A seemingly unstoppable wave of low-grade violence has been plaguing Arab East Jerusalem for the past four months, in what some Palestinian news outlets are now dubbing “the Jerusalem Intifada.”
Sparked by the July 2 kidnapping and murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, apparently by Jewish extremists, the disturbances consist mainly of throwing stones and Molotov cocktails — haphazard activities reminiscent of the largely spontaneous First Intifada launched in late 1987 across the Israeli-controlled West Bank and Gaza.
But the “Jerusalem Intifada” has its own unique characteristics, experts say. Namely, it has scarcely spread beyond the confines of the capital, and lacks the grassroots leadership that characterized the two previous Palestinian uprisings.
“Jerusalem now is a city without leadership,” said Walid Salem, director of the Jerusalem-based Center for Democracy and Community Development. He said that all Palestinian factions operating in the city are weak, and none have issued political communiques in a long while. Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have consistently neglected Arab Jerusalem.
The wave of violence that erupted in Jerusalem in July was not politically instigated, therefore, but can rather be dubbed a “children’s intifada,” led mostly by kids aged seven to 12, Salem opined.
“This phenomenon isn’t as widespread as the First Intifada, in which all walks of Palestinian society participated, young and old,” Salem told The Times of Israel. “What pushed them to act was the heinous assassination of Muhammad Abu Khdeir.”
Though the Jerusalem uprising is limited in scope, Israel’s political right is exaggerating its magnitude in order to “take revenge on all Palestinians,” Salem said.
On Tuesday, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat visited the Temple Mount accompanied by police to “gain a better understanding of issues and challenges.” A day earlier, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah paid a rare visit to the site, declaring that “there will not be a Palestinian state without East Jerusalem as its capital.”
Salem said that unlike the so-called “Jerusalem Intifada” which is largely illusionary, the increased Jewish fervor surrounding the site could “spark a religious war in the entire region.”
“They’re playing with fire,” he said, referring to Israeli visits to Temple Mount, as well as the purchasing of homes in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan.
Hillel Cohen, who researches Palestinian society and politics at Hebrew University, said that while the Jerusalem violence is markedly disorganized and uncoordinated, it certainly is not confined to prepubescents.
“Clearly there are also 15-year-olds, 18-year-olds and 22-year-olds,” he said. In his opinion, the differentiating factor between now and the First Intifada is the question of leadership.
“The First Intifada followed almost a decade of organization, where Fatah set-up institutions such as the Shabiba (the youth movement), the Tanzim (the militant faction) and local chapters, including in Jerusalem. The Democratic Front did the Same, as did the Popular Front and the Communists and the Muslim Brotherhood. When the [First] Intifada began, everyone knew where they belonged. When someone got arrested, it was clear who would replace him,” Cohen said.
“So even a spontaneous outburst can be perpetuated when the structure is in place, but now it’s completely disorganized. If the guys feel like it, they go out, if they don’t, they don’t. When someone gets arrested, they panic because there’s no one to fill his place.”
PA President Mahmoud Abbas could try, at least, to lower the flames; but at this point he seems uninterested to do so. Just a few weeks ago he called on Palestinians to oppose the entry of Jews to Temple Mount “in all means possible.”
The start of the Oslo Peace Process in 1993 and the power struggle that ensued between the local Fatah leadership and the new arrivals from Tunis destroyed the party structures created during the 1970s and and 1980s, Cohen said.
“The Fatah leadership of that time, which would show up immediately upon being called, simply ceased to exist,” he said.