Collective punishment: From Sporadic to Systematic
The emergence of a new policy towards Palestinians in East Jerusalem
The period of the Jewish High Holidays is often a time of tensions in Jerusalem and, for the past two years, has been a time of intense violence and upheaval in East Jerusalem. With that season nearly upon us, 2016 looks to be another very difficult year. The tensions today in Jerusalem are high. Jerusalem is more divided than at any point in time since 1967, with a cognitive border between Israeli and Palestinian areas, as both sides are reluctant to venture in areas inhabited by the other side. The city is already facing renewed violence that, sadly, comes as no surprise. This violence, the type of Israeli responses, the approaching Jewish High Holidays, and increased tension in and around the Temple Mount/Haram el Sharif are lowering the chances that calm will be restored quickly and are contributing to a very worrying trajectory in Jerusalem over the next few weeks.
To understand what is happening requires recognizing that a new reality has emerged out of a sustained period of violence in Jerusalem. This period did not start a year ago, as most analysts have suggested, but two years ago – triggered by the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir and the outbreak of hostilities in Gaza, and fueled by developments on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. Notably, until the violence spread into West Jerusalem, the settlements, and Tel Aviv, the uprising in East Jerusalem was a non-event, reflecting the invisibility of East Jerusalemites for Israeli society.
In the past, the international community has viewed Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem as identical, at least in principle, to that of the West Bank – but in practice it was treated somewhat differently. That was not without justification. Israeli rule differed in some substantive areas from the military occupation of the West Bank. For decades, Palestinians in East Jerusalem lived in an ambiguous, anomalous reality – permanently disenfranchised and with their fundamental rights hanging by a thread, but also offered some of the benefits of Israeli democracy. And traditionally, East Jerusalem has been less prone to violence and upheaval than the West Bank nearby.
As we have reported at length in the past, the reality of occupation in East Jerusalem has fundamentally changed over the past two years. East Jerusalem has witnessed a popular uprising unprecedented in scope and intensity since 1967. Many of East Jerusalem’s neighborhoods have been convulsed with nightly clashes with the police, and thousands of East Jerusalem’s residents have been taken into custody. East Jerusalemites are more alienated from and hostile to Israel rule than ever before.
The Israel response to this uprising is also unprecedented, and has contributed to fueling the ongoing conflict. Current measures applied in East Jerusalem – characterized by systemic collective punishment of the entire Palestinian collective, implemented across the board by all Israeli enforcement authorities, in a coordinated manner – are not isolated decisions, but rather are manifestations of new and far-reaching policies. These policies are emerging neither haphazardly or by mistake. They disclose a deliberate shift in Israel’s approach to East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents, rationalized as necessarily and logical reaction to the serious violence that erupted in East Jerusalem periodically since 2014. However, rather than stabilizing the situation, this new approach is in reality fueling ever-greater Palestinian rage, frustration, and alienation - which in turn will lead ineluctably to further violence.
More significantly, it puts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a new and dangerous footing. There have been protracted periods in which the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem was a disease in remission. Today, the distinction between the Israeli rule in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank has been blurred. The occupation of East Jerusalem is more aggressive and unapologetic. The thinly veiled fictions of a “united” city, “coexistence,” and “beneficent” rule have all but collapsed. Ever the epicenter of the conflict, the nuances and ambiguities that once prevented that conflict from careening out of control have all but disappeared.
