All Of It
VIII. THE VOLCANO ERUPTS
Housing evictions and demolitions are a hot button for Palestinians no matter where they live, the eviction of a family, the destruction of their home, reverberates everywhere. Palestinians call it their “never ending Nakba.”
In the words of Jehan Bseiso, a Palestinian poet living in Lebanon, “The experience of these families, who had already been displaced from what became Israel in 1948, is something every single Palestinian . . . can relate to, . . . there’s something really triggering about seeing people being removed from their homes all over again, even if you’re a million miles away.”
So in early April 2021, an impending decision by the Israeli Supreme Court expected to uphold the eviction of six Palestinian families from Sheik Jarrrah, which Israeli officials dismissed as “a mere real estate dispute,” became a flash point.
Palestinian, Jewish and international solidarity activists gathered for sit-ins and vigils near the homes of the families facing eviction.
One spoke for all, “If we don’t stand with Sheik Jarrah, evictions will come to my house, her house, his house, to the house of every Palestinian who lives here.”
Israeli police, some on horseback like Cossacks, dispersed them first with tear gas, skunk water and batons, then with stun grenades and rubber-bullets. Police beat up and arrested young protestors for nothing more than waving tiny, held between finger and thumb, Palestinian flags. Just the beginning.
On Tuesday, April 13, 2021, the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the evening call to prayer at Al-Aqsa came at precisely 8:29, a half hour after the start, in the large Wailing Wall plaza, of the annual Yom Hazikaron ceremony honoring Israel’s war dead.
Apparently annoyed that the muezzin’s calls might interrupt the remarks of Israeli president Reuven Rivlen, police from the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security and counterintelligence service, invaded Al-Aqsa, broke open the locks to its Chain Gate, in Arabic, Bāb al-Maḥkama, or Gate of the Law Court, and cut the electric wires powering the speakers on the mosque’s four minarets.
At almost the same time, Israeli police stormed and closed the plaza outside the Damascus Gate – in Arabic, Bab al-Amud – main entrance to the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, during the day a bustling market and at night during Ramadan a popular gathering place for young Muslims. One offense coming on top of the other, Palestinians, and Muslims everywhere, were incensed.
“It is not an accident that Sheikh Jarrah and the Temple Mount were the triggers of this convulsive violence,” says Daniel Seidemann, “There is a concerted effort to displace the Palestinians . . . . We [Israelis] are taking the radioactive issue of Jerusalem and the radioactive issue of displacement and uniting them.”
One week later, April 21, hundreds of Lehava, a Jewish supremacist group fairly described as the Proud Boys of Israel, marched through central Jerusalem chanting “Death to Arabs” and assaulting more than 100 Palestinians. A group post planning the march declared, “We must break their faces, bury them alive.”
Lehava, or “Flame” – its full Hebrew name means “Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land – vehemently opposes personal relationships between Jews and non-Jews.
In 2015, three young Lehavas firebombed the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem. When sentenced to three years in prison for arson, grinning with self-satisfaction they told the judge that they targeted the school “because Jews and Arabs learn together at the school, our goal was to put opposition to coexistence and assimilation in the public eye.”
Ramadan is a month of daily sunrise to sunset fasting – no food or water – intended to remind Muslims of those less fortunate. Each fast day ends with an iftar, literally, a breakfast, often open air, on the street.
Thursday, May 6, 2021, Jewish settlers in Sheik Jarrah attacked Palestinians at an iftar, throwing stones and bottles from the roofs of adjacent houses. In response, police prevented solidarity protestors from entering the neighborhood, but allowed gun-toting settlers to patrol its streets.
Then, on May 7, Israeli authorities poured gas on the fire. With an estimated 70,000 worshipers on the Al-Aqsa esplanade for the last Friday prayers of Ramadan, hundreds of police swarmed up the steps, firing stun grenades, some into the prayer hall, and sending more than 200 worshippers to hospital, many with severe head and eye injuries from rubber-tipped steel bullets.
