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How Palestinians were pushed into a corner

In early October 2016, Misbah Abu Sbeih left his wife and five children at home and drove to an Israeli police station in occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem. The 39-year-old Jerusalemite was scheduled to hand himself over to serve a four-month jail term for allegedly trumped-up charges of “trying to hit an Israeli soldier.” He is familiar with Israeli prisons, having been held before on political charges, including trying to sneak into and pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The mosque is part of a large compound known as Haram Al-Sharif, which includes the famed Dome of the Rock and other Palestinian sites revered by Muslims everywhere. The Holy Qur’an mentions Al-Aqsa as the place from which Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) ascended to heaven, journeying from Makkah to Jerusalem.

For Palestinian Muslims and Christians, the mosque took on a new meaning after Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. Scenes of soldiers raising the Israeli flag over Muslim and Christian shrines in the city 50 years ago are burned into the collective memory of several generations. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Haram Al-Sharif has been the focal point of clashes between Palestinian worshippers and the Israeli army.

Daily visitors to Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem include non-Muslim tourists. They are often welcomed by Al-Waqf, the Islamic religious trust that manages the holy shrines, a practice dating back 500 years. Even under Israeli occupation, Al-Waqf has continued to be the caretaker of the Muslim site, as arranged between Jordan and Israel.

But Israeli designs in the city go far wider. In April, the government announced plans to build 15,000 housing units in occupied Jerusalem, contrary to international law. The international community recognizes East Jerusalem as a Palestinian city. The US accepts this international consensus, and attempts by Congress to challenge the White House on this understanding all failed — until Donald Trump came to power.

Prior to his inauguration in January, Trump had promised to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This was welcomed by Israeli right-wing politicians and extremists. Many of Israel’s supporters in the US saw this as a good sign of the Trump presidency. While the embassy is yet to officially move to Jerusalem, the new administration is sending a message that it is no longer bound by international law with regard to the occupied territories.

Not only is the US abandoning its self-tailored role as a “peace broker” between Israel and the Palestinians, it is sending a clear signal to Israel that there will be no pressure on it regarding the status of Jerusalem. In response, the UN and its institutions have moved quickly to reassure Palestinians.

The UN cultural agency UNESCO has been the most active in this regard. Despite US-Israeli pressure, several resolutions have been passed by UNESCO and the UN General Assembly in recent months, reaffirming Palestinian rights in the city.

Palestinians are desperate and angry as their holy city is crumbling under the heavy boots of soldiers, amid international silence and unconditional US support for Israel’s government.

Ramzy Baroud

Israel and the US moved to punish Palestinians for UNESCO’s decisions. It began when Israel’s Parliament began pushing laws that make life even more difficult for Palestinian Jerusalemites, including a law that limits the Muslim call to prayer. The law, which passed its second reading in March, was championed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli police expanded the ever-growing list of Palestinians who are not allowed to reach their places of worship. The list included Abu Sbeih, who was repeatedly arrested, beaten and incarcerated by police.

The government then opened up the flood gates of settlement expansion in the occupied city, after being partially limited during the presidency of Barack Obama. In part, that was Netanyahu’s response to UN Resolution 2334, which demanded an immediate halt to Israeli settlement construction in the occupied territories.

Concurrently, the new US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, took on the task of silencing any international criticism of Israel’s occupation, calling international attempts to end it a form of “bullying.” Assured by unconditional US support, Netanyahu moved to new extremes. He severed Israel’s ties with UNESCO and called for the dismantling of the UN headquarters in Jerusalem.

The city’s east was illegally annexed by Israel in 1981, but without international acceptance, the move seemed pointless. Now Israel feels times are changing, as the Trump administration offers it an opportunity to normalize its illegal occupation and annexation.

In recent months, Palestinians have responded in myriad ways. They have worked with countries worldwide to challenge the Israeli-US plans. Most Palestinian efforts, although successful to some extent, have failed to sway Israel in any way.

The political upheaval has translated on the ground to more violence, as thousands of Israeli occupation soldiers and police were rushed to the city to restrict Palestinian movement and block thousands of worshippers from reaching Al-Aqsa. Hundreds were detained in a massive security campaign.

In the absence of a strong leadership, Palestinians are growingly increasingly desperate and angry. The Palestinian Authority is largely busy in its own pitiful power struggles, and appears to have no time for Palestinians, who are left with little hope for a political horizon and no clear sense of direction.

While thousands of Palestinians have resisted by constantly trying to reach Al-Aqsa or demonstrating in protest, others are reaching breaking point. One is Abu Sbeih. Once he arrived at the Israeli military police station, he did not give himself up. Instead he opened fire, killing an army officer and another Israeli. Abu Sbeih was killed instantly.

Other attacks followed. Last Friday, the holiest day of the week in the Muslim calendar, three Palestinian men attacked Israeli soldiers and police officers near one of the Haram’s gates. They killed two officers and were killed by soldiers soon after.

This is the first attack of this nature to be recorded inside the compound. Since 1967, only Israelis have used arms in violent clashes with Palestinians. Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in or around this holy shrine throughout the years.

Last June in Jerusalem, speaking to a crowd celebrating the 50th anniversary of the military occupation of the city, Netanyahu declared that the Haram would “forever remain under Israeli sovereignty.” Empowered by the Trump administration and assured by Haley’s tactics at the UN, Netanyahu feels his dream of subduing East Jerusalem is being realized. But the price of his dream is likely to be costly.

On the day of the attack, several Palestinians were killed in various parts of the West Bank, and a 3-year-old from Gaza died while awaiting a permit to cross from the besieged region to the West Bank for treatment. None of this registered in international media, but the armed Palestinian attack on Israeli soldiers made headlines worldwide.

More violence is likely to follow. Palestinians, who are dying without much media coverage, are desperate and angry as their holy city is crumbling under the heavy boots of soldiers, amid international silence and unconditional US support for Israel’s government.

• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.