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Why Palestinian victory in Jerusalem is a pivotal moment

Neither Fatah nor Hamas have been of much relevance to the mass protests around Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. Nor have US pressure, half-hearted European “concern about the situation” or cliched Arab declarations made one iota of difference. UN officials warned of grim scenarios of escalation, but their predictions were wrong.

The spontaneous mass movement in Jerusalem, which eventually defeated Israeli plans to change the status of Al-Aqsa, was purely a people’s movement. Despite the hefty price of several dead and hundreds wounded, it challenged both the Israeli government and the quisling Palestinian leadership.

Israel shut down Al-Aqsa compound on July 14 following a shootout between three armed Palestinians and Israeli occupation officers. The compound was reopened a few days later, but Palestinian worshippers refused to enter as security  cameras and metal detectors were installed.

Jerusalemites immediately understood the implication of Israel’s action. In the name of added security measures, the government was exploiting the situation to change Al-Aqsa’s status as part of its efforts to further isolate Palestinians and Judaize the illegally occupied city. 

Israel’s army occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem in 1967, annexing it in 1981 in defiance of international law and despite strong UN objection. For 50 years, Jerusalem has endured daily battles. The Israelis fought to expand their influence in the city, increase the number of illegal Jewish settlers and cut off Jerusalem from the rest of the Palestinian territories. Palestinian Muslims and Christians fought back.

Al-Aqsa compound, also known as Haram Al-Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary, is the most symbolic element in the fight. It is a microcosm of the fate of the occupied city, in fact the fate of the entire Palestinian land. The compound has been administered by Islamic Waqf through an Israeli-Jordanian understanding. Many Israeli politicians in the Likud Party and the right-wing government coalition have tried to change this.

Palestinians understand that the fate of their mosque and the future of their city are tightly linked. For them, if Al-Aqsa is lost, Jerusalem is truly conquered. This fight between Palestinian worshippers and Israel’s army happens every day, usually escalating on Friday. It is on this holy day for Muslims that tens of thousands of faithful flock to Al-Aqsa to pray, oftentimes met by new military gates and regulations.

Young Palestinians in particular have been blocked from reaching Al-Aqsa, also in the name of security. But the struggle for Jerusalem can rarely be expressed in numbers, death tolls and televised reports. It is ordinary Palestinians’ constant fight for space and identity, and to preserve the sanctity of their holy land.

In the last two years, the fight escalated further as Israel began expanding its illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and right-wing parties issued a series of laws targeting Palestinians in the city. Among them is the call-to-prayer law, aimed at preventing mosques from making prayer calls at dawn, which has been the practice for a millennium.

Palestinian youths, many born after the failed Oslo Accords, are fed up as Israel’s military controls every aspect of their lives, and their leadership grows more irrelevant and self-serving. This frustration has been expressed in numerous ways: Non-violent resistance, new political ideas, art, music, social media and individual acts of violent resistance.

Since the most recent Al-Quds Intifada — Jerusalem uprising — started in October 2015, “some 285 Palestinians have died in alleged attacks, protests and (Israeli) army raids,” reported Farah Najjar and Zena Tahhan. About 47 Israelis were killed in the same period.

But the intifada was contained and managed. Human rights groups protested many of the army killings of Palestinians as unnecessary or unprovoked, but little has changed on the ground. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has continued to operate almost entirely independent from the violent reality faced by its people on a daily basis.

Rational political analysis cannot possibly fathom how a nation battling numerous odds can still mobilize against an army and win. But people power often exceeds what is seemingly rational.

Ramzy Baroud

The shootout on July 14 could have registered as yet another violent episode of many that have been reported in Jerusalem in recent months. Following such events, Israel’s official discourse ignores the military occupation entirely, focusing instead on its security problem caused by “Palestinian terror.” Politicians then swoop in with new laws, proposals and radical ideas to exploit a tragic situation and change the status quo.

Considering the numerous odds faced by Palestinians, every rational political analysis would have rightly concluded that Palestinians were losing this battle as well. With the US fully backing Israeli measures and the international community growing distant and disinterested, Jerusalemites could not stand a chance. But such understanding of conflict, however logical, often proves terribly wrong since it casually overlooks the people.

In this latest confrontation, Palestinians of Jerusalem won, presenting an impressive model of mobilization and popular solidarity for all Palestinians. Israel’s army removed the barricades and metal detectors, pushing Israel to the brink of a political crisis involving angry politicians, the army and internal intelligence, the Shin Bet.

The people’s victory was a massive embarrassment for PA President Mahmoud Abbas. He tried to “piggyback off the protests” but failed, reported The Atlantic. Other factions also moved quickly to mobilize on the people’s victory, but their efforts have appeared staged and insincere.

“Today is a joyful day, full of celebration and sorrow at the same time — sorrow for the people who lost their lives and were injured,” a protester told journalists as thousands stormed the gates of Jerusalem armed with prayer rugs, flags and voices hoarse from chanting for nearly two weeks.

“This is very much a grassroots movement — this isn’t led by Hamas or Fatah, the traditional political leaders of the Palestinians,” journalist Imran Khan reported from outside the compound. This movement comprised thousands of women, men and children. They included Zeina Amro, who cooked daily for those who held steadfast outside the compound, was shot with a rubber bullet in the head, yet returned to urge people to stand their ground the next day.

They included the child Yousef Sakafi, whose chores included splashing water over people as they sat for endless hours under the unforgiving sun, refusing to move. They also included many Palestinian Christians who came to pray with their Muslim brethren.

Conveying the scene from Jerusalem, television news footage and newspaper photos showed massive crowds of people standing, sitting, praying or running in disarray among bullets, sound bombs and gas canisters.

But the crowds were made up of individuals like Amro, Sakafi and many more, all driven by their insistence to face injustice with an inspiring display of human tenacity. More violence will follow as the Israeli occupation is relentless, but ordinary Palestinians will not quit the fight. They have held resolute for nearly 70 years.

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.