As ultranationalist Israelis' clash with Palestinians the historic city is once again in the news. But as Foreign Editor David Pratt reports, it’s the struggle for control of East Jerusalem that is the real fault line the world must watch out for

There are few cities like it anywhere. The very name conjures up so much in the minds of so many people. Standing as it does, battle-scarred from thousands of years of conflict and as a sacred symbol of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, Jerusalem invokes reactions from all who live there or visit it.

Perhaps because of how contentious its existence has been and the divisions among those who have claimed it as their own, many visitors who have encountered this walled city of domes, minarets, dazzling light and stone have sometimes viewed it less than favourably.

In his study Jerusalem: City of Mirrors, the Israeli historian Amos Elon tells of how the great American writer Mark Twain, in his famous travel book The Innocents Abroad, published in 1867, once described the city as “the abode of ignorant, depraved, superstitious, dirty, lousy, thieving vagabonds”.

There would not be a Second Coming, Twain insisted: Christ had been in Jerusalem once; he would not deign to come again.

But long before Twain, Jerusalem had no shortage of detractors. As far back as the 10th century the great Arab geographer Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Muhammad once characterised it as “a golden basin filled with scorpions”.

Certainly, during the years that I got to know the city well during the height of the Palestinian uprisings or intifadas in the 1980s, 1990s and early noughties, Jerusalem was never short of a sting in its tail. Riots would flare, stones would be thrown, bullets and tear gas fired, and suicide bombers would detonate their deadly cargo, but still Jerusalem’s endless stream of tourists would shuffle devoutly along the Via Dolorosa from church to synagogue to mosque, never quite sure when to cover their heads or take off their shoes.

A divided city

MANY of these tourists are more than familiar with the ancient fights over the city including those through biblical times, the Roman Empire, and the Crusades. Likewise, in terms of more modern history they know of those years during the British Mandate from 1917-48, and then that period when Jerusalem became a divided city again after Israel proclaimed its independence in 1948.

That was the moment when the western half of the city became part of the new state of Israel (and its capital, under an Israeli law passed in 1950), while the eastern half, including Jerusalem’s Old City, was occupied by Jordan.

But no event shaped the modern contest over Jerusalem as much as the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, in which Israel not only defeated invading Arab armies but also seized control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt; the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan; and the Golan Heights from Syria.

“Jerusalem became the centre of a cult-like devotion that had not really existed previously,” was how Rashid Khalidi, a professor of modern Arab Studies at the University of Columbia, explained what happened back in 1967 speaking to The New York Times more recently in 2017.

It was on December 6 of that same year – 2017, of course – when the then-US president Donald Trump chose to announce Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital: a controversial move made despite years of reluctance on behalf of an international community which was both wary of how contentious such a decision would be, and the message Palestinians and the wider Arab and Muslim world would take from it.

Over the years, until Trump’s decision, foreign governments had largely opened embassies in Tel Aviv, avoiding Jerusalem in recognition of the United Nations resolution over the divided city which it regards as remaining disputed and should only be resolved by negotiations.

But if 1967 was the year when Jerusalem was supposedly given “cult-like devotion,” by Israelis, then as Professor Khalidi also says it was the beginning of what he describes as an “extraordinary degree” of fetishisation of the city “as hardline religious nationalism” came to “predominate in Israeli politics”.

The full extent to which this Israeli ultranationalism is now a presence in the country was again evident these past few days as hundreds of supporters of far-right organisations, including the Lehava group, marched through central Jerusalem towards the city’s Damascus Gate in the east of the city.

Road to Damascus

DAMASCUS Gate has long been a flashpoint, sitting as it does along the so-called “green line” or 1949 Armistice Line between East and West Jerusalem, making for an uneasy coexistence there between Jews and Arabs who live on either side. These past few days Damascus Gate proved again to be a trigger point after clashes erupted between ultranationalist Israelis and Palestinians.

Tensions have been growing since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on April 13. Palestinians say Israeli police have tried to prevent them from holding their usual Ramadan evening gatherings outside Damascus Gate, an historic landmark on the north side of the Old City and adjacent to several Palestinian neighbourhoods.

“Palestinians love to relax in this area after evening prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, but the occupation (Israel) doesn’t like it. It’s a matter of sovereignty,” Jerusalem resident Mohammad Abu Al-Homus told Reuters news agency.

But brewing, too, in the background has been a series of videos circulating on Israeli social media purporting to show young Palestinians slapping or otherwise assaulting ultra-Orthodox Jews in the city. This, in turn, has galvanised Israeli ultranationalists into mobilising and responding in tit-for tat reprisals attacking Arabs. These young far-right Israelis have marched through central Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs” and waving banners reading “death to terrorists”.

In the ensuing clashes more than 100 Palestinians have been wounded by the Israeli security forces and 20 Israeli police.

Among those Israeli far-right supporters taking to Jerusalem’s streets have been some from the Lehava group that has been emboldened by the recent election to the Israeli parliament of several extremist-racist politicians, all of whom have been openly courted by the country’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his ongoing attempts to form a new government.

According to Reuters, the anti-Arab slogans drew a reproach from far-right Israeli politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, who said he was “against such chants,” while defending the Israelis’ right to protest.

