Occupation and Settlements: The Roots of Unrest in Jerusalem

Political economist Shir Hever discusses the economic and political conditions of Palestinians in Jerusalem, while IPS Fellow Phyllis Bennis says U.S. and Israel will continue to cooperate in maintaining the occupation despite reports of a setback in relations

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Story Transcript

ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

The city of Jerusalem continues to be wracked by unrest as Israel continues to expose impose restricted access for Palestinians to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In the past few weeks, two Palestinian men, in separate incidents, drove their cars into the Jerusalem Light Rail. During one of the attacks two weeks ago, and Israeli baby and an Ecuadorian tourist were killed. And in the other incident that took place just a few days ago, an Israeli police officer was killed, with 13 others injured. Both drivers in the incidents were shot dead immediately by police.

The economic minister of Israel, Naftali Bennett, has also recently called for a military response in Jerusalem to quell the unrest, in which about 200 Palestinians have been arrested over the past two weeks. This also comes as two laws in Israel is now in play this week. One, passed by the Israeli Knesset, sets new limits on prisoner exchanges by barring Palestinians convicted of murdering Israelis from being released as part of any peace deal or negotiations. The other, which is an amendment passed by the Israeli cabinet, allow stone throwers to be sentenced to jail for up to 20 years, up originally from a maximum sentence of two years. All of this follows the moving in of settlers into the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem and the continued construction of Jewish neighborhoods in areas located beyond the internationally recognized geographic border between Israel and the West Bank known as the Green Line.

We’re joined now by two guests to discuss this.

Joining us from Washington, D.C., is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

Also joining us, from Germany, is Shir Hever. Shir is an economic researcher for the Alternative Information Center, a Palestinian-Israeli organization.

Thank you both for joining us.

PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Good to be with you.

WORONCZUK: So, Phyllis, let’s start with you. Most of the historical narrative for understanding the outbreak of the Second Intifada was the provocative visit of former prime minister Ariel Sharon to the Dome of the Rock. And now, with Naftali Bennett comments about launching a military operation in Jerusalem and other provocative visits by Israeli MKs to this site, do you think there’s an attempt here to provoke violence, to shut down the Palestinians?

BENNIS: Well, I think there’s always an effort at provocation by not only Bennett, but other right-wing Israeli officials and the Israeli media. But I think we have to be very careful in looking at what caused the Second Intifada. The spark was indeed the much-heralded and police-surrounded visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount. But what I think we have to keep front and center was that this was also a moment when the hopes of the Oslo agreement had crumbled. The sense that Oslo was going to bring about an end to occupation, that had crumbled. The despair was rising. And the question of occupation was fundamental. The same thing is true now. The question of occupation is fundamental in Jerusalem, the question of Israeli settlements being built throughout occupied Arab East Jerusalem, what the Israelis themselves call Judaization of Jerusalem, meaning ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, getting rid of the Palestinians who live in Jerusalem, and replacing them with Israeli settlers, this is what’s really at stake here. The provocative moves on the Temple Mount are one thing, but this isn’t just happening because some right-winger goes and waves of flag. This is happening because of the consequences of years, and now decades, of occupation.

WORONCZUK: And, Shir, a lot of the reporting, at least in the mainstream press, has basically attributed the cause of all this tension to religious tensions between Muslims and Jews. But the conditions for Palestinians in east Jerusalem are worth mentioning. There’s chronic poverty. There’s high levels of unemployment. What role do you think this has played in the violence?

SHIR HEVER, ECONOMIST, ALTERNATIVE INFORMATION CENTER: This is really an economic conflict first and foremost before it is a religious conflict. And it’s sometimes very easy for mainstream media to portray this as just a religious confrontation. But in fact it really stems from the fact that Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are faced daily with an impossible dilemma, and this is the dilemma of how are they going to live their life under military occupation with a state that even denies that occupation exists in East Jerusalem, and that [on] the one hand, annexed this land of East Jerusalem, illegally annexed it, so this is all subject now to Israeli law, and this is supposed to be officially part of Israel, and on the other hand, these people, the people themselves who lived for generations in East Jerusalem, are not considered by the Israeli government to be part of Israel, and they only receive residency status, not citizenship. They cannot participate in the elections. And that puts them in a very difficult position.

Now, if we look at the standard of living of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, maybe it’s much–not maybe; certainly it’s much worse in Gaza, for example. But ever since 2006, where there were an increasing number of Palestinians saying that the Third Intifada, if it happens or when it happens, will probably start in Jerusalem rather than in places like Gaza because of this very deep contradiction. And there are so many examples of that, where Palestinians are denied very basic rights by the state. But if they apply for these rights, if they want to have schools to send their children to, if they want to have [public] transportation, streets that are cleaned once in a while, sewage, then they have to appeal to the very institutions that oppress them and occupy them. And, of course, there is a big dilemma: should they recognize the occupation and ask the Israeli authorities for help? And even when they do, and even when they get some minimal services from the Israeli government, those very services are then used against them in order to punish them. So now that’s what we’re actually seeing on the ground in Jerusalem, that the mayor of Jerusalem is training a new unit to use drones against his own population of the city, basically, against the Palestinian population. We see house demolitions, and we see cases that the police are using the public services to oppress the population, like a child that has been picked up by police for littering and fined in a street that the Israeli police has never bothered about its cleanliness before.

WORONCZUK: So you mention more of some of the forms of political oppression that Palestinians have faced. But what are the ways that, like, they’ve an economic weapon, as such you’ve said? How has that been used against them?

