In Hebron on December 7, over 20 Israeli soldiers arrested 14-year-old Fawzi Al-Junaidi, blindfolded him and marched him off to detention. The image of the arrest, the violence of it, startled many people. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan mentioned the arrest and said sharply: “Israel is a terrorist state. We will not abandon Jerusalem to the mercy of a child-murder state.”
Erdogan was referring to the renewed controversy over Jerusalem. On December 6, President Donald Trump declared that the United States would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. To move the embassy suggests that Israel’s capital is no longer to be Tel Aviv but Jerusalem. This action is against long-standing international policy, which sees Jerusalem as an “international city”—one that would be governed by various parties to protect the city’s special status as home to major religious sites of Christians, Jews and Muslims.
Trump’s statement on Jerusalem rattled Palestine, where the people have long worried about the seizure of East Jerusalem, which the United Nations deems to be part of Occupied Palestinian Territory, and the rest of the old city. Protests broke out in the West Bank, in Jerusalem and in the Gaza Strip. These were largely non-violent, a mirror of the frustration of the Palestinian people with the collapse of their national liberation project.
On December 8, which was a Friday and therefore a day of prayer for Muslims, Israeli forces gathered in a show of force near the Al Aqsa mosque, revered by Muslims as the third holiest site in Islam. Prayers went on as usual in the mosque, although the tension on the streets was palpable. It provoked protests from Palestinians in the city, who marched in small groups chanting: “Jerusalem is ours, Jerusalem is our capital.”
Israeli forces descended upon the demonstrations with ferocity. Israeli troops on horseback galloped down Salah Eddin Street in the old city, scaring passers-by. The soldiers smashed up shops and arrested men, women and children. The Red Crescent said that about 800 Palestinians had been injured and a handful, mostly in Gaza, had been killed. Israeli forces used a combination of rubber bullets and live fire in the West Bank and Jerusalem and air strikes against Gaza. Two days later, on December 10, an Israeli military vehicle ran over a five-year-old Palestinian girl in the city of Hebron, perhaps the tensest city in Palestine.
It was in Hebron that 14-year-old Al-Junaidi was arrested and detained. His uncle said that the boy had gone out to get medicine and food for his family. This young boy cares for his father, who had undergone surgery recently. The incident moved the uncle to say: “We are the children of Palestine. Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine in the hearts and minds of our children. They will never be able to erase it.”
Wisam Hashlamoun, a Palestinian photojournalist, took the iconic picture of Al-Junaidi. About 50 Israeli soldiers attacked a group of Palestinian youths, Hashlamoun recounts. Al-Junaidi fell to the ground, sustaining a head wound. The soldiers “pulled him to his feet and encircled him”, which is the moment Hashlamoun photographed the boy. “It definitely didn’t occur to me that this photo would become a symbol,” Hashlamoun said. “I wanted to expose Israeli violence.”
Israeli state media concentrated on a few rockets fired into Israel from Gaza and the stabbing of an Israeli security guard at the entrance of Jerusalem’s bus station. These acts of violence were taken to justify the massive use of force by the Israelis against Palestinians—spurred on by Trump’s inflammatory declaration. It is inevitable that Palestinians will respond to the Israeli violence, which comes on top of the occupation that has lasted over 50 years. Little wonder that some Palestinians chanted: “We don’t need empty words. We need stones and Kalashnikovs.”
No wonder, too, that many world leaders—from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani—have called Trump’s statement a “dangerous escalation”. It will only create far more violence. The European Union and the U.N. have roundly condemned Trump’s statement.
Jerusalem as emblem
In 1947, the U.N. passed Resolution 181 which placed Jerusalem under the administration of the U.N. It was to be a city governed by a “special international regime”. The countries of the world recognised Jerusalem as a special place, precious to the major Abrahamic religions and located in the midst of tensions between the new state of Israel, exiled and occupied Palestinians and the neighbouring Arab states.
Over the years, the U.N. Security Council has voted seven times to condemn the Israeli 1980 Basic Jerusalem Law, which claims the city as the “eternal and indivisible” capital of Israel. The first of these resolutions, 478 in 1980, was passed unanimously, with an abstention from the U.S. But even former (and late) U.S. Secretary of State Edmund Muskie suggested that Jerusalem was a unique city. “We must share a common vision of that ancient city’s future—an undivided Jerusalem, with free access to the holy places for peoples of all faiths.” At the same time, the U.S. held that it had the right to have its embassy in Jerusalem. Any instruction from the U.N. to move its embassy, Muskie said in 1980, would not be binding.
The tone in the Security Council in 1980 was strongly against an Israeli annexation of Jerusalem. Pakistan’s then Ambassador to the U.N., Naiz A. Naik, said that as international pressure mounted against Israel, it had “revived with increased vigour the obsessive Zionist scheme to Judaise the Holy City of Jerusalem by destroying its historical personality and turning it into ‘the eternal capital of Israel’”. Israel’s then Ambassador to the U.N., Yehuda Zvi Blum, responded that Jerusalem had been the capital of Israel from its origin and that Israel would not honour any U.N. approach to the city. “Israel will not allow Jerusalem to become another Berlin,” Blum said, “with all that implies not only for the welfare of its citizens but also for international peace and security.”
Israel, with U.S. backing, ignored the U.N. It would, over the course of these past 50 years, gradually annex pieces of Jerusalem and weaken the Palestinian hold on the city. Land grabs in East Jerusalem came alongside the encroachment of Jewish settlers into and the expansion of the Jewish quarter in the old city. The attrition of Palestinian space in the city included the operation to destroy the Mamilla Cemetery, a site of immense importance for Palestinian history (“Grave Silence”, Frontline, February 21, 2014).
‘No, Mr Trump’
A week after Trump’s declaration, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence and former Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., wrote a stinging open letter to him. “No, Mr Trump,” he wrote, “Jerusalem is not Israel’s capital.” His letter is a rebuke to Trump. “If you want to rectify your misbegotten and cavalier act,” he wrote, “you can issue a statement recognising the Palestinian state and its capital in East Jerusalem. Otherwise, forget whatever sweet words you blandish at us. Native inhabitants of what is called America have coined the phrase, ‘White man speaks with forked tongue’. We have known that phrase since 1917.” That this comes from the heart of the Saudi establishment says a great deal about the tensions in the region. Many suggest that Saudi Arabia is preparing a public diplomatic opening to Israel, although Trump’s action might have ended that possibility.
From Beirut, Lebanon, Syed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, called Trump’s statement the Second Balfour Declaration. The first Balfour Declaration was made by the then imperial power, Britain. It promised to seize Palestinian land and give it to European Jewish settlers; this would be an antidote to European anti-Semitism. Trump’s declaration, by the current imperial power, gives Israelis carte blanche to seize more Palestinian land. In both cases, Nasrallah said, no one spoke to the Palestinians. It is for this reason that Nasrallah called for an intifada—an uprising, the Third Intifada.
Trump’s inflammatory decision came just before he signed an extension that allowed the U.S. embassy to remain in Tel Aviv. The U.S. embassy will not move to Jerusalem for at least six months, when Trump will again have to revisit the twice-annual ritual in the U.S. for the President to sign this extension. It is unlikely that the U.S. will actually move its embassy. This seems more dangerous theatre than anything else. It is another of Trump’s mischievous political acts; he pleases his base, including conservative Christian evangelicals, and he creates news.
Meanwhile, in Palestine, children like Al-Junaidi suffer. It has been their lot for decades.
This article originally appeared in Frontline (India.)