These are not nerf guns: according to a 2017 study by U.S. researchers, based on data from seven countries including Israel, 3% of rubber bullet casualties die, 15.5% suffer blindness and other permanent disabilities.
The study’s conclusion: “Given their inherent inaccuracy, potential for misuse and . . . severe injury and death, KIPs (kinetic impact projectiles) do not appear to be appropriate weapons for use in crowd-control settings.” To say the least.
Police were back in force again with more stun grenades, more rubber bullets, on Saturday, May 8, Laylat al-Qadr, “Night of Destiny,” one of the holiest in Islam, commemorating the day in 610 A.D. when, Muslims believe, Allah first revealed the Qurʾān to the prophet Mohammed.
Many worshippers stayed in the mosque overnight to defend the Haram. When Israeli police blocked the entrances, those on the outside shouted, “In spirit, in blood, we will take back Al-Aqsa.”
Behind makeshift barricades, Palestinians fought back, throwing stones and firecrackers, even shoes – the ultimate insult in the Arab world – but hundreds were injured, 80 taken to hospital in ambulances with rubber bullet injuries.
Sunday, May 9, was relatively quiet, as police stayed away from the Haram and Israel’s Supreme Court prudently postponed its hearing of the Sheikh Jarrah eviction cases.
But on Monday, May 10, push came to shove. Only two days before the end of Ramadan, it was Jerusalem Day, when hardline Zionists celebrate the taking of East Jerusalem in 1967 and assert their sovereignty by marching through the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Provocative in the best of times, positively incendiary when overlapping Ramadan.
The Western Wall plaza filled with young Israelis cheering the sight of a tree burning on the Haram and singing a genocidal anthem of vengeance popular in far right circles, the words of Samson as he pulled down the pillars of the Temple in Gaza, “O God, that I may with one blow take vengeance on the Philistines for my two eyes!” Jumping up and down in a frenzy, they shouted, “May their name be effaced!”
One might think that sensible Israeli leaders would decide, “Let’s slow walk this, keep our distance from Al-Aqsa until Ramadan is over.”
But not how Natanyahu rolls. After national elections in March – the fourth round in two years with no clear winner – he was negotiating with hard right religious lawmakers to form a coalition government, and they were in no mood to wait. Jews praying on the Temple Mount was their first step to rebuilding Solomon’s Temple.
So once again, the third time in four days, more than a thousand Israeli police stormed the Haram, firing stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas as snipers took up positions on the mosque roof.
Some of the mosque’s stained glass windows were smashed. Red Crescent medics treated over 300, including several journalists, and took 153 to hospital, many with serious head and eye injuries.
Speaking with the New York Times, Khaled Zabarqa, a lawyer praying at the mosque when the tear gas started , asked the obvious question, “Why are they attacking Al-Aqsa, this sacred place, during Ramadan? Israel is starting a religious war.”
“This was the turning point,” said Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, “it was clear that Israeli police wanted to desecrate Al-Aqsa and the holy month of Ramadan.”
The objective was, in fact, to clear the Haram of Muslim worshipers so that Jews could pray on the Temple Mount, by itself an egregious breach of the 1967 “status quo” agreement between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which under an Islamic trust, the Waqf, is custodian of the Haram.
When Israeli forces swept into Old City in 1967, Lt. General Moshe Dayan spotted blue and white flags flying over the Mount and ordered them taken down and replaced Israeli troops with Muslim guards, saying, “We don’t need a holy war, we did not come to conquer the sacred sites of others or to restrict their religious rights, rather to ensure the integrity of the city and live in it with others in fraternity.”
In the same prudent spirit Israel enacted its first post-war legislation, the Law for the Protection of Holy Sites, which Israeli courts have repeatedly construed to mean that the exercise of religion is subordinate to public security and safety, and accordingly there would be no change to the “status quo,” codified as part of the 1994 Jordan – Israel Peace Treaty: individual Jews and tourists allowed to visit the Mount, or Haram al-Sharif as Muslims call it, at fixed times, but may not enter Al-Aqsa or pray or worship on the Mount.
