Passing Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem on his walk home from Friday prayers on December 8, Noor decided to keep his distance from the protest. The 25-year-old recent medical school graduate saw about 100 people gathered at the gate, a historic entrance to old Jerusalem, holding banners and Palestinian flags, chanting in defiance of U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. There weren’t as many people as Noor had expected. But there was no time for the protest to grow, he said. Israeli forces arrived and took down the banners, shoved people to disperse, arrested a few people, and then left.
Rula, 48, a veteran activist from East Jerusalem, was in that crowd, which was mostly made up of women. Her organizing committee had spread the word about the protest on WhatsApp, advising people to wear comfortable shoes to run from security forces and dark colors so as not to be singled out from the crowd, and to rally only behind the Palestinian flag, rather than banners of the different Palestinian factions.
Rula noticed the hundreds of Israeli security forces who were surrounding the crowd becoming nervous about the growing gathering. She saw two police officers on horses chase away a small group of young women who were trying to join the protest. The horses got so close, one of the women fell to the ground and the horses almost ran her over, Rula said, but her two friends managed to pick her up immediately.
Speaking to The Intercept from Jerusalem about last week’s demonstrations, neither Noor nor Rula wanted their last names made public — such is the fear of Israeli crackdowns on protesters.
After Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, U.S. mainstream media outlets in particular focused on forecasts of violent reactions from Palestinians, portraying them as angry and aggressive people, while providing no context on how Trump’s move has validated Israel’s repressive rule of Palestinians.
Those dire media warnings also failed to mention that Palestinian protest is often met with deadly violence from Israeli state forces – and this time was no exception.
Palestinians responded to the announcement by declaring a general strike, which was observed by many businesses and schools. Shops were shuttered, and the area around the usually bustling Damascus Gate fell quiet. The lights on the Christmas trees in Bethlehem and Ramallah were switched off in a sign of mourning, and both nationalist and Islamist Palestinian leaders called for days of rage. Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets across East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, as did hundreds of Palestinians citizens of Israel, residents of the Wadi Ara region in the north.
Israeli forces mobilized a crackdown on the sporadic, spontaneous protests, suppressing them using skunk water, teargas, live rounds, and rubber bullets. In Gaza, Israel also launched airstrikes. At least eight Palestinians have been killed, hundreds injured, and dozens of people detained.
One of the Palestinian casualties is Ibrahim Abu Thuraya, 29, a double amputee who lost his legs in an Israeli airstrike in 2008. A former fisherman, Thuraya, who used a wheelchair, was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers while protesting Trump’s Jerusalem decision near the Gaza Strip border on Friday.
Israel’s Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, told Army Radio that Arab citizens in Wadi Ara who protested Trump’s decision should be boycotted. In another radio interview, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said that even though Israel knew there would be some “friction, I recommend to Israeli Arabs, and to those Arabs who are rioting, not to test our patience.”
There were violent retaliations from Palestinians as well. Hamas launched several rockets at Israel, with one landing in the courtyard of a vacant kindergarten in southern Israel. Last week, a security guard was stabbed and critically wounded at the entrance to Jerusalem’s central bus station. Shortly before the attack, the assailant wrote on Facebook, “Our blood is cheap for you, our nation, our Jerusalem, our Aqsa” – referring to the sacred mosque in Jerusalem’s center.
By recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump has ratcheted up tensions in the city, said Betty Herschman, director of international relations and advocacy for Ir Amim, a nonprofit focused on Jerusalem within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It is sort of assumed that Palestinians have no other way of reacting than violently,” Herschman told The Intercept. But people should also “just assume that Israel will be further emboldened to take its own unilateral steps to intensify the occupation of East Jerusalem and its people, as well as steps to transfer them from the city,” she said.
“Israel will be further emboldened to take its own unilateral steps to intensify the occupation of East Jerusalem and its people.”
Jerusalem is a divided city. The western part houses the Israeli parliament and local government buildings, and the eastern part, which was under Jordanian rule until Israel annexed it after the 1967 war, is home to the Old City, as well as some of the most sacred Christian, Jewish, and Muslim sites.
Palestinians make up about 37 percent of Jerusalem’s population, but are only allocated about 8 to 10 percent of the municipal budget, which leads to significant socioeconomic disparities between the east and the west. They are tentative residents of the city and have never been given collective citizenship status. Since the 1967 annexation, there have been over 14,000 revocations of residency, essentially a way of kicking Palestinians out of Jerusalem.
