Analysis

Instead of Quelling Violence in East Jerusalem, Israel Police Just Inflamed It

Small changes in the use of force, being attentive to Isawiyah's leadership, involving the municipality and a bit of common sense could have brought a quick reduction in violence

Israel policemen operate in the Est Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah, August 2019.
Emil Salman

At a glance, Isawiyah looks the way policemen describe it in the television series “Jerusalem District”: A violent, rebellious neighborhood whose residents are driven by hostile forces. But a closer look reveals a different place entirely.

There is violence and crime – as in every East Jerusalem neighborhood – but in the center of the neighborhood there is a store for coffee pods and a great ice cream shop, while down the road there are a few trendy hairdressers. Most of the residents speak fluent Hebrew, work in the western part of the city and are seeking a way to live peacefully in an impossible situation.

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Over the past half year, the residents’ lives have been disrupted daily by an enforcement and collective punishment operation carried out by the police. The operation, which began in May, has included daily raids, checkpoints, ambushes, fines and confrontations. As a result, businesses have closed and parents are keeping their children off the streets. On July 2, the operation exacted its first death – Mohammad Abid, 19, who was shot while firing non-lethal fireworks at policemen. His death caused a spike in the violence, which in turn intensified the police's response.

The operation has seriously undermined the relationship between the residents and the police. What it has accomplished, if anything, isn’t clear.

At the end of August the neighborhood parents' committee declared a suspension of classes until the operation ended. Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon and Jerusalem Police Commander Doron Yedid met with representatives of the residents and came to an agreement that the riot control units would not operate near school entrances during the periods when pupils were arriving at or leaving school.

Only a few days later, police began to violate the agreement. Two weeks ago police were seriously embarrassed by a video in which policemen were heard admitting that the operation seemed to be serving no purpose other than to provoke the residents.

The situation in Isawiyah peaked again last week when policemen burst onto the grounds of a local high school, shoved aside the principal and the security guard and arrested a 10th grader on suspicion that he’d thrown a stone at them. The teenager was released the next day, because – as has happened in most of the hundreds of other arrests during the operation – there was no evidence against him.

In response, parents declared another school strike. And again, after three days and the intervention of city hall officials, another agreement was reached with police. And it was violated the very next day. In this way the police have succeeded in humiliating and neutralizing the moderate elements in the neighborhood.

On Saturday, as could be expected, the clashes intensified and led to the wounding of 15 people, including a policeman and an 8-month-old boy who inhaled gas. One of the residents arrested, Adam Masri, was severely beaten by police when he was arrested. Masri was released Sunday because – again – there was no evidence against him.

Israel Police at a school in Isawiyah

This unreasonable chain of events raises the question of what the police motive is here. According to its statement on Saturday, the operation has reduced the level of hostile activity around Isawiyah and the number of stone-throwings and firebombings along the road to Ma’aleh Adumim, on Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus and at the nearby Hadassah Medical Center. But a search of police announcements and databases of hostile incidents shows no listing of any violent acts in the area around Isawiyah during the months preceding the operation.

We cannot conclude from this that Isawiyah is a quiet neighborhood. The opposite is true; of all the neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, including those beyond the separation barrier, Isawiyah is the most politicized and has a strong anti-occupation ethos. But the violence, as the residents repeatedly stress, is directed at policemen who enter the neighborhood. Moreover, the residents make a distinction between the Yasam riot police, who use collective punishment and provocative tactics – like deliberately driving slowly near schools during school hours, throwing up checkpoints and detention – and the blue-uniformed police who operate in the neighborhood.

Small changes in the use of force, being attentive to the local leadership, involving the municipality and a bit of common sense could bring a quick reduction in the violence. But police are vehemently refusing to recognize this truth. As of this writing, the local parents' committee is once again considering a strike. But if classes are suspended, then the neighborhood youth will have lots of time to rest up for the clashes with police in the evening.

Evidence of the discrepancy between Isawiyah’s image and its daily life could be seen Saturday in the Abid section of the neighborhood. The area is considered the most problematic in Isawiyah; it’s where a lot of the clashes with police have occurred because that’s where Mohammad Abid was killed. But on Saturday the area’s youth gathered for a special mission – to clean the streets. They thoroughly washed down the roads and parked cars using a firefighting hose, until the police arrived. Then the clashes began anew.