Characteristics and Manifestation of collective punishment
Collective punishment of Palestinians in East Jerusalem is not new (and in the West Bank, it has long been Israel’s standard modus operandi), and historically has primarily come in the form of sporadic punitive home demolitions. Of late, collective punishment has moved from the ad hoc and the episodic to the systemic and systematic. This includes policing tactics so harsh they are militarizing the fabric of life in East Jerusalem, closures imposed on entire neighborhoods, systematic abuse of municipal laws and regulations harassing the population, home demolitions in unprecedented numbers, and more. Most notably:
Aggressive policing tactics: Law enforcement in East Jerusalem is today characterized by increasingly harsh policing tactics, used not for the sake of maintaining public safety and preventing crime, but for punitive effect. Starting in the latter half of 2014, these tactics have included periodic, systematic closures of entire Palestinian areas of the city, with whole neighborhoods (like Jabel Mukkaber and Issawiya) completely cut off to vehicular traffic and with pedestrians entering and exiting the areas subjected to questioning and body searches. Flying checkpoints (i.e., temporary checkpoints often set up in places where people don’t expect them) are common. There has been the widespread arrest/detention of East Jerusalem residents, especially of minors (since July 2014, more than 2000 minors have been arrested in East Jerusalem, working out to almost 1 out of every 10 Palestinian boys between the ages of 12 and 18). Large-scale police sweeps of Palestinian neighborhoods, yielding dozens of arrests, have become commonplace. At the peak of the violence, there has been increased use of heavy-handed measures designed for riot control.
Punitive Home demolitions (terrorism): Almost immediately after the 1967 War, Israel implemented a policy of demolishing homes belonging to the families of Palestinians who engage in terrorism against Israelis, even when those families were in no way implicated in the crime. While Israel denies that these demolitions are punitive, insisting that their purpose is deterrence (i.e., that others will be deterred from acts of terror when they see how their family members would suffer for their crimes), the demolitions are a textbook example of collective punishment, targeting innocents for the crimes of others. In 2005, an IDF committee headed by Gen. Udi Shani recommended putting a halt to such demolitions, asserting they were ineffective and quite possibly counterproductive. For a period of years, punitive demolitions all but disappeared. But with the recent surge in violence, these demolitions have resumed, and in unprecedented numbers. Today in East Jerusalem there is a clear policy the systematic use of demolitions in “personalized” collective punishment, directed against the families of terrorists.
Punitive Home demolitions (permits): Home demolitions for illegal construction are another thing entirely. Throughout Israel’s nearly 50 year rule, East Jerusalem neighborhoods overwhelmingly have been left without Town Plans that allow for reasonable urban development – and without Town Plans, it is impossible for Palestinians to obtain permits to build on their own land. As a result, more than 50% of the homes in East Jerusalem have been built without permits, and many thousands of demolition orders have been issued by Israeli authorities and are awaiting execution. Over the years these orders were carried out sporadically, averaging 50 a year for 2012-2015. But with the recent surge of violence, things have changed: this year has witnessed major spike in such demolitions, with 128 units demolished in the first 8 months of 2016 (60% more than the number in all of 2015). The change is not only in the numbers but also in the targets: where in the past there was no pattern in the structures singled out by Israel for demolition, today it is becoming apparent that demolitions are being concentrated in those neighborhoods viewed by Israel as particularly hostile, like Issawiyeh, Jabel Mukkabar and A-Tur. Today in East Jerusalem, the policy of random demolitions based on permit violations has morphed into one of the systematic use of such demolitions as collective punishment targeting areas in which Israeli authorities want to “settle accounts,” make a point, or show who is boss.
“Enhanced Enforcement” (aka, Systematic Harassment): In October 2014, when violence was peaking in East Jerusalem, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat convened senior municipal officials and declared an unprecedented policy of “enhanced” law enforcement against the residents of East Jerusalem, instructing various departments to aggressively enforce regulations related to traffic, building permits, businesses licenses, animal permits, signage requirements, etc. Since that time, East Jerusalemites have faced constant harassment from city inspectors, who by all appearances are under orders to find any possible pretext to issue fines to Palestinian businesses – including for things like violations of requirements regarding “no smoking” notices and shop signs (that has been in place for decades without incident) deemed in violation of a never-implemented regulation requiring them to be at least 50% in Hebrew (despite the fact that Hebrew speakers do not frequent these stores). While all of these policies were triggered by the surge in violence, the have been maintained even as violence as periodically ebbed. Much of this collective punishment is now seen as mundane and barely gets reported: like the story of Palestinian youths clashing with the police in the neighborhood of A-Tur on a Saturday night, and the following morning Palestinian residents find tickets on every car in the neighborhood. (For more on this issue from a Palestinian human rights perspective, see this report from Al Haq.)