Palestinian residents are entitled to some benefits, but they can only vote in municipal, not national, elections. The separation barrier, built in the early 2000s, further widened inequality between the city’s Jewish and Arab populations, and cut off some Arab East Jerusalem neighborhoods from others. It has had a deteriorating effect on commerce and prevents Palestinians from accessing religious sites, and health care and educational facilities.
At the same time as it has restricted the movement of Palestinians, Israel has expanded aggressively in East Jerusalem – building 11 major settlements since 1967, which has brought in more than 200,000 Israelis, according to Ir Amim.
Earlier this year, the Jerusalem planning and building committee approved the construction of 566 more residential settlement units and passed a contentious law that would allow Israel to retroactively legalize settlements on private Palestinian lands. Even Israel’s attorney general said the bill violated international law.
The Israeli government is not only grabbing more land, but also demolishing Palestinian homes at an accelerating rate. From 2004 to the end of September 2017, Israeli authorities demolished 730 units in East Jerusalem. In 2016, the rate of demolitions tripled to 203 total demolitions, out of which 123 units were residential. Palestinian residents might get isolated building permits but have not had a single new neighborhood approved.
Settler groups, in cooperation with the government, have mobilized to “Judaize” East Jerusalem by evicting Palestinians and moving Jewish families into their homes. Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority contracts the management of tourist sites to radical settler groups, who perpetuate an exclusive Jewish nationalist narrative to millions of visitors every year, according to Herschman.
Herschman believes that Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will worsen these tendencies and allow Israeli authorities to push through legislation that would redraw the boundaries of the city. If these bills were to pass, they would exclude a third of Jerusalem’s Palestinian population.
Noor told The Intercept that much of the anger is directed at the Palestinian government as well. Many people feel that the Palestinian Authority is no longer representing their demands, so they are taking to the streets to express their outrage, rather than in answer to the leadership’s call for upheaval.
“At the end of the day, [the Palestinian Authority has] come back with not only empty hands, but they even lost Jerusalem.”
“All they want to feed people is the peace treaty, and this is what Palestinians are getting sick of,” he said. “For decades, we’ve been lied to and told that there’s peace talks. And then, at the end of the day, they come back with not only empty hands, but they even lost Jerusalem.”
Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and assistant professor at George Mason University, thinks it’s irresponsible on the part of Palestinian leaders to call people out to protest. For one, she is skeptical of a reaction with no strategy or proposed end goals.
“Right now, why are Palestinians going to go out, to do what?” said Erakat. “To ask to go back into the cage that the Palestinian Authority has set up for us?”
The Palestinian Authority has adopted some of Israel’s repressive tactics to clamp down on its own population, sparking worries about civil liberties. Although many fear criticizing the Palestinian Authority openly, two-thirds of the Palestinian public want President Mahmoud Abbas to resign, according to a poll conducted last October by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
Palestinian leaders are trying to use the threat of violence to gain leverage with the United States in negotiations. But in doing that, they sacrifice Palestinian humanity, argues Erakat.
“Palestinians are constantly in a form of a resistance, and seeking to exist gets lost in a narrative of peacemaking,” said Erakat. “It becomes about both sides’s need to compromise, rather than one side needs to be reined in.”
This week’s protests echo rounds of violence last July, when Israeli authorities violated the fragile status quo and placed metal detectors at the entrance to the Haram al-Sharif compound, where Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine are located. The compound is the holiest site in the country for both Muslims and Jews, who refer to it as Temple Mount.
Three Palestinian citizens of Israel had shot and killed two police officers at the entrance to Haram al-Sharif. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted by imposing tighter security measures. For the first time in decades, Israeli authorities sealed off all entrances to the holy site for two consecutive days, a measure that Muslim worshippers viewed as a breach of their religious rights.
The move triggered acts of civil disobedience that carried on for weeks, which were also met with a deadly crackdown on Palestinians. Thousands of worshippers refused to enter the site and collectively prayed outside until Israel finally acceded to their request to remove the machines.
Rula, the activist from East Jerusalem, said the victory in July came with a price, and many Palestinians are now blacklisted by the Israeli government and risk losing more for their activism.
Although Rula perseveres in her fight against Israeli occupation, many Palestinians are losing hope. “When you feel that your entire life, you try to affect change, and nothing is working, many people lost hope,” said Rula.
For Erakat, the mere presence of Palestinians poses a risk to Israel’s settler-colonial project, “because it disrupts the narrative that the Jews have always been there.” To her, the best people can do to oppose Trump’s declaration is “frankly, by just being put and being alive and refusing to be moved.”