A few hours after U.S. President Donald Trump’s dramatic declaration of recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, two things happened in its Old City: City Hall turned on the spotlights and projected the American and Israelis flags on its ancient walls. Meanwhile, the lights illuminating the Al-Aqsa Mosque went black.
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At first it appeared to be a planned protest, but it turned out that a power outage killed the light on the Dome of the Rock. Nonetheless, these two events perfectly captured the mood in the city: euphoria on the one hand, despair on the other.
Even WhatsApp, the messaging service that’s popular among both Israelis and Palestinians, went silent. In East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood, some activists tried to put together a demonstration, but a message soon went out saying there would be a general strike. An hour and a half after the speech, rumors began to spread that there would be a march on the Temple Mount. Palestinian activists who spoke with Haaretz said that a response on the streets could be expected as early as Wednesday night, but it would likely be relatively restrained.
It seems that the expectations of Palestinians living in Jerusalem – from the international community, from the Arab world and even from the Palestinian leadership – are so low that nothing can shock them. However, as the blackout of Al-Aqsa hinted, there is a pervasive fear that this new diplomatic low could translate into a religious furor that would set the city ablaze.
Trump’s comments regarding the need to maintain the status quo in Jerusalem did little to quell these concerns.
The area outside the Nablus Gate functions as East Jerusalem’s public square: This is where journalists from around the world come to talk to the Palestinian man on the street. On Wednesday, dozens of reporters convened there in the rain to talk to Palestinians and get their reaction to Trump’s announcement. But the word on the street can be deceiving – as much in the eastern part of the city as in the western one. While Palestinian and Arab leaders spoke with one voice, those on Jerusalem’s streets spoke with many. “Nothing will change, no one really cares, we want to live. Why would people make a mess and start an intifada, so their kids will die?” asked Ziad Fauzi, a merchant from the Old City, rhetorically. “What difference does it make if the embassy is here or in Tel Aviv or in Hebron?”
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However, Ali Jedah, a Palestinian construction worker and former member of a Palestinian militant group, said, “things are about to blow, if not today, then tomorrow or the day after or the day after that. Trump’s statement does not stand alone, it’s one thing after another, from the soldiers to the humiliations, and all these things, they’re accumulating and will blow up – and Jerusalem is the flash point.”
Conversations with East Jerusalem residents ahead of Trump’s speech gave the impression that most felt more like Fauzi and not Jedah. Trump’s statement was perceived as irrelevant to their lives. For most Palestinians living in Jerusalem, Trump’s words pose little to no threat, as they’ve got nothing left to lose: It’s not as if before Trump delivered his speech, there were plans to set up a real Palestine with Al Quds, as Jerusalem is called in Arabic, as its capital. Over the years, despair at the prospect of a viable peace solution and the feeling of abandonment by the Palestinian leadership, Arab world and international community have become ingrained in the residents of East Jerusalem.
“If we stop and think, we know nothing will change, we will not really lose anything because we’ve already lost everything,” said Haled Tayeb, a head of an organization in the western, or Jewish, side of the city. “People are too busy living their own lives, surviving. People have lost all hope and just don’t care, they just want to get through the day.”
Adnan Reit, a Fatah activist in the city, was quick to point out that despair works both ways: “This won’t pass quietly because the Palestinians have been waiting for peace. There’s an entire generation that is waiting for a long time, and now they’ve destroyed their hope and now they have nothing to lose. The occupation continues, the settlements continue, the demolitions continue – so what’s do we have to fear?”