The Baffling Siege of Issawiya

The targeting of Issawiya, without any apparent cause – For the past six months, the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya, nestled on the northern slopes of Mount Scopus, has witnessed nightly incursions by the Israeli police, repeated closures of the neighborhood and arrests in unprecedented numbers. OCHA’s recent comprehensive report on the clashes reveals indeed a very dark picture of everyday life in an Issawiya besieged by the police, in line with the one we also reported in July. As of late August, there was one fatality (a young man shot after throwing a firecracker towards the police) and 137 injuries. The residents are delayed by frequent ‘flying checkpoints”, where their cars are inspected and citationed for often trivial infractions. Building inspectors and tax collectors often accompany the police, in a policy euphemistically dubbed “enhanced enforcement”.

There were and are no apparent events or incidents that have elicited these policies.

We cannot emphasize enough: the events of the past six months in Issawiya are unprecedented, taking place nowhere else in East Jerusalem since 1967. While there have been in the past clashes between the police and residents of East Jerusalem neighborhoods, these have invariably been in response to disturbances rather than the provocation of disturbances, and these were limited in time. Issawiya has been targeted as never before – and we are at a loss to adequately explain why this is happening.

It is evident that the police are not responding to disturbances in the neighborhood, on the contrary. The incursions spark the disturbance and there is compelling evidence that this is precisely the purpose of the nightly raids:

  1. Police officers were caught on camera admitting that the incursions and operations have the sole purpose of provoking the residents. Although the police has officially claimed that “Thanks to the police activity in the area, in recent months there has been a sharp drop in stone throwing, Molotov cocktails and other violations directed at innocent civilians and motorists.”,  local organizations monitoring daily the situation (including right wing organization monitoring violence from Palestinians against Israeli civilians) did not report any molotov cocktails or attacks on the highway in the year that preceded the start of the police operations.
  2. Since the beginning of the police operations in May, the Police have arrested approximately 600 residents of Issawiya, more than 3% of the neighborhood’s 18,000 residents. Only 20 indictments have been handed down. While most of the arrests have been of youth, only adults have thus far been indicted. These numbers lend credence to the residents’ belief that this is yet another form of collective punishment, and applied randomly.

Targeting community leaders – In recent weeks, the police have been using a new tactic: the arrest of community leaders. One of the most prominent leaders in East Jerusalem, known for his responsible leadership and credibility, Mohammed Abu Hummus, was roughed up and detained. When the Magistrate’s Court ordered his release (in a decision that included blistering criticism of police behavior), police appealed the decision, leaving Abu Hummus in jail for another three days. The District Court too ordered his release, again criticizing police policies. Abu Hummus is not the only community leader who has been targeted. The police also arrested twice the community leaders who attempted to organize a school boycott in protest for the police operations within the vicinity of the schools.

What is this all about, and how does this end? – As we have noted, we are at a loss to explain the current siege of Issawiya, and without knowing why this is happening in the first place, it is next to impossible to predict how this will end.
Are the Police living up to the Rambo-like image with which they portrayed themselves in the recent docudrama on the Jerusalem Police Department broadcast on Israeli TV, in which Issawiya was described as a hotbed of terror based on faked incidents? Are they retaliating for the humiliation that was heaped on the Police when it was discovered that they had planted an assault rifle in the home of one of the residents, so they could discover it “on camera”? Are they merely settling scores with Issawiya for reasons known only to the Police Command? Are they acting under instructions from the Minister of Internal Security? Minister Erdan is positioning himself for a bid to succeed Netanyahu. Could Police actions be possibly related to these factors?

Whereas the responses to these questions are unclear, the mechanisms for de-escalating the situation in Issawiya are pretty evident. On at least two separate occasions, an agreement was reached between the Police and the residents whereby the former would scale down their presence and the latter would respond with a restoration of calm. In both instances the lull was short-lived, with Police resuming the aggressive tactics shortly after the agreement was reached. The Police even denied the existence of these deals, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary. Ending this cycle of violence is eminently achievable, but this depends almost entirely on the Police.

The logic of a deepening occupation – Regardless of the direct causes of this protracted Police operation, the rationale, if there is one, could simply be that this is what occupations do. Occupation has a logic of its own, and one which requires increasingly repressive measures to sustain itself. Hence, the events in recent months in Issawiya disclose much about the changing nature of Israeli rule over East Jerusalem, as the total marginalization of the Palestinian sector of Jerusalem are now deeply embedded in the “organizational DNA” of the Government of Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality, and at all levels.
One of the clearest manifestations of the nature of Israeli rule in East Jerusalem can be found in an op-ed and subsequent press release concerning Issawiya written by Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion. Among else, he writes:

“Historically, this is a neighborhood with warring clans, in which there is very little communal responsibility and solidarity, which makes it difficult for the authorities to operate there. The area is characterized by widespread disturbances, the organizers of which are cultural heroes who serve as role models for the neighborhoods youth”.

Leon proceeds by touting all of the major projects and services his municipality provides the neighborhood, claims that have been masterfully debunked by Nir Hasson in Haaretz: “Issawiya is unlike any neighborhood in West Jerusalem in all its parameters. The level of infrastructures is disgraceful, and the situation in Issawiya is in the worst situation even in comparison with the other Palestinian neighborhoods in the city”.

Leon also made an announcement on November 30 in response to the demonstration in front of his home in protest of the situation in Issawiya, in which he accused his political opposition in the city council of being behind the violence of recent months – a patently absurd accusation.

The portrait of Issawiya painted by Leon is utterly detached from the grim realities on the ground.  Nowhere does he disclose any evidence of thinking that the residents may have real grievances, or that he is genuinely responsible for their well-being. They are props in the politically expedient fantasy world of an undivided Jerusalem.

At the end of the day, both the police campaign in Issawiya and Leon’s attitude towards the neighborhood derive from the same core characteristic of occupation: under Israeli rule in Jerusalem, Israeli lives matter, Palestinian lives matter much less, and at times not at all.