Jerusalem: The Existential Red Line

There has been overkill in information about Palestinian reconciliation –” or lack thereof –” about the now shelved UN report by Richard Goldstone and about the Palestinian leadership’s bleeps and blunders throughout. No doubt, another article or two can be written about these subjects given the amount of statements, speeches, retractions and accusations that have been flying around as of late. However, there is another subject, which touches me personally and one which I feel needs addressing this week simply because it is at the heart of all we are fighting for: Jerusalem.

Living in the center of the Old City, in the closest possible proximity to the Aqsa Mosque Compound has allowed me front row seats to last week’s tensions –” Israeli police barricades cordoned off all the entrances to the compound and all the major thoroughfares into the Old City were also closely monitored if not completely closed off to passersby. Extremist Jews announced their intentions to break into the compound and lay the cornerstone of the Third Temple while over 100 Palestinians holed themselves up inside the Aqsa Mosque to protect and defend it from invaders. At the intersection just a few hundred meters from my house, Israeli police questioned men, women and children throughout the week, regardless of whether they were going to pray in Al Aqsa or not.

When I say children, I mean my own as well. Throughout the week, my nine-year old son was stopped by Israeli police –” armed with guns and nightsticks –” and questioned about where he was going, where he lived and his father’s name. Slightly intimidated by the police at first, Mohammed finally grew accustomed to the harassment and learned to set boundaries. This past Friday, apparently tired of being asked the same questions repeatedly, he decided to make his trip to our local hummus joint a bit faster. As he approached the group of police and soldiers at the end of the street, he stopped in front of them and took the power back into his own hands. "Remember my face," he told them boldly. "I am just going to buy hummus and am coming right back so don’t ask me where I’m going when I return." And they didn’t.

If that were not outrageous enough, this same group of police and soldiers stopped my 7-year old daughter as well on her way home from school. Let me repeat: she is seven. But that did not stop them from asking her too where she was going and where she lives. It’s good that Shaden is very independent, articulate and strong-willed for her age and would not be intimidated by the automatic machine guns, the billy clubs or the walkie-talkies. "I live right down here, in this neighborhood. What do you think?" she snapped at them. They, of course, let her pass.

My point is, while Israel’s military presence in east Jerusalem is always palpable, this week it was suffocating. The tension also came with a harrowing realization on my part. Israel’s clutches over the city are far stronger than most realize, which led me to the second realization; that because of these claims, Israel will do everything in its power to push us Palestinians out. Imagine: in what "democratic" country, are school children questioned by police on their way home while others cannot reach their schools at all? What kind of democracy does not allow bread and food into a place of worship because they want to starve out those inside? That is what happened during the siege over the dedicated men inside Al Aqsa. When Israel couldn’t force them out, they banned all food and water from entering the compound. This is certainly not the behavior of civilized countries.

However, these are all unnerving symptoms of an even more unnerving reality. Walking through the alleyways of the Old City throughout last week, the overall impression was one of doom, at least for the Palestinians. In east Jerusalem, where the Palestinians reside and which Israeli settlers continue to dig their claws into, the majority of those walking its streets were Israeli, not Palestinian. There were the police, border guards and soldiers on "patrol", there were the settlers, armed and hostile as always, there were the religious Jews making their way to the Western Wall for Sukkot prayers and there were Israeli civilians who decided to shop in the "Arab" quarters of the city. The reality is daunting –” ordinary West Bank and Gaza Palestinians are banned from Jerusalem by way of their nationality while any Jew from anywhere in the world can descend on the city at any time and be welcomed by this "Jewish state."

This slow but steady encroachment on the eastern sector of Jerusalem –” recognized by the entire world as occupied territory –” is, as a whole, more dangerous than all of its individual parts. That is to say, the continued settlement construction in different areas of east Jerusalem, the home demolitions, the restrictions on Palestinian entry, the repeated threats to Al Aqsa Mosque –” all these are pieces of a morbid jigsaw puzzle, one which excludes any Palestinian presence in this holy city.

This is exactly why the Palestinian leadership needs to get its act together. I have excluded saying the people because during this latest siege on Jerusalem, the people proved to be worthy of calling themselves patriots. Without a formal leadership to guide them, they defended Al Aqsa tooth and nail –” regardless of whether they were religious Palestinians or not. Devout Muslims, secular and Christian Palestinians banded together to defend the holy site, and by association, the city at large. "Al Aqsa is not only a religious red line, it is an existential one," one foreign journalist succinctly said in describing the people’s determination.

The leadership –” both in the West Bank and in Gaza –” is another story. Still squabbling over whether they should "reconcile" or not, each side flinging one nasty comment after another at each other, our leaders have not quite grasped the scope of the existential threat over Jerusalem. If they had, they would have realized their people’s ultimate dedication to protecting this city, with or without them. Israel is proceeding with its plans in Jerusalem, at this point largely unhindered. A united Palestinian front will probably not be able to halt this encroachment altogether, but with a strong unified leadership that knows the tasks before it, our chances of slowing down the process until a just solution is reached are that much better.