Now that the crisis over Israel’s closure of Al Haram Al Sharif and Al Aqsa Mosque has subsided—for now—it is important to underline crucial facts that forced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to back down and reverse controversial measures that his government had adopted namely installing metal detectors and CCTV cameras at the compound’s gates. The killing of two Israeli soldiers at the compound on July 14 triggered Israeli actions, which included the shutdown of Al Aqsa to Muslim worshippers for two days, but provocations by Jewish extremists have been going on for years. These provocations include almost daily incursions by extremists of Al Aqsa squares and attempts to force their way into the mosque.
The euphoria that accompanied Netanyahu’s back-off should not blind us from the fact that Israel’s far-right government will continue to patronise Jewish extremists as they storm the compound. In fact, since the end of the crisis there have been at least two such incursions. But more importantly and despite Netanyahu’s claims that the historic status quo at the compound will not be altered, Arabs and Muslims should take the statements of far-right Israeli ministers and radical colonists seriously. All have promised to fulfil a pledge to allow Jewish prayers inside the mosque and some have gone as far as to vow to destroy the holy site and erect a Jewish temple in its place.
The lesson that must be learned is that in spite of official interventions by Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) to pressure Netanyahu to stand down and forgo the controversial measures at the compound, it was really the Arab residents of occupied East Jerusalem who eventually forced Israel’s hand. Their solidarity, dedication and sacrifice have been inspirational and forceful. They — old and young, men and women, Muslims and Christians — were on the frontlines confronting Israeli soldiers while holding vigils at the gates and alleys of the walled city.
Jerusalemites have proven that they are the real protectors of their city and its shrines and by extension they represent the first line of defence against persistent Israeli measures to Judaise the city and deface its true identity.
Netanyahu’s bitter defeat came not because he was finally forced to remove the metal detectors and restore the status quo ante at the compound. His deep sense of loss, which was felt by many Israelis as well, came from the fact that decades of work to underline Israel’s sovereignty over occupied East Jerusalem was shattered by his folly and Jerusalemites’ perseverance and unity.
This is why Israel will now accelerate plans to besiege the Arab residents of occupied Jerusalem. The only way that Israel can demonstrate its control over occupied East Jerusalem is by creating the circumstances that would eventually drain the city and its suburbs from its Palestinian demographic component.
Since it fell under Israeli occupation in 1967, East Jerusalem has been a primary target of successive Israeli governments, especially after its annexation in 1980. A necklace of Jewish colonies, built on stolen Palestinian lands, now encircle the city thus cutting it off from the rest of the West Bank. Palestinian residents of occupied East Jerusalem, now numbering more than 320,000, have been subjected to clear discriminatory policies that make life difficult for them. As a result at least 50 per cent of Jerusalemites, who live in the Old City and in Arab neighbourhoods, are unemployed. About 75 per cent of the city’s Arab residents are living below the poverty line. In sharp contrast to the Jewish western part of the city, only 64 per cent of Arab homes in occupied East Jerusalem are connected to the water grid.
Economic strangulation, refusal to issue building permits, demolishing of Arab houses and the razing of entire Arab neighbourhoods are all aimed at accelerating the pace of emptying the eastern part of the city from its original residents. The declared Israeli objective is to reduce the percentage of the Arab population of occupied Jerusalem from 39 per cent to 22 per cent. Following the recent crisis Israel will double down on its plans to reduce the number of Jerusalemites. Interestingly that objective is shared by all Israeli parties regardless of their politics.
Supporting Arab residents of occupied East Jerusalem has never been more urgent. But that noble aim requires money above everything else. Bayt Mal Alqods Asharief Agency (www.bmaq.org), which was established by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1998, is the only official structure of its kind that aims at supporting the resistance of occupied Jerusalem’s Arab residents. Since then it had carried a number of projects in occupied Jerusalem (around $24 million [Dh88.1 million] worth between 2010 and 2014). But clearly this is not enough especially when compared to what Israel is investing to Judaise the city and alter its identity.
There are a number of non-profit organisations such as Al Quds Fund and Endowment (http://alqudsfund.org/ar/) and The Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development (http://www.thejerusalemfund.org) and others that carry out outstanding health, education and development projects.
But what is needed is an annual Arab and Islamic campaign to raise monetary contributions from individuals and companies to support the exiting OIC agency. Hundreds of millions of dollars can be raised that way in addition to securing essential public awareness of the Jerusalemites’ struggle, endurance and their exceptional and irreplaceable role as a first line of defence in protecting their city and its holy places. Governments should continue to do their share but we as Arabs and Muslims must do ours as well!
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.