The flip side is that Jews only, not Muslims, may pray at the Kotel or Wailing Wall, so called because Jews in prayer often weep there about the destruction of the Temples; it is off limits to Muslims even though sacred to them as the place where the prophet Muhammad tied his winged steed, al-Buraq, before ascending to paradise.
Although the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has ruled that it is forbidden for Jews to walk on the Temple Mount for fear that they will inadvertently tred on the sacred Holy of Holies, hard right Zionists, aided and abetted by more than a decade of right wing governments, have relentlessly pushed the boundaries of the status quo, entering in larger groups – the limit increased from 5 before 2003 to 50 after 2011 – and more often, hitting 10,000 in just three months, September to November of 2021. Always with an armed escort, and often with the police closing the gates and clearing the Haram of Muslim worshippers.
In the October 2012 issue of Foreign Policy, Lara Friedman of Peace Now and Daniel Seidemann warned, “Tinkering with the status quo on the Temple Mount and Haram al-Sharif . . . against a backdrop of intensive settler-related activities that aspire to establish a neo-Biblical zone of exclusionary Jewish hegemony in and around the Old City . . . threatens to transform a complicated but solvable national-political conflict into an intractable religious war.”
And that is precisely what happened. On Monday afternoon, hundreds of Israel’s religious right walked onto the now empty Haram and performed Talmudic rituals under police protection. During Ramadan no less.
One might ask, but it’s just prayer, why is that a problem? Well, one could also ask, in the same breath, what if hundreds of Palestinians assembled to pray in front of the Wailing Wall, violating that part of the status quo? During Passover? Or any time?
Final straw. Muhammad Deif, shadowy commander of the al-Quassam military wing of Hamas in Gaza, who was crippled and his wife and infant daughter killed by an IDF airstrike in 2014, issued an ultimatum, warning that Israel would “pay a very heavy price” if it did not “withdraw its soldiers . . . from the blessed Al-Aqsa mosque and Sheikh Jarrah by 6:00 p.m.”
When the deadline came and went, the al-Qassam brigade fired seven rockets at Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh 30 miles west, and IDF warplanes in turn pummeled Gaza with 110 guided bombs overnight and into Tuesday morning, the opening salvos of an asymmetric war between Israel and Hamas that would rage for the next 11 days.
Before Egypt negotiated a ceasefire, Hamas had launched 4,300 rockets, most destroyed in the air by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, but 60 or so got through, killing 12 civilians, including a Palestinian mother and daughter, and injuring 330. Small towns like Sderot close to Gaza took the brunt of the rocket attacks, but in Tel Aviv people ran for shelters just the same.
Meanwhile, IDF bombs and artillery were inflicting jaw-dropping devastation on Gaza, destroying 2,800 homes, and killing 260 and wounding at least 1,500, among them the 42 killed, including 10 children and 16 women, in a single May 16 attack on al-Wehda Street, a densely populated area in one of Gaza City’s most prominent residential and commercial neighborhoods. Forty schools, four hospitals and 19 other medical facilities incurred major damage.
According to Gaza police, bomb fragments from al-Wehda Street had serial numbers starting in 76301, marking them as manufactured by the Boeing Company. And right in the middle of the 11-day war, the Biden administration authorized a $735 million sale to Israel of 2,000-pound Mark 84s, GBU-31 and GBU-39 bombs to replenish IDF stocks. For next time.
Most spectacular of all, the flattening of six high-rise buildings, including the al-Jalaa tower which housed the offices of the Associated Press and al-Jazeera, as well as the homes of many of Gaza City’s business leaders and professionals.
The IDF claimed that it was targeted because some Hamas units had offices in the tower, but residents, who would know, had never seen anyone Hamas there. No matter, for Israelis it made for cathartic, don’t miss, television.
In the words of Gaza mayor Yahya al-Sarraj, destruction of these iconic Gaza landmarks was intended “to disfigure the city beyond recognition and prevent [journalists from] showing the world the reality of yet another violent offensive.”
