Silwan: Reasons to Worry?

Yesterday there were serious clashes between Palestinians of East Jerusalem and the Israeli police and private security guards.  The clashes were caused by the shooting death of a Palestinian man earlier that day by a private security guard hired by settler groups in the Silwan neighborhood.  Following the funeral of the man, Palestinians began throwing rocks at police and security guards; 10 Israelis were injured in the clash.  Police entered the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, but have since redeployed, with the papers stating that the calm had been restored.

These clashes are simply a reminder of the danger of the Israeli claim to a united Jerusalem.  Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem are angry at the continuing Israeli colonization of the Palestinian part of town.  Silwan is a neighborhood of around 55,000 Palestinians and 300 Israeli settlers, making it – along with perhaps Sheikh Jarrah – one of the most controversial neighborhoods for Israeli settlers, as settlers are using disputed archaeological and historical claims to further disenfranchise Palestinians. Clearly the clashes demonstrate the danger of an inequitable peace agreement that does not share control over Jerusalem.  Palestinians want to be Palestinian, not Israeli and a peace agreement that gives Israel full legal control over East Jerusalem would be dangerous.

[tweetmeme] Furthermore, although many are trying to convince the public that riots were an isolated event that has been quelled, there is reason to believe that the anger and outrage of Palestinians in East Jerusalem could boil again leading to more violence. Indeed, there is the potential for such anger to become contagious and ignite another round of mass violence.  From Americans for Peace Now (APN):

We wrote earlier today about the crisis unfolding in Silwan.  The latest Jerusalem news – that the Israeli police have withdrawn from the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif and the barricaded worshipers have left the site – is creating the impression that this crisis is now behind us.

Such a conclusion would be dangerously premature.  There are compelling reasons to warn that this crisis may not yet be over:

  • erusalem’s police commander Franco, recently seen walking arm-in-arm with the head of the Silwan settlers (photo here), held a press briefing  this evening (local time) in which he publicly absolved the Israeli security guard of all responsibility for the shooting and killing, and promised a massive police presence tonight and tomorrow to keep the Palestinians in line.
  • The very fact that the police commander is briefing the press (while there is silence from the Prime Minister’s office) suggests that this is a crisis that is being handled by mid-level police commanders with a limited perspective limited to narrow operational considerations and with a record of symbiosis with and sympathy for the Silwan settlers that is highly problematic. The content of his talking points only bolsters this impression.
  • The rage and disgruntlement on the Palestinian street, in Silwan and throughout East Jerusalem, is palpable.  East Jerusalem this evening is a tinderbox that could explode again at the slightest provocation (by settlers or security personnel), and potentially without an additional provocation.
  • The Israeli show of strength and pursuit of protesters/rioters today is painfully reminiscent of the Israeli over-reaction and over-use of force that characterized the early confrontations following the Sharon visit to the Temple Mount in 2000 – a reaction aimed at “breaking” the Palestinians and destroying their will to protest.  This of course backfired, turning those early confrontations into the start of the second Intifada.  The statements of Jerusalem’s police commander appear to indicate that rather than learning lessons from that experience, the police intend to duplicate the same approach in the coming days, hoping this time for a different result.
  • This approach – which prefers forceful encounter over containment, while demonstrating blanket justification of settler interests and zero empathy with Palestinian concerns – is likely to stoke Palestinian rage and increase, rather than reduce, the likelihood of further violent confrontations, which in turn have the potential to leave more dead and injured and let loose a powerful, destructive cycle.
  • The timing of this event is very dangerous.  Sukkot prayer services tomorrow will likely lead Israeli authorities either to close off the Haram al Sharif to Muslim worshipers – which will further stoke Palestinian outrage.  If they do not, they will risk stone barrages on worshipers in the Western Wall Plaza below, with the attendant risk of escalation into a battle with between Israeli security forces and worshipers atop the Haram al Sharif.
  • There is a dangerous confluence today between the drama of renewed talks, the current political crisis over the end of the moratorium, plummeting expectations of a Palestinian street frustrated by Israeli humiliation, American finger pointing and a Palestinian leadership incapable of delivering real results for its people.  All these factors only make the Silwan situation that much more volatile.

In short, how all this is handled over the next 24-72 hours may have as much of an impact on the fate of the peace process as a resolution of the settlement moratorium debate, and warrants the same level of engagement, attention and resolve.

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