The Palestinian Popular Revolt: Background, Causes, and Characteristics

On both sides of the Green Line, Occupied Palestine is seeing a popular upsurge in its resistance movement. Beginning in mid-April, the Israeli occupation authorities placing iron barriers in the Damascus Gate Square leading to the Old City in Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the first days of Ramadan. Resistance efforts intensified when extremist settlers stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque on May 10, in their celebrations of the anniversary of the occupation of East Jerusalem. At the same time, occupation forces doubled down on attempts to forcibly evict Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem and replace the Palestinian occupants with settlers, while Israeli soldiers raided Al-Aqsa and attacked worshipers. The Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip responded with barrages of rockets in defense of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa, which was met with a renewed military assault from the occupying military.

Background to the Jerusalem Uprising

Since the start of the Palestinian Nakba in 1948, the Israeli occupation has worked to Judaize the city of Jerusalem, dispossessing and displacing the Palestinian neighborhoods in the western part of the city such as Qatamon, Talbiya, and Baka as well as Palestinian villages including Ein Karem, Al-Maliha, and Lifta. Israel took control of Palestinian property and prevented the owners from returning through the enactment of a set of laws, most importantly the Absentee Property Law promulgated in March 1950.1 After the June 1967 war, the occupation authorities annexed East Jerusalem, enabling Jews, under the orders of land appropriation, to control homes and property owned by Palestinians. Israel also began to establish a belt of 15 settlements around the city. A plan was developed to Judaize the geographical, demographic, and architectural features of Jerusalem.2 The colonial project came to a head in July 1980 when Israel’s Knesset enacted a basic law declaring that all of Jerusalem, West and East, is the “united” capital of Israel, the seat of the head of state, the Knesset, the government, and the Supreme Court.3

Despite UN Security Council Resolution 478 of August 19804 and UN General Assembly Resolution 15/36 of October 1981 rejecting the Knesset Law, considering it contrary to international law and thus illegal,5 the occupation has not slowed its settler colonial project in Jerusalem, where it has enforced several policies to demarcate new borders of the city. It has surrounded the eastern part of the city with Jewish settlements that separate East Jerusalem geographically from the West Bank, while ensuring that it remains linked to the western part of the city to complete the Judaization process. In mid-2017, these settlements covered about 35 percent of East Jerusalem, housing about 220,000 settlers out of the 441,000 settlers in the West Bank.6 To the same end, the occupation authorities built an apartheid wall in the West Bank, separating more than 140,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites from their city, and deprived the city of its economic pillar: providing services to surrounding villages and other cities in the West Bank. It also strips the city of its main source of fresh produce by isolating it from the villages northwest of Jerusalem.7 East Jerusalem had already suffered a major blow when West Jerusalem and the Israeli tourism sector pilfered most visitors to the holy city, transforming it from a tourist hub to a mere pitstop in a trip to Israel.

The colonial expansion outside the city’s borders coincided with the occupation’s restrictions on the urban development of Palestinians inside the city, using urban planning as a mechanism through which to confiscate land and wipe out the Palestinian presence to force a Jewish majority in Jerusalem. As of the end of 2017, the occupation had revoked the “permanent residency” status (represented by the blue ID card) of more than 14,595 Palestinians living in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. The blue card is a document Israel granted to Jerusalemites after its occupation of the city; it does not afford the rights of citizenship but guarantees permanent residency. Thus, a Jerusalemite can lose their “permanent residency” in Jerusalem if they leave for a period of more than three consecutive years.

In addition to colonial policies in Jerusalem, various right-wing parties in the Knesset have been working on legislation since August 2014 to implement a scheme to divide the Al-Aqsa Mosque according to time slots and spatial segregation, in a reproduction of the experience of the Ibrahimi Mosque in the city of Hebron.8 The work to legislate this scheme coincided with the orchestration of a series of systematic Israeli violations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and its surroundings in recent years, such as closing the mosque’s gates to worshipers and workers in October 2014 and an attempt to install metal detectors at its entrances in July 2017. The occupation also increased its expulsion and arrest of Palestinians; the number of those expelled from the mosque reached 315 in 2020, and the number of detainees rose to 1,979. Israeli occupation forces have often cut the wires of the mosque’s external speakers, exposed the employees of the Islamic waqf to danger, and vandalized the locks and facilities of the mosque. They have repeatedly raided Al-Aqsa to protect the entry of extremist Jewish settlers, with more than 18,526 settlers having broken into the mosque in 2020.9