This exponentially lopsided death toll has been the norm in all of the half dozen major conflicts between Israel and Hamas; since 2005 the kill ratio is 23 to 1. Up against one of the most advanced militaries in the world, Hamas is always outmatched, with no air defense system, much less an Iron Dome.
And although Hamas has recently developed longer range missiles, up to 150 miles, putting most of Israel within range, most are homemade, unguided and very inaccurate. In terms of casualties and infrastructure damage, it is no contest. Indeed, IDF commanders describe the periodic assaults on Gaza as “mowing the lawn,” nothing more than a periodic housekeeping chore, cleaning out, degrading, Hamas military assets.
But this time the blowback was very different, because it wasn’t just Hamas rockets, street clashes in East Jerusalem, children throwing stones in the West Bank. Simmering Palestinian resentment boiled over into outrage inside Israel itself. The chickens had come home to roost.
On May 11, in Lod, Jaffa and Haifa, cities that Israel holds out as exemplars of “peaceful coexistence,” thousands of Palestinians went into the streets for what were at first peaceful demonstrations expressing solidarity with the people of Gaza and East Jeusalem.
But when police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the crowds, and a rightwing settler from outside Lod shot 32-year old Moussa Hassouna, all hell broke loose.
Young Palestinians torched Jewish shops, a Hebrew school and three synagogues, and roving gangs of right wing Israelis armed with bats and guns, and chanting “Death to Arabs,” smashed the windows of Arab businesses and marked the doors of Arab homes. Scores of burning cars blocked the streets.
Dr. Nasreen Haj-Yahya, director of the Arab-Jewish relations program at the Israel Democracy Institute, said that Arab anger was not directed at Lod’s longtime Jewish community, but at rightwing settlers taking over Arab neighborhoods. “It’s not because [they are Jews], it’s because they are trying . . . to drive out the Arab residents. . . . The young people see it as a threat to their presence in the land, to their very existence.”
In Bat Yam, a Tel Aviv suburb, a Jewish mob dragged a Palestinian motorist out of his car and beat him almost to death – prosecutors charged three men with “attempted terrorist murder,” presumably referring to the violent act, not the victim – and four Arabs tried to do the same to a Jewish driver in East Jerusalem. Police detained a handful of Jewish rioters, but arrested more than 1,500 Palestinians, including dozens of children, and beat detainees with batons and rifle butts.
In Haifa, roving packs of Jews and Arabs clashed, threw stones and set store fronts on fire, and 15 miles north in Acre, where a third of its 48,000 residents are Arab, it was worse, restaurants, shops, even a cultural center, were set ablaze.
Ami Ayalon, former director of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, was beyond sobered, “I don’t think that, since the creation of the state of Israel, we’ve seen this kind of domestic violence. We are not far from . . . not a civil war, but a level of violence I don’t know we can control.” Prime Minister Netanyahu declared a state of emergency, the first since 1966.
When she was Foreign Minister and chief negotiator in peace talks with the Palestinians, Tzipi Livni repeatedly warned that failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would eventually lead to fighting inside Israel.
“And this is exactly what is happening now,” Livni said, “What was under the surface has now exploded, and created . . . I don’t want to use the words ‘civil war,’ but something new, unbearable, horrific, I’m very worried.”
Most Israeli Jews were stunned. Clashes in the West Bank are usually out of sight, out of mind, but riots in their own cities could not be ignored. In the words of Tzachi Hanegbi, Minister of Community Affairs, “It came as a big shock.”
Stunned? Shocked? Only if blinded by an overwhelming sense of privilege and entitlement. Louis Fishman, writing in Ha’aretz, hit the nail on the head, “What they couldn’t see from their segregated world was that, for Palestinians, the Nakba never ended.”
For Palestinians certainly, the outbreak of violence was hardly surprising, it was inevitable. The relentless land thefts, demolitions, evictions, night raids, arrests, beatings, killings and daily humiliations had, with the assaults on the Haram and bombing of Gaza, reached critical mass.
Avraham Burg echoed Daniel Seidemann: “All the enriched uranium was already in place. And the trigger was Al-Aqsa mosque.”
[End 8, click on 9 to continue]