HEVER: Well, first of all, this was originally a very clever manipulation by the Israeli government, because the Israeli government believed that if they incorporate the East Jerusalem population into Israel economically, then that would make that population docile and controllable. But at the same time, there are always these ego games, and whenever Palestinians are protesting the occupation and demanding either freedom and their own separate state or demanding at least equal rights under Israeli rule, then those demands appear to Israeli policymakers as extremely arrogant or extremely rude, and they have to be crushed with violence. And then it’s those services that are being hurt.

So, in fact, there was a group of parents in East Jerusalem that wanted to have their children have a place in school. There are thousands of Palestinian children who just don’t go to school because there are not enough classes. And there was a big dilemma: should they appeal to the Israeli court and make that request? Many of their neighbors said, no, don’t go to the Israeli court, because it’s not Israeli who’s supposed to give us classes; it’s a Palestinian state. They decided to go anyway, and then the Israeli court did rule in their favor. So the Israeli municipality had to open new classes. What the Israeli municipality did was open new classes for these peoples, but at the same time closing others. And that is the shift from a government that tries to manipulate a population by maybe integrating them into the Israeli schooling system, into what we see in recent years, a government that is just treating this entire population, a quarter of a million people, as an enemy, an enemy force that has to be crushed.

In the neighborhoods of Isawiya, there are clashes on a daily basis. The police–which don’t really look like police; they look like military, and they are armed like military–go into the streets, into the houses, make mass arrests, and use excessive force. And today we’ve seen also clashes in the Shuafat refugee camp. Shuafat is a refugee camp with Palestinians who were deported from Israel in 1948 and then occupied again in 1967. And Israel built the wall of separation around Shuafat to keep that entire refugee camp out of sight of the Israelis. And now they’re sending in the police, sending in the army to attack the population there. So of course that makes these people feel, well, the only connection that we have [with the government of Israel] is through repression.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And as all of this is happening, Phyllis, there’s been a lot of media reports of supposed animosity and tension between the United States and Israel, I guess what you can call “Chickenshitgate”, which is the term that the U.S. officials apparently referred to Bibi Netanyahu or Benjamin Netanyahu, and at another point apparently Obama administration officials have voiced anger and outrage at the expansion of settlements and the continued construction in Palestinian neighborhoods and East Jerusalem. Now, with this and with the now Republican-controlled Senate, do you think that the U.S. is going to have any change in its foreign policy towards the Israeli occupation?

BENNIS: I think we have to be very careful in how we assess Chickenshitgate or whatever we’re going to call it, the rising level of verbal hostility between the Obama administration and the Israeli government. We’ve been seeing that for a while. It really came to a head in 2010 with the visit of Netanyahu, when he sort of sat next to Obama and lectured him like an errant schoolboy, and there was a great deal of tension around body language, and there was a lot of talk in the mainstream media of, oh my God, there’s tension between the U.S. and Israel, the U.S. is throwing Israel under a bus. But then, as now, there was no bus. Nobody was thrown anywhere. There was a certain number of requests made. There were requests: please stop building settlements. Answer: no. Please stop building settlements. No. And then the requests stopped.

This time we’re seeing a bit more, particularly from Vice President Biden. I think John Kerry is probably responsible for some of the remarks. It’s a little unclear at what level they come. But I think that there’s two aspects. On the immediate level, I’m quite convinced that the Israeli government is profoundly not disturbed by this rising level of vitriol in the language of U.S. officials, as long as the U.S. is continuing to provide more than $3.1 billion in military aid directly to the Israeli military of our tax money every year, as long as it continues to provide absolute impunity in the United Nations, so that Israeli military and political officials are never held accountable for potential war crimes, as long as that’s going on, I think the Israelis can quite nicely live with a few insults now and then.

Now, that’s the realistic side for the moment. The one more optimistic side that may be going on in anticipation: the U.S. Iran talks are scheduled–they’re looking towards another deadline on the 24th of this month, on November 24. And there are some interesting developments that could lead to either another significant extension agreed to by both sides, or perhaps even the beginning of a serious agreement, something that begins to look a little bit like a grand bargain between the U.S. and Iran, beginning with a resolution of the Iranian nuclear question.

In that context, if there is to be any kind of a resolution, Israel’s going to hate it. Bibi Netanyahu has already staked out a position that says, we are against it. We don’t care what it says. We are against it. We are against any resolution with Iran that does not completely destroy Iran’s military capacity, its legaland peaceful nuclear program. Anything short of that is unacceptable, and we are going to turn loose our supporters in Congress to go after the administration. That’s where we might see a bit of a shift with the newly Republican-dominated Senate, where they will have an even bigger voice, if that can be imagined, when we had 100 out of 100 senators last time around supporting Israel in the context of the Gaza War. It’s hard to imagine it could be any more pro-Israeli, but it probably will be, at least at the level of rhetoric.

But, again, this will be aimed at scuttling an agreement over Iran. This will not be aimed particularly at changing the U.S.-Israeli policy, because for Israel, U.S.-Israeli policy is quite fine, thank you very much. So what we could see is a scenario in which Israel makes demands, expresses great anger as the result of any kind of U.S. Iran rapprochement, and in response to that, the Obama administration, backed by demands from the Republicans in both the House and the Senate and plenty of Democrats–let’s be clear: this is a bipartisan problem–would give Israel something. And that something is likely to come at the expense of Palestinian rights–an agreement to stop any pressure on Israel to end settlements, more money to the military (it’s hard to imagine what where they could give, but trust me, they will get more). That’s where we can see an intersection between the current U.S. election results and any possible change in U.S.-Israeli relations.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Phyllis Bennis, coming to us from the Institute for Policy Studies, and Shir Hever, coming to us from the Alternative Information Center.

Thank you both for joining us.

BENNIS: Thank you.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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