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Jerusalem on fire but where are the firefighters?

Three years ago, violent unrest in Jerusalem was the overture to a massive Israeli onslaught on Gaza. With all the horror of Gaza, many forgot that Jerusalem was the spark, as it was for clashes in 1990, 1996 and 2000 with the start of the second intifada (uprising).

With three Palestinians killed in Jerusalem last Friday, another on Saturday and three Israeli settlers killed in Halamish settlement near Ramallah, an argument that was superficially about metal detectors at Al-Aqsa has become a hugely dangerous moment. It will be a contest of wills, with Israel’s leadership determined never to concede an inch to Palestinians, while the latter will protest, riot and confront occupation forces for many days to come.

For those who buy into the anti-Palestinian propaganda that Jerusalem is a single, united city under the magnanimous control of an Israeli municipality, all this might be rather startling. Those who have fallen under the propagandists’ spell might be startled to realize that the Old City is part of occupied East Jerusalem, and as with the rest of this area, the Palestinians suffer accordingly.

Media coverage depicts the issue as one of metal detectors at the Haram Al-Sharif compound. If only, as that would be easy to resolve. It is one Israeli provocation upon another, with the far-right wanting to maximize the opportunity to punish Palestinians and further deprive them of their rights.

Although the army and intelligence services advised their removal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kept the metal detectors in place, originally imposed after the killing of three Israeli Druze soldiers on July 14. For Palestinians it is another indignity, another checkpoint, another humiliating search by occupation soldiers outside their most sacred site.

The proposal of fenced access paths is a sure-fire escalation as well, and will be viewed as cages for animals. Israeli soldiers scouring Jerusalem hospitals to confiscate Palestinian corpses reinforces the theme. Largely unreported in the media, Jerusalem has been on edge for months, belying Israel’s claim that this is a united city. The first provocation was massive settlement building.

On July 6, the municipality announced two new settlement projects in occupied Jerusalem. The total of all the plans means a further 1,800 housing units across several settlements, a 3.3 percent increase in settlement units built in East Jerusalem since 1967. Other plans are expected to be approved. The 114 units approved in Palestinian neighborhoods is an insult given the desperate housing shortages facing Palestinians.

One settlement plan included four homes to replace Palestinian ones in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Israel is allowing this on the basis that originally the land was Jewish-owned. This is a one-way process of course, as Palestinians cannot claim back lands lost in 1948 for which they have ownership papers. These are multi-story units that threaten to create a settlement bloc from the Green Line well into the heart of the Palestinian area.

An argument that was superficially about metal detectors at Al-Aqsa has become a hugely dangerous moment.

Chris Doyle

Meanwhile, Israeli security forces’ repression of Palestinians is at an all-time high. At night, Palestinian neighborhoods were aflame with unrest well before the current escalation. Over the last three years, 10 percent of all Palestinian children aged 12-18 have been arrested.

In 2014, fighting in Jerusalem was intense, including the killing of 15-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was tortured and burned alive. This story still resonates. On July 4, Israel’s High Court ruled that the homes of the families of his three killers would not be demolished.

Without doubt this is the right decision, as families should not pay for the crimes of others. But every Palestinian in Jerusalem knows that their homes would have been demolished almost immediately as a form of collective punishment.

Many Palestinian homes face demolition. Of the 50,000-60,000 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, 15,000-20,000 were built without a permit, so they are liable for destruction. Such permits are almost impossible for a Palestinian to obtain, with only 7 percent of Jerusalem building permits allocated to Palestinian neighborhoods.

No city could be more divided. Israeli Jews will still not venture into Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, fearing for their safety — not surprising given some of the attacks. Palestinians only journey into West Jerusalem if absolutely necessary, and even then they risk getting beaten up.

The far-right extremist group Lehava has organized dozens of attacks in downtown Jerusalem, according to Israeli reports. Police are accused of doing nothing to stop them. Palestinians face different treatment at the hands of the law. This is even more marked in the rest of the occupied West Bank, where they have to live under Israeli military law.

Jerusalem was a bonfire waiting for a match to light it. As it goes up in flames, one wonders where the firefighters are. A weak Israeli coalition is unraveling, with far-right parties positioning themselves for elections and the ousting of Netanyahu. The Palestinian Authority is weaker than ever, and has no remit within Jerusalem. Palestinian Jerusalemites feel that they are abandoned and have to fight for their own cause. It could be a very long hot summer.

• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.