“I’m 28 and I’ve never felt anything like this before, a feeling of pride, that we’re here and that we have the ability to express our opinion and say what’s important to us. The people have had their say at this place, Al-Aqsa, it’s important to us and it belongs only to us,” said Tamer Said, of the East Jerusalem village of Isawiyah, as he described the euphoria that has swept East Jerusalem since the successful battle against the metal detectors positioned at the Temple Mount entrances.
After years in which Palestinian Jerusalem had been a synonym of weakness, poverty, occupation and a divided, leaderless society, it was the Jerusalemites who raised the banner of revolt and triumphed over Israel, in their view, at the place most important to them. Every night recently, hundreds have been gathering for spontaneous celebrations at the Temple Mount and its gates. In the neighborhoods people give out sweets or set off fireworks as a sign of joy.
“You drive in a car to Al-Aqsa with your neighbor whom you fought two days ago over a parking spot,” wrote Hamdan Abu Shamsia on the Arabic-language Ask Jerusalem Facebook page. “Everyone takes care of everyone. The kitchens are full and all the Jerusalemites are invited. I swear it’s a great source of pride. Beforehand I felt alone since I don’t have any brothers, but I discovered that I have more brothers and sisters than anyone.”
The question everyone is asking now is whether this struggle can be extended to other issues like home demolitions, the severe shortage of classrooms, bureaucratic abuse and perhaps even the occupation itself. In other words, have these two weeks been a passing phase in the history of Palestinian Jerusalem, or a turning point?
Two weeks ago Sunday, when the police sought to reopen the gates to the Temple Mount after they were closed following the killing of two border policemen there, Jerusalem’s Palestinians took a gamble. Under pressure from the masses, the sheikhs who manage the Waqf refused to enter Al-Aqsa and restore the routine at the holy place so long as the metal detectors remained. At first it wasn’t clear if the boycott would succeed, but within hours there emerged a popular struggle unlike anything seen in East Jerusalem in decades. Thousands gathered at the Lions Gate daily for a sit-in protest and mass prayers, speeches, and calls to defend Al-Aqsa, while the plaza of the mosques themselves remained empty. The boycott was an unqualified success.
Throughout the campaign the Palestinian Jerusalemites tried to keep it nonviolent; most of the prayer gatherings broke up peacefully. Most of the aggressive crowd dispersals by the police were sparked by minor things like the throwing of a water bottle.
“I think that people understood the game, that less violence gives them more breathing room and it embarrasses Israel,” said Ahmed Asmar, 30, from Wadi Joz.
“For a long time the occupier tried to separate and isolate us – this one’s Fatah, this one’s Hamas, this one’s Jerusalem and this one’s the territories,” said Ahmed Sub Laban, a field researcher for the left-wing group Ir Amim. “This is the first time in the history of the Palestinian people that we are uniting in this fashion to get our rights; the first time that our people feel the power they have and that’s the power of unity. The question is whether they will use this power again, not just for religious rights.”
The success of this struggle comes after years in which East Jerusalem was considered a place without leadership. Ever since the death of Faisal Husseini in 2001, there hasn’t been anyone in Jerusalem who could be considered a political leader accepted by Palestinian Jerusalemites. When the latest events began to unfold, police arrested anyone who might be considered a local leader, including Fatah members, Hamas members and local activists. The only ones not arrested were the spiritual leaders. But most locals claim that while the sheikhs made the initial decision not to enter the mosques on the Mount, they didn’t really lead the struggle.
The Jerusalemites also hasten to reject anyone trying to piggyback on their success. When Christine Rinawi, a reporter for the Palestinian Authority’s official TV station, finished a report from Jerusalem by thanking Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, she faced condemnations, slander and threats. However, the political battle still has no clear leadership, so that even if people want to try to take it in a different direction, it isn’t clear who will take the reins and move forward.
Everyone agrees that Al-Aqsa has a recruiting power that surpasses that of the other issues on the Palestinian agenda in Jerusalem, and that this power has nothing to do with the religious character of the site. A large part of those active in the protest were young secular Arabs who are not mosque-goers in their daily lives.
“There’s a place for its religious importance, but as a Jerusalem resident this place resides within me not because of God and not because of Islam,” said Said. “I’m secular, and the importance of this place crosses the borders of religiosity. It’s where I feel at home; where I feel free.”
Many East Jerusalemites describe the mosques plaza as their last prized possession, the only place in Palestine that Israel has not really succeeded in occupying and where a Palestinian – religious, secular or even Christian – can feel a sense of relief from the occupation.
“It’s something very, very emotional,” said Asmar. “Whether it’s connected to memories, to soccer games at the site, to tours, to a picture of Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock, it’s connected to honor.”