Ever-expanding Collective Punishment: Israel’s justification for the adoption and normalization of systematic collective punishment against Palestinians in East Jerusalem is, of course, violence. In recent days, that rationale has become a pretext for tightening the noose even further. This was seen following the recent horrific stabbing of two members of Israel’s border police. The perpetrator of that attack was wounded and apprehended at the scene, but that did not prevent Israeli authorities for collectively punishing the broader population: following the attack, Israeli authorities forced dozens of Palestinian shops to shut down, not only in the immediate area of the attack (which took place just outside the ramparts of the Old City) but also within the Old City walls and on Salah el Din street (East Jerusalem’s main shopping street outside the Old City). Nothing of this scope has happened before. The closure was strictly enforced for hours during which municipal inspectors imposed fines to any owner who had not shut down. This latest incident of unprecedented and even broader collective punishment should not be regarded as an isolated or outlying development. Rather, it is part of a crescendo of increasingly harsh policing tactics employed against the residents of East Jerusalem. The statements made by Jerusalem’s police commander, invoking collective punishment as the appropriate modus operandi given the severity of the events, underscores the fact that what we are seeing today reflects formal decisions made by the municipality and the Israeli police.
A Coordinated, Declared Policy of Collective Punishment,
Accompanied by Double-Speak
While the intensity of the measures implemented depends on the circumstances, the nature of Israeli rule in East Jerusalem is today defined by the systematic and systemic embrace of collective punishment by Israel. This is true with respect to the policies and actions of the central government, municipal authorities, and police. At every level, Israeli authorities are today acting in East Jerusalem in a coordinated manner, something that was never the case in the past except episodically, and at every level, collective punishment is today being publicly and unapologetically justified by Israeli authorities. Some examples:
- Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat recently outlined, with evident pride, his model for collective punishment via enhanced law enforcement in East Jerusalem. He told Likud activists that “We’ve developed some very, very interesting models. The first is cooperation between the Shin Bet, police, law enforcement and the municipality… I’ve requested closures and curfews in Jerusalem… We’ve put nearly 30 closures (in place). If you walk around the entrance and exit of the (Palestinian) villages today, you’ll see concrete blocks…” In the same speech Barkat suggested that his approach was working “it is our policy that brought the violence down” – notwithstanding the continuing unrest in the city – and argued, bizarrely, that the approach of cutting off sections of East Jerusalem and treating all of its residents as hostile “creates a very high level of coexistence between Jews and Arabs in the city.”
- Israeli Chief Police Roni Alsheikh publicly justified the racial profiling of Ethiopian Jews, suggesting they are more likely to be criminals based on their status as “immigrants” and the large number of youths in each population. Completely out of context, and totally gratuitously, he asserted that the same penchant for criminality exists among East Jerusalemites (and Arab citizens of Israel), apparently for the same reasons. His depiction of East Jerusalemites as “immigrants” (and thus aliens) in their own land says a lot about the police chief’s worldview and the worldview he is imparting to police across the country. It also demonstrates unequivocally that profiling, selective policing, and collective punishment are part of the police leadership’s modus operandi; actions like the recent closures of businesses in East Jerusalem are entirely in keeping of this worldview. Tellingly, his comments regarding Ethiopian Jews caused a public uproar that led the generally unapologetic Alsheikh to apologize. The comments relating to East Jerusalem elicited no response from the Israeli public.
