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Is Jerusalem forcing a new direction for the Palestinian struggle?

‘This is the least expensive occupation in history,’ says one Palestinian resident. What he wants in return are equal rights in a democratic state. Could this be the future of the Palestinian national movement?   

Palestinians shout slogans during a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's announcement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, following Friday prayers at the Al Aqsa compound in Jerusalem's Old City, December 8, 2017. (Sliman Khader/Flash90)

Palestinians shout slogans during a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, following Friday prayers at the Al Aqsa compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, December 8, 2017. (Sliman Khader/Flash90)

When I first met Osama Essawi in the summer of 2014, Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” had claimed its 500th Palestinian child, displaced a quarter of Gaza’s population, and sparked demonstrations across the globe. I asked Essawi then why he thought Jerusalem had erupted in protest while the West Bank — with one notable exception — remained largely quiet.

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    “Easy,” he said. “We don’t have a Palestinian Authority to stop us.”

    On Thursday, one day after Donald Trump dubbed his city Israel’s capital, Essawi spoke with me from his home in Jerusalem. When I asked him what the mood was, the 33-year-old Palestinian went silent. Minutes later, he sent me a voice message, apologizing. The Israelis had clashed with a group of protesters, he said, and “there was commotion in the village.”

    The village is Issawiyeh. Like their name, Osama’s family is rooted here. Their home, where three generations now live, faces Mount Scopus to the south, the Jewish-only settlement of French Hill to the north, and, to the east, the Israeli-defined boundary of Jerusalem, which separates the city from the West Bank.

    These days, the scenes on either side of that boundary can look identical. Meter-high stone blocks cut off the entrances to Jerusalem’s Palestinian enclaves. Israeli military checkpoints ration entry and exit to West Bank towns and villages. Villagers are routinely attacked, detained, or doused with so-called “skunk” trucks.

    Israeli border policemen stop and check Palestinians going out of the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Issawiya, on October 15, 2015. Israel set up checkpoints in the Palestinian neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem and mobilised hundreds of soldiers as a collective punishment after recent attacks by Palestinians. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

    Israeli border policemen stop and check Palestinians going out of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya, on October 15, 2015. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

    And everywhere, Palestinians have this in common: they are a people besieged.

    In a sense, then, the protests marking this week’s announcement, which included a Palestinian general strike in Jerusalem, are nothing unusual. According to Essawi, Trump’s speech was met with a collective shrug in his village, though he acknowledges that American recognition could make an already bleak situation worse.

    “This was a green light for Israel to speed up its colonization of Jerusalem,” said Essawi, a longtime activist whose cousin, Samer, was among the first Palestinian political prisoners to participate in a hunger strike. After being released in late 2013, he was detained again six months later.

    Essawi recalls how, in the summer of 2014, his village was known as “little Gaza,” with a reputation for fierce clashes with Israeli security forces. The Israelis had closed both entrances to Issawiyeh, effectively cutting off the village from the rest of Jerusalem. Although the roadblocks come and go, Essawi says such punitive measures are part of a strategy to “de-Arabize” the city.

    Included in that strategy are legal restrictions that make it easy to strip Palestinians of their Jerusalem residency status.

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    Israel created a “permanent resident” category for Palestinians in Jerusalem after it occupied the city in 1967. Until 1995, when Congress called for America’s embassy to be moved to Jerusalem, Palestinians could have their residency revoked for living “outside Israel” or becoming a resident of another country.

    Since 1995, that restriction has been expanded to Palestinians whose “center of life” is outside Jerusalem, including, in some cases, those who commute to the West Bank for work. Under the new policy, nearly 12,000 Palestinians have had their Jerusalem residency revoked — a 400 percent increase over the period between 1967 and 1995.

    If stripping Palestinians of their right to live in Jerusalem is one tactic in Israel’s de-Arabization strategy, sequestering the city from the West Bank is another. According to Essawi, the Netanyahu government now has little impeding it from building on land known as E1, which would connect the massive Ma’ale Adumim settlement with a ring of construction isolating the city from the West Bank, effectively splitting the occupied territory in half.

    It’s a prospect that would further divide Palestinians geographically, but it may also have a unifying effect, says Essawi.

    “Look at the last 25 years,” he says of the U.S.-brokered peace process. “By design, all of our institutions, all of our resources as a people were centered in Ramallah. Palestinians in the West Bank couldn’t visit us without an Israeli permit. And yet, all Palestinians continue to insist that Jerusalem is our capital.”

    That’s in spite of the Palestinian Authority. Essawi acknowledges that, under the terms of the so-called Oslo process, the PA could do little to defend Jerusalem in practice. That’s why he sees Trump’s move as “a wake-up call,” not only for Palestinians but for the PA itself.

    “The Authority has become like any other Arab regime,” he says, “silencing dissent while talking tough on Jerusalem and Palestinian rights.” When I ask him what the alternative could be, Essawi points to his experience as a Palestinian in Jerusalem, living as a second-class citizen under the city’s municipal code.

    “This is the least expensive occupation in history,” he says about Israel’s control of East Jerusalem. “The occupier forces us to buy his products, participate in his economy, follow his rules.”

    What Essawi wants in return are “equal rights in a democratic state, a state of all peoples—Jewish, Muslim, Christian.”

    It’s a call being heard more often among Palestinians, including in the PA’s upper ranks. Long isolated from those ranks, Jerusalem, it seems, may be forcing a new direction for the Palestinian national struggle.

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