He told radio station Tel Aviv 102 FM: “There are many Arabs among us who are loyal. But I certainly think that those of them among us who lynch, who beat up, cause harm, they should be roughed up, they should be thrown out of here.”

Asked what he meant by “roughed up”, Ben-Gvir said it meant prosecuting them and also “if we manage to pass legislation, also throwing them out of the country”.

Israeli ‘incitement’

FOR its part, the Palestinian president’s office has, meanwhile, condemned “the growing incitement by extremist far-right Israeli settler groups” and urged “the international community to protect the Palestinian people from the ongoing settler attacks”.

“East Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine and is a red line,” the presidency said in a press statement on Thursday.

It’s a view shared by most Palestinians who remain determined that East Jerusalem is intrinsic to their statehood aspirations and a capital of any such future state.

For that reason, along with security, borders, water rights, Israeli settlements, freedom of movement, and Palestinian right of return, the fate of East Jerusalem remains one of the most divisive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which ground to a halt more than 10 years ago.

And so, perhaps more than ever, this city with its Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem’s Old City, the third holiest in Islam and the holiest for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount, is again becoming the key physical landscape on which this seemingly interminable struggle between Palestinians and Israelis is played out.

Ever since 1980, when the Israeli parliament passed a law declaring the “complete and united” city of Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, including the eastern half that it captured in 1967, many felt it was only a matter of time before the contest over East Jerusalem came to a head.

Today, about 370,000 Palestinians and 200,000 Jewish settlers live in East Jerusalem while 2,500 of the more hardline Jewish settlers live in buildings bought inside Palestinian neighbourhoods, according to the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now. Settlement activities east of Jerusalem began in the early 1970s. Today, however, Israel has substantially stepped up its longstanding policy of surrounding East Jerusalem with

Jewish settlements that over time has been cutting it off from the West Bank. Some observers say that over the past four years settlement building has rocketed, made easier because the Trump administration gave Israel almost carte blanche to pursue its expansionist policies at the expense of the Palestinians.

As Trump was leaving office, the Israeli government under Netanyahu pushed through schemes it knew would be frowned upon by the incoming Biden administration, say rights monitoring groups.

This aggressive Israeli settlement spree pushed deeper than ever into the occupied West Bank, territory the Palestinians seek for a state, with over 9,000 homes built and thousands more in the pipeline, according to an investigation by the Associated Press.

The veteran Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi called the Trump administration a “partner in crime” with Netanyahu, adding that Biden would have to go beyond traditional condemnations and take “very serious steps of accountability” to make a difference.

“It needs a bit of courage and backbone and willingness to invest,” said Ashrawi.

Illegal settlements

IN Jerusalem itself, in these past weeks, Israel was reported to have approved the construction of hundreds of illegal settlement units in occupied East Jerusalem, a first since Biden took office in January.

The proposed 540 housing units are to be built in the Palestinian neighbourhoods of Beit Safafa and Sharafat and will create territorial continuity between the two major settlements of Har Homa and Givat Hamatos, south of East Jerusalem, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

Moshe Leon, the head of the Israeli Jerusalem municipality, said in a statement that it was “a great day for Jerusalem … especially for the young families”.

“I am happy and proud to place another stone of Zion on the way to building Jerusalem,” Leon was quoted by online news portal Middle East Eye as saying. But for many Palestinians every such stone placed by the Israelis is another lost in terms of their presence in East Jerusalem. Few neighbourhoods have been subjected more to such a creeping territorial takeover as that of Silwan, a village that lies on the slope descending from the Mount of Olives and includes an extensive “archaeological” site that some describe as being no more than a pretext for land grabbing. Excavations there are part of a larger Israeli government funded “City of David” project.

With at least 45,000 Palestinians living in Silwan, Middle East Eye last year highlighted how this “and other archaeological digs are part and parcel of Israel’s efforts to strengthen its physical and political hold over the neighbourhoods lining Jerusalem’s Old City, and to cement the position of the more than 400 Jewish settlers living in Silwan, in violation of international law”.

Currently, 400 Israeli settlers live in roughly 12 areas – protected by the Israeli army and military police – among the 55,000 or so Palestinians of Silwan, al-Bustan, Batn al-Hawa and Wadi al-Hilweh.

In what has been variously described as a process of “silent eviction”, “extortion” and “intimidation”, Palestinian families are slowly being moved to make way for an expanding settlement programme.

Given the current political climate in Israel these days with ultranationalists having strong links to the settler community and support among the upper echelons of Israel’s government, it’s hard to see any compromise or U-turn on the settlements programme.

For so long now the struggle for control of East Jerusalem and its neighbourhoods has become as much a political cause celebre for increasing numbers of Israelis as it has an issue of survival for those Palestinians living there.

It’s a long and bitter struggle of still unfulfilled promises, one in which the international community looks on silently even if there’s a growing sense that East Jerusalem is set yet again to become the crucible for this test of wills between two implacable foes.

“The cleavage in the city is deep, and it is made still deeper and more dangerous by the fusion, on both sides, of nationalist and religious metaphors,” observed Jerusalem’s Israeli chronicler Amos Elon in City of Mirrors when it was published back in 1991.

Elon was right back then and today, sadly, the same rings true. Even more so perhaps as Israel’s inexorable drift toward the political far right continues.