The US cannot continue ignoring Israel’s crimes in Jerusalem

The Biden administration has to get tough on Israel, if it wants to make a difference in the Middle East.

Palestinian protesters wave the national flag outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on April 26, 2021 [AFP/Ahmad Gharabli]

It has become almost a cliché. A new US administration takes over and lowers the expectations that it will step up efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, listing instead new foreign priorities, such as Afghanistan, Russia and China. The Biden administration has similarly indicated its lack of serious interest on the Palestinian issue.

But violent protests and confrontations that broke out in occupied East Jerusalem earlier this month should force the US leadership from their apathy.

On the first day of Ramadan, the Israeli authorities decided to break a cardinal pledge of respecting the right to worship by forcing their way into Al Aqsa mosque’s four minarets in order to silence the evening call to prayer, which coincided with a ceremony for the Israeli Remembrance Day held at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and attended by top Israeli officials.

Then the Israeli authorities also decided to deny entry to Al Aqsa to a large number of Muslim worshipers who wanted to join their brothers and sisters in breaking their fast in the mosque courtyard. Palestinians were also banned from gathering around the Damascus Gate, which they traditionally do during Ramadan.

Official claims that these measures were taken in order to protect Palestinians from COVID-19 did not fly. The majority of East Jerusalem residents have already been vaccinated, as they, unlike Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank, were given access to vaccines by the Israeli authorities. A limited number of Palestinians from the rest of the occupied territories have been given permits to visit the occupied city and all have had to present a vaccination certificate.

To top all of this, the Israeli police allowed hundreds of youths from the far-right Lehava organisation, considered racist and extreme even by Israelis, to march towards Jerusalem’s old city, chanting “death to Arabs” and “Arabs get out”. When Palestinians confronted them, the Israeli police used stun grenades, tear gas and physical violence to disperse the Palestinian crowd.

Throughout the world, tactics to prevent violence include not only a large and restrained police presence but also attempts to get political or religious leaders to use their standing to encourage members of their community not to enter into physical altercations and to disperse peacefully.

The problem is that Israel has long lost this communications tool with the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 at the White House in Washington, the Israelis have worked aggressively to deny Jerusalem’s Palestinians any connection with their national leadership.

The Israeli authorities regularly shut down events in the occupied city sponsored by the Ramallah-based Palestinian government, even if the event is a children’s puppet show. Palestinian local leaders are often hauled in and imprisoned or warned about prison terms, if they continue to communicate with their fellow Palestinian leaders.

And the Israeli violations of Palestinian rights in Jerusalem do not stop here. Israel has refused to honour a number of clauses from the five-year interim agreement of the Oslo Accords that concern the Jerusalemites. It has avoided negotiating the status of the occupied city and has continued its security and demographic campaign to uproot Palestinian residents. It has also maintained its diplomatic efforts to get Jerusalem recognised as its capital.

It is also now planning to prevent Jerusalem’s Palestinians from voting in the Palestinian legislative elections due to take place on May 22. This is despite the fact that the interim agreement guarantees the right of Palestinians in Jerusalem to vote in Palestinian elections.

The Israeli government, which constantly declares that it presides over “the only democracy in the Middle East” and is respecting the rights of the faithful from all religions to practice their faith in Jerusalem and throughout the Holy Land, is failing miserably on both counts.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has issued only a weak statement of “concern” on the march of Jewish extremists in Jerusalem that provoked tensions. It is also signalling that it would not oppose the postponement of the Palestinian elections, which the Palestinian Authority may be forced to do, as it has failed to secure Israel’s permission to conduct the vote in East Jerusalem.

At home, the Biden administration has stood against far-right extremism and voter suppression. It does not make sense that its foreign policy towards Israel and Palestine should not reflect the same principles.

If President Joe Biden is really set on undoing the damage that his predecessor, Donald Trump, did at home and abroad, then he needs to change tact on Israel. Turning a blind eye to Israeli crimes against Palestinians and choosing to constantly appease it will not lead to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Biden needs to pressure Israel to stand down on Jerusalem, allow the Palestinian elections to take place, so a new Palestinian leadership can be elected, and then proceed to get the two sides back on the negotiating table.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.