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Jerusalem's red weekend: Only when blood flows does Israel relent

Israeli politicians could have seen that the new security measures at Al-Aqsa would fuel violence; instead, they played internal politics. They may not be able to put the lid back on the jar

Six dead and over 300 injured in a single day. That was the toll in blood this weekend of the Israeli government's stubborn refusal to remove the metal detectors from the entrance to Al-Haram Al-Sharif, in occupied East Jerusalem.

Three Palestinians were killed during street protests and three Jewish settlers were stabbed to death in the Halamish settlement near Ramallah, their attacker declaring in advance that his motivation for killing settlers was the situation at East Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque.

Some thought Israel was seeking an escalation, but Israel is just being Israel: nearly everything happens as a result of internal politics

"They desecrate Al-Aqsa and we are sleeping. Are you not ashamed? They closed the mosque of Al-Aqsa and your weapons are not raised. It's disgraceful that we sit idly by ... Why do you not declare a holy war?" said 20-year-old Omar al-Abed, who is from the village of Kubra - also the home town of imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti - before setting out on Saturday night to kill settlers with a knife he had bought ahead of time.

For the first time in hundreds of years, this mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, was empty last week. The Israeli government's decision to place metal detectors at the entrance to Al-Aqsa, in response to the shooting attack perpetrated there a few days previously by three armed Palestinian citizens of Israel, killing two Israeli Druze border policemen, provoked a wave of protest by Palestinians and indeed across the entire Muslim world, along with a determination not to enter the holy site so long as Israel's metal detectors remained in place.

Palestinian Muslim worshippers, who refuse to enter Al-Aqsa mosque compound due to new security measures by Israeli authorities which include metal detectors and cameras, pray near a main entrance to the religious site in Jerusalem's Old City,on 16 July 2
The point, of course, was not the metal detectors themselves, but the alteration in the very delicate and fragile status quo at the site. Placing security equipment, essentially an Israeli checkpoint, at the entrance to a Muslim holy place is perceived by Palestinians, by Arabs and by Muslims, as augmenting Israeli control of the sacred compound and an intensification of the occupation's hold there. It cannot be understood any other way. Rather than taking every precaution to avoid igniting a conflagration, Israel elbowed bullishly into this delicately balanced situation and upended it.

Israel being Israel

Some thought Israel was seeking an escalation, but in truth Israel is just being Israel, where nearly everything happens as a result of internal politics: the competition over who is more right-wing than whom, and who is more ultra-nationalist and militaristic in the most ultra-nationalist and militaristic government Israel has ever known. This is what dictated the stubborn Israeli insistence on metal detectors.

The Shin Bet and the Israeli army opposed their installation or, more precisely, supported their removal; only the Israel police thought otherwise. Nevertheless, the Israeli security cabinet decided on Thursday night to leave them in place, mainly to counter the political threat from the right. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Government Secretary Tzachi Braverman during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on 23 July 2017 (AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worries about an increase in Jewish Home chairman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett's popularity with the right-wing political base in Israel: that's the name of the game. Friday morning was already looking like the start of a Black Friday, with bloodshed to come. It was a thoroughly self-fulfilling prophecy.

Endless, bloody cycle

But this Black Weekend, or more accurately given the bloodshed, Red Weekend, could easily become a hazardous turning point. Tensions will not recede in the coming days, and the army is right to think that the current unrest will last at least another few weeks, at minimum.

Other scenarios are less sanguine, even if it is doubtful that we are at the start of a third intifada. The Palestinians lack the infrastructure, the leadership, the unity and the energy for that, and they are still bleeding from the second intifada, which achieved nothing for them.

But clearly the relative quiet that reigned earlier is over for a while. The greater danger, also pointed out by the army, is that new religious forces will now enter the struggle against the Israeli occupation, resulting in a more religious cast to the hostilities.

Israeli border guards attempt to disperse Palestinian Muslim worshippers outside Lions' Gate, a main entrance to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, on 22 July 2017, as they gather in protest against new Israeli security measures impleme
The ball is in Israel's court, as usual. If the government behaves wisely and removes the offensive metal detectors, returning the situation to the status quo ante, and meanwhile does not undertake violent reprisals for the attack in Halamish, perhaps the evil genie can be recorked in his bottle. But even then, the genie can be banished only temporarily, for some indeterminate period of time.

