The slow killing of Jerusalem

Palestinian Muslim worshippers, who refused to enter Al-Aqsa mosque compound due to Israeli-imposed barriers, pray at the Lions Gate entrance to the compound, 16 July. Oren Ziv ActiveStills

Of my 22 years of life spent in Jerusalem, I have never felt more fear of losing my beloved city than today. We, Palestinian Jerusalemites, are becoming strangers in our land.

Today, I find myself feeling helpless in the face of systematic obliteration of our culture and identity. We are losing our native character and becoming directionless wanderers with a diminishing sense of where we belong.

A similar phenomenon is affecting the whole of Palestine, but I cannot help but feel it hitting me the hardest in Jerusalem.

Over the past two years, I have had various groups of friends visit from abroad and stay at my house in Beit Hanina. I try to show them as much as I can of Jerusalem, while trying really hard to describe the actual nature of the oppressed city. Palestinian existence in Jerusalem is gagged, chained and continuously beaten down by Israeli institutional violence.

Beneath neatly paved paths

I get really irritated hearing tourists lavish praise on their visits to Jerusalem, as I am sure they have not seen the grim reality lying right beneath the neatly paved paths around the city walls or the fancy well-lit shopping areas, restaurants and bars of the western side of the city.

This is not only true for foreign tourists, but also for many Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza who receive the rarely issued permits from Israeli occupation authorities allowing them to visit the city.

Jerusalem is being strangled slowly and away from the eyes of anyone unfamiliar with its wider realities.

A perfume vendor in Jerusalem’s Souq al-Attareen, 1930s ( British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library)

A cousin of mine who owns a store in the Old City told me that Jerusalem has only seen rapid decline since the 2014 events and the war on Gaza. He was referring to the 51-day long Israeli attack that left more than 2,200 Palestinians, including 550 children, dead.

He described Israeli guides who refuse to allow their tour groups to stop and check out their stores, saying that those guides pretty much have a monopoly over tourism in the city.

His descriptions match my own observation that the city is slowly being shut down in hopes that it will eventually be emptied of its Palestinian population.

Anyone with experience of the Old City could observe this too by taking a stroll through Souq al-Attareen – the perfume market – or al-Wad Street.

The Palestinian shopkeepers’ biggest fear has become the tax authorities and Israeli police who always go after them to create an insufferable situation.

Last remaining space

In recent years, I have just not been able to get myself to enjoy the atmosphere of Jerusalem. I see the decline of the city in growing poverty, disappearing street vendors, the total absence of nightlife and the lack of public hangout places and cafes.

Jerusalem is dying, and yet the Israelis seek to kill perhaps the last symbol of Palestinian existence in the city.

Since the morning of the closure of the al-Aqsa mosque compound, following the 14 July attack that left two Israeli occupation officers and three Palestinian citizens of Israel dead, I have tried myself to go to the compound.

I did the same almost every day that week, but so far unsuccessfully due to Israel placing metal detectors at the gates, which Palestinians have refused to pass through in protest of the occupation’s attempt to impose even tighter control.

Last Friday, I grabbed a prayer rug and headed down to get as close as possible to al-Aqsa to pray, despite not being a regularly practicing worshipper.

I am angry at the recent Israeli measures at al-Aqsa, as they only mean one thing: emptying al-Aqsa of its people.

The compound is one of the last remaining public spaces in Jerusalem, with which Palestinians associate their identity. Al-Aqsa is also central to Palestinian economic and social activity in Jerusalem.

The imposition of gates and metal detectors is an effort to empty al-Aqsa by making it an extra hassle for everyone who wishes to enter. Worshippers who pray at al-Aqsa leave their work or home for less than 30 minutes, walk down to pray alongside others and then return to continue their routine.

Others enter al-Aqsa as a shortcut to get from one side of the city to the other. Palestinian traders in Jerusalem depend largely on the vast numbers of worshippers who regularly make their way to al-Aqsa.

We all resist

The placing of the metal detectors created a new obstacle which the Israelis hoped the Palestinians would just get used to and then begin to loathe the idea of visiting al-Aqsa.

The same happened with Qalandiya checkpoint years ago. That checkpoint lies in the occupied West Bank between the cities of Ramallah and Jerusalem. What started as a roadblock manned by one Israeli army jeep turned into what it is today – a huge checkpoint making the life of anyone crossing it a living hell.

Qalandiya forced people to change where they live and work, to change their entire lives to accommodate a grim new reality imposed by the occupier.

Qalandiya checkpoint is succeeding in making Palestinians hate the idea of crossing it to reach Jerusalem, leading to the slow emptying of the city.

I have no doubt that the metal detectors placed by Israel were part of its long-term plan to wrest total control of al-Aqsa, destroying one of the last remaining symbols of Palestinian existence in Jerusalem.

On Monday night, following more than a week of sustained protests and civil disobedience by Palestinians, Israel decided to remove the metal detectors. It has said it will place “smart” cameras to monitor entrances instead, a move Muslim authorities in the city who have said they will accept no change to the status quo are still examining.

Jerusalemites forced Israel to change course, but Israel will not give up its efforts to impose new restrictions and take our city unless we have sustained support for our struggle from all over the world.

The spirit of unity amongst Jerusalemites today has been extraordinary. People from all walks of life, practicing Muslims and non-practicing Muslims and even Christians, have taken part in directly protesting the closure of Al-Aqsa. We all recognize the significance of this battle, and so we all resist.

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Jalal Abukhater

Jalal Abukhater's picture

Jalal Abukhater is a Jerusalemite, he is a graduate MA(hons) International Relations and Politics from the University of Dundee, Scotland.