Leadership Vacuum Offers Palestinian Youth Protesting in Jerusalem a Lesson in Self-restraint

The youth coming out to Damascus Gate and clashing with Israeli police both represent and misrepresent the greater Palestinian society. What will they do if and when parliamentary elections are held?

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Young Palestinians celebrate after police barriers at Jerusalem's Damascus Gate plaza were removed, on Sunday.
Young Palestinians celebrate after police barriers at Jerusalem's Damascus Gate plaza were removed, on Sunday. Credit: Emil Salman
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The youths who have clashed with the Israel Police at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate almost every night since the beginning of the month of Ramadan both represent and yet do not represent the other Palestinian residents of their city. The position of East Jerusalemites vis-a-vis the protests is one of support mixed with reservations. While a battle raged in the Musrara neighborhood, just a few streets away – inside the Old City or in the Shoafat neighborhood – life was going on as usual. The volatile tension that has been in the air in Jerusalem for nearly two weeks could fade at any time or reignite at any time.

This fluidity goes hand in hand with the fact that there is no Palestinian leadership in Jerusalem whom local Palestinians will listen to and trust. There is no Palestinian leadership that people can believe in that will either escalate the clashes to the higher level of a general uprising, in the West Bank too, or decide, for reasons that would be acceptable to all, that the flames should be lowered ahead of the planned parliamentary elections. Nor is there any leadership that inspires trust and that would disavow harm to Jewish bystanders.

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The Palestinians in general and the Jerusalemites in particular live in a constant state of self-restraint and forbearance in the face of the relentless economic, material and psychological harassment perpetrated against them as a people and as individuals by the Israeli government and its emissaries, whether official (the Shin Bet security service, the army, the police, the Civil Administration) or unofficial (right-wing and messianic organizations and racist individuals).

In the part of the West Bank that does not include East Jerusalem, and even in the Gaza Strip, people have opportunities to forget the ongoing harassment for a while and find metaphorical places of refuge and emotional relief from it. In “united” Jerusalem, on the other hand, Palestinians have no respite from the harassment and or from confronting their inferior status, which Israel created and perpetuates with its Judaization policy.

Jews settling in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods while directly and indirectly evicting the residents; police shutdowns of cultural, educational and political activities on the pretext that the PA is involved in them; the worsening housing crunch due to deliberate government policy and the appropriation of Palestinian land reserves; impoverishment; the levying of high municipal taxes out of all proportion to the low wages earned; and police and other officers ready to ambush anyone who doesn’t look Jewish – these are just a few examples that explain the constant burden with which every East Jerusalem Palestinian lives.

Since East Jerusalem was annexed to Israel, the friction with the occupation authorities – whether they are called the Jerusalem Municipality, the Interior Ministry, the National Insurance Institute or the Israel Police – is felt at any given moment. There is nowhere to escape to. Perhaps, sometimes, to Bethlehem or Ramallah. But that requires money and spare time, and you have to know people there.

So self-restraint and forbearance in Jerusalem require a particularly high level of self-discipline, despair or frustration, or all of the above. There is no way to guess what will puncture the balloon of restraint and when. This time, the police barricades at Damascus Gate were the straw that broke the youths’ back. Will the removal of those barriers, which was decided on Sunday evening, restore the situation to its previous tenuous and routine state of self-restraint and forbearance?

As several city residents have told Haaretz, the general impression is that the young people in the streets are not affiliated with any particular organization or political party, and they probably are not very politically conscious. Unlike the generation of the first intifada, which grew up amid a lively culture of (albeit banned) political organizations, experienced their discussions and debates, and was inspired by the leadership in exile – these young people do not have any ideological home.

Local residents also say about these youths: They’re not particularly religious; they crack sunflower seeds while killing time on the steps near the gate; they blast music from their cars. Their brash and extroverted behavior embarrasses the adults. They are not the ideal model of revolutionaries or freedom fighters. People in far-off Gaza and Ramallah, however, tend to fantasize these days that these young men are pioneers in resuming the popular struggle.

Palestinians in Jerusalem say politely that “this is a confused generation.” Confused or not, they experience all the same types of harassment as everyone else in their community and are affected by it. So, in their angry outbursts, they do represent everyone. On the one hand, people in Jerusalem are pleased that at least someone is confronting the Israeli authorities and shattering the illusion of normalcy, but at the same time they are upset that all their plans for the month of Ramadan have been disrupted. People fear going out in the streets when the fast ends each evening, lest they be caught up in clashes where police may fire stun grenades and tear gas. The shops and restaurants in the city center are shuttered for fear that the “skunk water” sprayed by police vehicles will ruin their merchandise.

Joining this fluid and confusing situation is the unclear fate of the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, scheduled for May 22: Will the clashes and the youth’s victory over the police bolster or weaken the idea to cancel the elections, a notion that high officials of Fatah are obviously entertaining?

On Sunday evening, when the police announced its decision to remove the barricades, the Fatah Central Committee was meeting in Ramallah under the same ambiguous slogan that the movement’s leaders have been promoting in the past two weeks: “Without Jerusalem – No Election.” The meeting ended and the ambiguity remained. The slogan may imply that an election will not be held because Israel is showing no sign of permitting voting in Jerusalem – or a desire and intention to use the election as an opportunity for mass civil disobedience that will be reflected in unconventional methods of voting, such as going from house to house with a polling booth. That was suggested the other day by Ahmed Ghneim, a Fatah member who joined the Freedom List headed by Marwan Barghouti and Nasser al-Kidwa, senior Fatah members who are challenging Mahmoud Abbas’ rule.

A few days ago, Ghneim and other Jerusalem candidates on the tickets for the Palestinian parliament held a sort of vigil in front of the closed and vacant Orient House, during which they kept repeating the slogan that there can be no election without Jerusalem. Under the leadership of Faisal al-Husseini, this building was once a hub for Palestinian political, research and diplomatic activity at the start of the first intifada (until it was temporarily closed), and then in the 1990s Benjamin Netanyahu ordered it shut in August 2001, two months after Husseini’s death. The sparsely attended vigil was another reminder that no new leadership has filled the void in the past 20 years.

Even if the election is held, it’s not at all certain that the young people on the steps of Damascus Gate, who currently give voice to the Palestinian sense of revulsion and frustration, planned to vote in the first place. Will the clashes of the past two weeks, and the praise the youths are receiving from Rafah to Jenin, help to politicize them and their peers in Jerusalem? Will their victory over the police, which is already prompting waves of delight, do so? That remains to be seen.