Understanding the Latest Uprising

Given its political, historical, and religious symbolism for Palestinians, and because it remains outside the scope of the Oslo Accords and Palestinian Authority (PA) influence as a permanent status issue, Jerusalem emerged as a focal point for the eruption of tensions and popular anger against systematic Israeli violations. The city has indeed been a provocative factor for Palestinian feelings throughout their struggle against the occupation. This was particularly evident in the Western Wall tunnel uprising protesting the digging of a tunnel under the Al-Aqsa Mosque in September 1996, and the second Palestinian intifada (Al-Aqsa Intifada) in September 2000. These confrontations have also intensified over the last five years with the Jerusalem Intifada of 2015, the protest movement against the installation of metal detectors at Al-Aqsa in July 2017, and the Bab al-Rahmah gate resistance action in February 2019.10

The start of Ramadan in April 2021 saw an upsurge in the violations by the occupation authorities against Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa, with the aim of implementing the temporal and spatial division scheme. This was evident in the iron barriers set up to prevent Palestinians from staying in Damascus Gate Square and in the arrest of young Jerusalemites and children who were in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli forces stormed the mosque and expelled its worshipers; they also assaulted Christians trying to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at Easter for the celebration of the Holy Fire in April 2021. In addition, extremist settlers, who had called to storm Al-Aqsa, were offered protection by the police. This escalation coincided with the entry into force of the Israeli Supreme Court ruling, issued in September 2020, to expel four Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem on May 2, 2021. The homes would be handed over to Nahalat Shimon, a US-based settlement organization consisting of about 40 immigrant Jewish families from Georgia, claiming ownership of the land called Karm al-Jaouni.11 The Al-Kurd family was evicted from a part of their home in the neighborhood in November 2008, followed by the Hanoun and Ghawi families in August 2009.

Characteristics of the Latest Uprising

Although the Palestinian struggle in Jerusalem has continued since the occupation of the city, there are features that distinguish the most recent resistance. The emergence of spontaneous popular resistance regarding the struggle of Jerusalemites, without organized partisan and factional action, has been a significant feature. After a spontaneous, unorganized youth movement, Jerusalemites forced the Israeli police to remove the iron barriers from Damascus Gate Square on April 25, 2021, two weeks after they were installed. The Jerusalem movement, in cooperation with Palestinian youth and university students with Israeli citizenship, prompted the Israeli Supreme Court to postpone the decision to expel Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, after a request submitted by Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and following daily demonstrations demanding to save the neighborhood from forced displacement and ethnic cleansing.

The solidarity of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, taking advantage of the accumulation of experience in the last five years, was exhibited in various forms of popular resistance against the occupation authorities. In addition to the daily demonstrations, they channeled social media to amplify their voices globally and encourage Palestinians to come to Jerusalem. They intensified their interaction with influential social media accounts around the world to create infographics and publish pictures and video recordings of the Israeli occupation’s crimes in Jerusalem. Forms of social solidarity were also strengthened in Jerusalem, with communal prayers and iftar gatherings during Ramadan. Interactions between Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and Jerusalemites also increased when the occupation forces prevented worshipers from other cities from parking their busses or cars in Jerusalem, forcing Jerusalemites to transport these Palestinians in their own vehicles.

Another crucial factor in the latest uprising is that Hamas decided to interact with what is happening in Jerusalem from Gaza. There would thus be some Palestinian resistance to deter Israel’s violent measures, especially given international disregard for Palestinian rights to Jerusalem since the transfer of the US embassy and the clear incapacity of Palestinian leaders. In the absence of a comprehensive national framework that brings together the main Palestinian forces, Hamas’s decision was unilateral. The resistance factions in Gaza reacted to the uprising of Jerusalem by launching their “Sword of Jerusalem” operation, which showed the development of their qualitative capabilities in the manufacture of local missiles that penetrated Israel’s Iron Dome. Within a week of the launch of the operation, the resistance factions had fired more than 3,000 rockets toward Israel—that is, approximately 500 rockets per day.12

In addition to the intensity of firing, the quality and range of rockets have also improved, especially the A120 missile, which was launched by the resistance factions toward occupied Jerusalem on May 10 and carried explosive warheads with a high destructive capacity and a range of 120 kilometers. The Ayyash 250 missile launched by the resistance factions toward the Ramon International Airport on May 13, with a range of 220 km, was the farthest a Palestinian missile had reached since the first missile launched by the resistance factions in 2001. They also carried out attacks using homemade “Shehab” drones, for the first time, targeting Israeli centers, including a gas platform off the coast of northern Gaza. It is important to note that these rockets and other military equipment were developed and manufactured in the Gaza Strip under a suffocating siege that Israel has imposed since 2007.

