastal enclave.

Life has become miserable and is getting worse every day. We don’t feel safe.

by - Mirna Ansari, 23

Since that time Palestinians in Jerusalem have reported a sharp uptick in Israeli settler violence and police harassment alike. “Life has become miserable and is getting worse every day,” Ansari said. “We don’t feel safe. Going out for simple things [in the Old City] has become super dangerous, especially walking alone at night.”

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The situation has always been tense in Jerusalem: after Israel annexed the eastern half of the city in 1967, a move still unrecognised by the international community, Israel has promoted the expansion of Jewish-only settlements in Palestinian areas, while Palestinian neighbourhoods are severely under-funded and lack basic resources.

Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents – who hold residency rights, but who do not have Israeli citizenship – suffer from invasive restrictions that limit their access to land and ability to build homes, restrict their movement and stifle political expression, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Israeli police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said Jerusalem has seen “a small increase in incidents of violence against Palestinians, but nothing significant,” adding that “[Israeli] police in Arab neighbourhoods are there to prevent such incidents if necessary”.

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Rosenfeld confirmed that more than 600 Palestinians have been arrested over the last six weeks.

Yet Palestinians in East Jerusalem say Israeli vigilante mobs have become a regular sight across the city. During protests following the murder of Abu Khdair, more than 1,500 Palestinians were arrested in Jerusalem and Israel between July 2 and August 6. Yet according to Israeli daily Haaretz, not one of the 350 people prosecuted were Jewish-Israelis.

Rashad Shtayyeh, 26, lives in the Wadi al-Joz neighborhood where he grew up. Executive director at a local cultural arts centre, he explained that many Palestinians in the city have grown accustomed to settler violence and police harassment, “but since they kidnapped Abu Khdair the situation has gotten much worse for us in Jerusalem”, he told Al Jazeera. “The scariest thing is the attempts to kidnap kids.”

Shtayyeh added that Israeli police have increased their presence in Palestinian neighbourhoods. “I’ve seen a lot of harassment in the area around Damascus Gate and the American Colony,” referring to areas around the Old City. “I personally refuse to be scared in my own city, but it’s frightening for kids and old women.”

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Zakaria Odeh of the Civic Coalition for Jerusalem, a group that campaigns for Palestinian rights in the city, explained that Israel’s arrest campaign aims to “make all Palestinians submit to occupation once and for all”.

“Israel wants to put an end to any kind of protest, demonstration or resistance in East Jerusalem, which it claims is annexed, but is in fact occupied,” Odeh said, adding that the increased police presence in Palestinians parts of the city has translated into daily uncertainty and fear of arrest and violence.

“Many of the people who were arrested are not part of any ‘illegal’ activity – this includes political leaders, community figures [and] human rights workers,” he told Al Jazeera.

Amjad, 23, works at the Mamila mall in West Jerusalem, just outside the Old City. A resident of al-Ram, a Palestinian town on the West Bank side of Israel’s separation wall, it takes him more than an hour to cross the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and once he arrives in the holy city, the discrimination is immediate.

“It’s much worse than usual,” Amjad, who didn’t give Al Jazeera his last name, said. “You can feel eyes on you all the time.”

The mall, frequented primarily by Israelis, has become tense in recent weeks, Amjad said. “As soon as people see my name tag, I can see a shift in the way they talk to me. My co-workers always try to ask me about rockets [fired from Gaza] or to get me to comment on the political situation. I hear people call me ‘dirty Arab’ behind my back when they hear me speaking Arabic.”

Violent incidents against Israelis in Jerusalem have also soared. Citing government statistics, the Israeli daily Haaretz recently reported that Israelis in East Jerusalem were targeted in “360 violent incidents last month, as compared to 200 last July [2013]”.

On Sunday August 24, Thaer al-Fasfous, 20, was hospitalised in an intensive care unit after being shot twice with live ammunition by Israeli police stationed in the Pisgat Zeev settlement, near his neighbourhood of Shuafat. Israeli authorities claimed al-Fasfous had “opened fire” at the settlement.

“In general there has been an increase in disturbances in Palestinian areas in and around Jerusalem, usually involving petrol bombs and stone-throwing,” said Israeli police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld.

Meanwhile, back in her Old City home, Mirna Ansari said she and her friends now avoid speaking Arabic in public. “Things are getting out of control, so a lot of my friends don’t want Israelis to know they’re Arabs,” she said. “Whenever we see settlers we fear they may attack us. It’s a suffocating moment for Palestinians in Jerusalem.”

Follow Patrick O. Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera