The decision by Israeli authorities to remove the metal detectors at the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was correct. However, as this crisis hopefully abates, it would be wise to acknowledge the underlying conditions that have caused young Palestinians to risk their lives, through predominantly non-violent protests, praying in streets near the Al Aqsa Mosque and throughout East Jerusalem.
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The ongoing toxic psycho-social conditions and the lack of hope for a sustainable peace process provides a backdrop for understanding the recent outrage and protests of the young men living in East Jerusalem. These conditions are combustible and will continue to provide tinder for any future conflagration relating to Palestinian sovereignty over the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Young Palestinian men in East Jerusalem are an "invisible group" largely ignored by Israelis and the municipality controlled by Israel. But their lives are filled with humiliation, deprivation and diminished opportunity. In their personal lives and collective identity, the Al Aqsa mosque sustains them with belonging, purpose and meaning.
According to Mustafa Abu Sway, Professor of Islamic Studies at Al Quds University, "the Mosque is both an integral part of the religious creed all Palestinians as well as a national symbol for Palestinian sovereignty", which explains why even Christian Palestinians joined the protests (a phenomenon that was largely unreported in the foreign media).
The ability of Palestinians, particularly the young men of East Jerusalem, to feel a strong sense of control over this area is crucial to their sense of well being and this miniature 'sovereignty' acts as a deterrent to another violent intifada, which for the first time would be powered not only by nationalist strivings, but by religious rage as well.
As part of a study initially supported by UNICEF, I and my colleagues from Al Quds University interviewed over 60 young Palestinian men from 2010-2015. As an American Jewish researcher with strong ties to Israel, I was fortunate to be allowed access to this group. But I became extremely disheartened with the depressing conditions of their lives.
East Jerusalem offers little for them in the way of education, employment and recreation.
Their schools are extremely overcrowded (often 50 students in a class), administratively dysfunctional and dominated by an atmosphere of school violence. More than 50% of male adolescents will drop out by the time they reach tenth grade. There are few jobs in the depressed East Jerusalem economy and little space for recreation. Because of Israeli municipal restriction on building, their homes are also overcrowded which increases stress within families. Many fathers are absent from home, because they must work two or more jobs to support the family. Others have chosen to work outside Palestine; and some are in prison.
Many get by with menial work or spend their lives surfing the net for hip hop culture and music, because they identify with the plight of Black men in the United States. Still others develop an aggressively macho pose to ward off feelings of humiliation. Some are beginning to gravitate to a more extremist identity.
It was clear from our research that we’re losing the current generation of Palestinian youth. They’ve given up any belief that negotiations will ever lead to a two state solution. But only a just peace that addresses the needs for political empowerment on both sides will provide them hope.
Community life is challenging and frightening. In the Old City and in the surrounding Holy Basin neighborhoods, young men are stopped daily, questioned and asked to produce identity papers by Israeli security forces. Many of the students in our study have been forcefully detained; most have witnessed violence against other young men by Israel’s security forces.
Many suffer from serious psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression. Others exhibit the classic markers of PTSD – insomnia, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, intense fears - particularly those who have been subject to or have witnessed violence
Their communities are also dominated by drug-related clan violence and crime in both the Old City and the surrounding neighborhood of Shu’afat ("Little Chicago"). Many of the young men we met also used drugs; as one of them, Aymad (not his real name) related: "This is the way that I get by. It makes me and others forget what is happening here – that we have no life and no future."
Young East Jerusalemite men are also suffering a loss of identity. Isolated and cut off from consistent contact with the more successful West Bank, and with more traditional sources of cultural and religious identity, they live in limbo. Some find solace in Islam, as the most meaningful source of their identity and in its enduring symbol - the Al Aqsa mosque.
Almost every young man I interviewed described the Mosque at the center of their thoughts and hopes. Any serious threat to their access is experienced as an annihilation of their spiritual and psychological selves. Recent and ongoing attempts by Jewish fundamentalists to challenge Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount area, which includes Al Aqsa, constitutes such an attack.
By and large young Palestinian men from East Jerusalem see no future ahead. As hopes for statehood and or some form of political autonomy fade, they increasingly have nothing to lose. Not only do they not see any light at the end of the tunnel, they see no tunnel, no horizon at all.
Steps must be taken to normalize and improve their lives. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war. But with power comes responsibility. The Jerusalem municipality must attempt to provide more teachers and schools, build parks, develop a sound economic infrastructure for East Jerusalem, develop vocational training programs and integrate them into the West Jerusalem economy and provide a safer environment for young men in East Jerusalem. Interventions to help traumatized and struggling children and families is also required. Developing strong links with West Bank political and cultural institutions would also be useful.
Failing this interventions and further negotiation, we can expect an escalation in frustration and possible violence on the part of the young men of East Jerusalem. And the next real or perceived infringement by Israel of the Palestinian integrity of Al-Aqsa is likely to provide a trigger for all that pent-up frustration to explode and this time, it won’t be so feasible to de-escalate.
Warren Spielberg PhD, Fulbright Scholar is a psychologist who teaches at the New School in New York. This piece is excerpted and updated from a larger study, No Mans Land: Listening to the Voices of East Jerusalem Young Men (2016) co-written with Taisir Abdullah PhD and Khouloud Dajani MD, AL Quds University. Twitter: @warrenspielberg