- Jerusalem Police Commander Yoram Halevy, following the recent stabbing of two members of the Border Police, justified collective punishment, saying that Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are "complicit in everything that happens" and that "It's impossible that there's an incident like this and that life will go on as if nothing happened." Pronouncements like these – uttered without apology or caveat – highlight the cynicism behind the recent announcement by the police of plans to “strengthen and deepen the rule of law throughout Jerusalem and in the villages of East Jerusalem, enhance accessibility to police services and provide quality police services to all residents of the city, with an emphasis on strengthening the shared day-to-day life of the public as a whole” (by open six police stations in East Jerusalem and adding 1200 new policemen). Similarly, suggestions by police that the closure of Palestinian stores in response to the recent stabbing was not punitive, but rather based on professional operational grounds, are contradicted by the fact municipal inspectors were sent to give fines to disobedient shop owners.
- Israel’s State Attorney recently offered a public justification one of punitive home demolitions, in the context of a lawsuit filed by the Abu Khdeir family asking why the State was not demolishing the home the Jewish terrorist who murdered their son. The State Attorney argued that that while demolitions were appropriate in the case of Palestinian terrorists, there was no need to demolish the home of the three Jewish terrorists because of the difference in the “scope” of terror attacks committed by Jews and Palestinians. The State further claimed that the fact that the three were sentenced in court was “deterrent enough.”
- Israel’s Supreme Court in 2015 endorsed collective punishment – but only against Palestinians – in a ruling written by Supreme Court Justice Noam Sohlberg related to the Abu Khdeir case. He argued: “I must reject the claim of discrimination between Jews and Palestinians…there is no need in the Jewish sector to create collective deterrence, which is the purpose of home demolition. The Jewish sector, as a rule, is already deterred and is not subject to incitement... (TJ’s translation).”
All of this leads to an unavoidable conclusion: collective punishment and the profiling of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem as a hostile collective has become Israel’s standard – and ever deepening – worldview and modus operandi. Where in the past collective punishment could be “explained” as merely the exceptional operational response of Israeli authorities to extraordinarily challenging circumstances, today such policies are neither aberrations nor deviations from the norm.
Adding further fuel to the fire of Palestinian outrage, Israel’s public embrace of collective punishment is accompanied by a parallel embrace of hasbara doublespeak, which pretends that Israeli policies are not about punishment at all. Police Commander Halevy’s unabashed justification of collective punishment included the contradictory and specious assertion that the shut-down of businesses was merely a “professional,” a routine procedure used also in West Jerusalem. Mayor Barkat characterized the use of collective punishment, bizarrely, as one of the foundations of “coexistence.” Israeli courts have repeatedly backed the State in defending terrorism-related home demolitions as deterrence, rather than punishment. And plans to expand Israel’s police presence in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods – undeniably part and parcel of the more aggressive policing – are being disingenuously marketed as a move to benefit Palestinian residents.
In the past Israeli rule of East Jerusalem was viewed as “occupation-lite” and elicited nuanced responses from the international community. Today, such a view and such responses are no longer justified. Israeli rule in East Jerusalem is increasingly indistinguishable from the occupation of the West Bank, and this new reality requires a significant re-calibration of both words and actions.
As noted above, collective punishment in East Jerusalem is nothing new. However, where in the past it was sporadic, episodic, and limited in scope, today it has become the defining characteristic of official Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
- Collective punishment in East Jerusalem today is not a deviation from the norm; it is the norm, forming the bedrock of Israel’s policy, anchored in worldview that sees Jerusalem’s Palestinian population as alien, hostile, and without rights.
- It is also a reality that official Israel celebrates as its ideal: a Jerusalem “united” under its exclusive sovereignty.
- This approach is becoming more institutionalized and more deeply-rooted over time, with a parallel increase in negative ramifications for all of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents.
- And it is an approach that is increasing Palestinian rage and frustration in East Jerusalem, planting the seeds for additional instability and violence – which in turn, absent a concrete shift in Israeli policy and behavior, will become a pretext for even harsher collective punishment.
This new reality has changed and is changing the nature of Israeli rule in East Jerusalem, and is further demonstrating that the myth of “united” Jerusalem is collapsing under the weight of its own fictions, and that no hasbara, however slick, can maintain an unsustainable occupation.