Ultimately, resistance to the occupation will not cease, but only change guise, waxing and waning in its degree of violence, but never disappearing; this we learn from human history.

There is a forcible, violent military occupation at the Temple Mount and, so long as this occupation exists, resistance, also violent, will also exist. Intensification of the resistance naturally leads to greater brutalisation of the occupation, and the endless, bloody cycle repeats itself, with no prospect of ending until the occupation is ended.

'What sort of life is this'

These are Omar al-Abed's last words: "I am young, not even 20, and I had many dreams and aspirations – but what sort of life is this, when our women and young people are murdered without justification."

'What sort of life is this when our women and young people are murdered without justification'

- Omar al-Abed, 20, who killed three Jewish settlers this weekend

Abed's words cannot be ignored, nor can they be disavowed: Abed, like every other youngster in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank, and a much greater number in the besieged Gaza Strip, has few if any encouraging prospects in life.

These young people have almost no hope, no perspective on the future, no horizon of optimism. Their lives are burdened with endless, daily humiliations, their economic circumstances are dreadful and most of them have no hope whatever of being rescued from any of that.

Under those circumstances, Abed had nothing to lose. This despair, now typical among Palestinian young people living under Israeli occupation, bodes ill for Palestinians, but also for Israelis.

A deeply discouraging message

In the affair of the metal detectors, the Israeli occupation was exposed in all its wretchedness and weakness. That may be the good news today. A strong regime would have insisted less stubbornly on a show of force. Israel's doubling down on the metal detectors betrays weakness.

The sight of armed police in head-to-toe protective gear crowding the corridor and the morgue is an image that won't be quickly forgotten

The behaviour of Israeli security forces during the disturbances also showed weakness. Border police on Friday invaded the Palestinian Al-Makassed hospital in East Jerusalem, looking for the body of one of the casualties. Friends had tried to save him from falling into Israel's hands, since recently Israel has refused, for weeks, to release the bodies of deceased Palestinians to their families.

This nauseating practice, one fruit of the security doctrine expounded by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, is another mark of weakness. The sight of armed border police in head-to-toe protective gear crowding the corridor and the morgue at Al-Makassed is an image that surely won't be quickly forgotten.

Equally unforgettable is the image of the deceased friends trying to rescue his still-bleeding body and bring it for burial before the Israelis can organise to withhold it.

On Saturday night came reports that the Israel police would install "substitutes" for the metal detectors, although none of the metal detectors have yet to come down. Israel has once again proved that it understands only strength: only when blood flows does Israel relent.

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The crazy idea of the metal detectors – which, in any case, had no chance of being effective or even feasible, given the masses of people attending Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa – which should have been dropped in advance, is finally abandoned after the bloodshed, instead of before.

This is a deeply discouraging and threatening message because what it says to Palestinians is this: violence is the only way. That's a dangerous message.

As these lines are being written, on Saturday night, evening is falling on the Old City of Jerusalem, but its streets are far from quiet. There are more reports of violent confrontation, more injured and more bloodshed.

This is how the coming days will look as they determine whether or not we are at the start of another wave of resistance, or whether recent events will be forgotten, like prior ones. In any case, the next wave is into a corner.   

Gideon Levy is a Haaretz columnist and a member of the newspaper's editorial board. Levy joined Haaretz in 1982, and spent four years as the newspaper's deputy editor. He was awarded the 2015 Olof Palme human rights prize and was the recipient of the Euro-Med Journalist Prize for 2008; the Leipzig Freedom Prize in 2001; the Israeli Journalists’ Union Prize in 1997; and The Association of Human Rights in Israel Award for 1996. His new book, The Punishment of Gaza, has just been published by Verso. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Palestinian worshippers run for cover from teargas fired by Israeli forces outside Jerusalem's Old City in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, as tensions rose and protests erupted over new security measures at the holy site on 21 July 2017 (AFP)

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