'Just the 1st round': Palestinians in East Jerusalem emboldened by protests

Two weeks of protests by Palestinians focused on new security measures, but for East Jerusalem residents it was a chance to highlight their political potency, which has waned for years, writes the CBC’s Middle East correspondent Derek Stoffel.

Grassroots demonstrations highlight difficult conditions East Jerusalem residents live under

A man waves a Palestinian flag upon entering the compound known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount, after Israel removed all security measures it had installed at the compound, in Jerusalem's Old City. (Muammar Awad/Reuters)

Khaled Shweiki raised his hand above his head, his fingers flashing "V" for victory, after praying recently outside the al-Aqsa mosque — feeling a rare sense of elation for a Palestinian who lives in East Jerusalem.

"We proved that we, as Jerusalemites, are able to protect al-Aqsa," he said. "We won."

After decades of feeling leaderless, under occupation, and with many living in poverty, East Jerusalem's Palestinians declared victory — saying their use of prayer to protest against new security measures forced Israel to back down.

Khaled Shweiki, right, in East Jerusalem following recent prayers outside the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

This latest round of tensions began after two Israeli police officers were shot and killed in the early hours of July 14. Three Arab citizens of Israel smuggled the weapons used in the killings into the al-Aqsa compound. The three men were shot dead by Israeli security forces.

New measures revive old tensions

Israeli authorities responded by installing metal detectors and security cameras outside some of the gates to the religious site, located in Jerusalem's Old City.

But Palestinians — including East Jerusalemites, residents of the West Bank and those with Israeli citizenship — banded together to demonstrate against what they believed to be an attempt by Israel to change the status quo, the delicate set of rules that govern access to the site, which is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, and the Temple Mount to Jews.

Israel erected metal detectors outside several entrances to the al-Aqsa/Temple Mount compound following the killing of two Israeli police officers near the site on July 14. (Reuters)

"[Israel] think[s] they can take more control over the people. We are the people and we give our souls to God," said Mohammad Rabiya, a resident of the Old City. 

"Israel should keep their hands off of us and leave us alone," he said.

Israel removed the cameras and metal detectors last week, after diplomatic efforts that involved the United Nations, the United States, Jordan and other Muslim Arab nations. 

Protests against the Israeli security measures at the al-Aqsa compound sometimes turned violent. This masked Palestinian man faced off against Israeli security forces in the West Bank. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)

As tensions flared, violence broke out alongside many of the demonstrations. Four Palestinians died in clashes with the Israeli security forces, while three members of an Israeli family were, according to Israeli authorities, stabbed to death by an attacker who wrote on Facebook he was acting to protect the al-Aqsa mosque. 

Potent Palestinian symbol 

The demonstrations were about much more than security equipment. The al-Aqsa mosque is a potent national symbol for Palestinians, signalled by the fact many Palestinian families hang pictures on their walls showing a visit to the famous golden Dome of the Rock.

Palestinians gambled on a strategy of protests through prayer after Israel brought in the new measures.

Israeli policemen stand guard as Palestinian men recently take part in Friday prayers outside Jerusalem's Old City. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

Religious leaders urged worshippers to refuse to pass through the metal detectors and instead spread their prayer mats down on the stone streets of the Old City.

They did, and what followed was the most successful popular protest by East Jerusalemites in decades.

Life in limbo

East Jerusalem has long been at the heart of Palestinian ambition, the city where they wish to establish the capital of their future state. But it's become a place where national pride and passion has disintegrated after years of neglect.

Jerusalem's 320,000 Palestinians make up nearly 40 per cent of the city's population. But most feel disenfranchised, caught in limbo between Israel and the West Bank, with many feeling ignored by the Palestinian Authority. 

East Jerusalem residents pay taxes, but they complain about the services — or lack thereof — they receive in return. 

Litter-strewn streets highlight the absence of garbage collection, which pales in comparison to waste disposal efforts in the western side of the city. There is also a severe shortage of classrooms.

Israeli police officers stand outside of Jerusalem's Old City during Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa compound recently. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Living under Israeli occupation, many Palestinians in East Jerusalem, young men especially, must always be ready to show their ID cards to Israeli police who patrol the streets.

The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem reported that Israel demolished at least 73 homes in 2016, after asserting that the owners did not have proper building permits. The group estimates that 295 were made homeless last year.

"These are deliberate policies on the part of the Israelis to keep this community marginalized," said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Abbas criticized 

"And coupled with that, you have the Palestinian political leadership that has been all too ready to give up on Jerusalem and has really done nothing to help people in Jerusalem," Buttu told CBC News.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, was away on a visit to China when the tensions over security at al-Aqsa began, and some residents of East Jerusalem accused him of underestimating the al-Aqsa protests.

Two Palestinian men wear T-shirts bearing the image of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. 'Scram, you collaborator,' it reads in Arabic. (Facebook)

Abbas severed security co-ordination with the Israeli authorities in the West Bank at the height of the crisis at the religious site, but Palestinian media report that the co-operation will be gradually restored.

The Palestinian Authority is also reported to have offered East Jerusalem residents $25 million, some of which would be used to compensate business operators who suffered as a result of the demonstrations.

'We don't want their money'

But Khaled Shweiki, who owns a grocery shop in the Old City and recently participated in prayers outside of al-Aqsa, rejected the offer.

"We don't want their money," he told CBC News. "We have made our lives without the Palestinian Authority."

Muslim worshippers have now resumed prayers at the al-Aqsa mosque, and the protests have subsided.

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer, says she expects Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to continue to press their demands, following what she calls their 'victory' over Israel's security measures at al-Aqsa. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

But Diana Buttu says the residents of East Jerusalem are now feeling "victorious" — and emboldened.

"They're also feeling that this is just the first round, and that there might be more along the way," she said.

"This is just Round 1, and there's much more to come."

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.