Meanwhile, in an effort to terrorize and suffocate the Palestinians in Gaza, the Israeli army intensified its aggression against Palestinian civilians. Within one week, more than 200 people were killed in the Palestinian enclave, including 58 children and 34 women, and about 34,000 were displaced, numbers that are increasing daily.13 The Israeli army also intensified its destruction of infrastructure, with 90 buildings bombed in just a week, including six residential towers (three of which were completely destroyed), in addition to the destruction of facilities providing water, sewage, electricity, and internet.14 While the aim of the resistance is to demonstrate that Gaza will not be isolated from the rest of the Palestinian people and to deter the occupation’s violations in Jerusalem, the overall destructive Israeli response aims to destroy the infrastructure that enabled the resistance factions to produce this many missiles and disable any resistance and solidarity from Gaza.

The Israeli attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, and the Gaza Strip were the main catalyst for Palestinians in the inner cities to participate extensively in the recent popular uprising. Another significant factor is the violence of extremist Jewish settlers under the protection of the Israeli police. The escalation of this violence came to the fore with the martyrdom of Mousa Hassouna in the city of Lydda after a Jewish settler shot him on May 10, sparking an all-out uprising in most of the cities occupied in 1948, especially in the “mixed cities” that are inhabited by Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli Jews. Mass demonstrations took place in Palestinian cities and towns denouncing the Israeli aggression on Jerusalem and Gaza. After the expansion of the demonstrations in 1948 occupied land, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a state of emergency in the city of Lydd on May 12 and granted the inspector general of the Israeli police, Yaakov Shabtai, the power to call on the Israeli army to help quell the demonstrations.15 The events spurred settler extremists to increase their violence toward the Palestinians, attacking them in their homes, streets, shops, and universities, especially in Akka, Yafa, Haifa, and Lydda. The Israeli police have arrested more than 700 Palestinians since May 916 and fired rubber-coated metal bullets and tear gas at the demonstrators.

These resistance and solidarity actions have served to reaffirm the refusal of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to be separated from the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, linking the demand for their national and civil rights with their defense of the Palestinian cause as a whole.

Limited demonstrations have taken place in the West Bank since the escalation of the popular uprising on May 9, initiated by young people not affiliated with specific factions or parties, and joined by factions that include Fatah. These demonstrations expanded and spread intensively after Friday prayers on May 14 to include various parts of the West Bank, including Hebron, Ramallah, Al-Bireh, Bethlehem, Salfit, Qalqilya, Tulkarem, Jericho, and Nablus, during which Israeli forces killed 11 Palestinians and wounded dozens. The number rose to 21 martyred, including a child, by May 16, as a result of Israeli military escalation, which aimed to prevent the West Bank from participating in the popular uprising as a result of fears that a new intifada would break out, as happened in 2000. Despite the haste of some forces and factions to the call for a “general strike” across Palestine, including the West Bank, the younger generation in the West Bank has continued to respond and assert its spontaneity. This generation appears to be reluctant to be restricted by political frameworks, especially since a large segment feels disappointed with the behavior of the Palestinian Authority and factions, and most recently by the Palestinian president’s decision to postpone the April elections.

Undoubtedly, the West Bank has displayed the potential for a full-scale uprising that could pose a huge obstacle to the occupation following a cease-fire with Gaza. The current resistance could build on Gaza’s legendary defiance to transform the uprising into an all-out intifada if the Palestinian Authority has the political will and realizes that it has no other alternative.

Conclusion

Regional and international diplomatic efforts to stop the Israeli aggression on Gaza and restrict Israeli violations of Palestinian rights in Jerusalem continue to collide with Israeli intransigence, which is linked to Netanyahu’s desire to save face in Israeli public opinion after the resistance factions placed six million Israelis in the range of their missiles. In addition, the Palestinians displayed unity against Judaization and Israeli fragmentation policies. On the other hand, Netanyahu is seeking to eliminate the chances of his opponent, Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid Party, which on May 5, 2021 was charged with the formation of a new government. However, regardless of the path the confrontations will take, whether Israeli aggression intensifies, or international mediation brings about a cease-fire, Palestinian forces and factions must agree on a unified strategy that harnesses all forms of struggle, at home and abroad, to end the occupation—instead of focusing on establishing an authority that serves, strengthens, and prolongs the occupation. This cannot happen without an inclusive national framework and requires continued non-reactive resistance.

* This article was first published in Arabic on May 18, 2021 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, Qatar.
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