The Palestinian uprising is now entering its fourth week. There appears to be a broad consensus on the genesis of the violence, which has left at least 40 Palestinians and seven Israelis dead since October 1, and more than 1,200 Palestinians injured. How it may develop in the days and weeks ahead is much less clear.
Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, now almost fifty years old, is more entrenched than ever, while even the pretense of a political process aimed at bringing the occupation and the conflict to an end has been effectively abandoned. Political despair has been compounded by economic desperation. In Gaza, two-fifths of the population lives in poverty, and youth unemployment is the world’s highest, at more than 60 percent. In East Jerusalem, the epicenter of the uprising, 75 percent of Palestinians live below the poverty line. Even in the remainder of the West Bank, where donor aid and a credit bubble have sustained the fiction of an economy, fully one in three of those aged 20 to 24 are unemployed. It is no coincidence that, of the 30 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces from October 1–14, nearly two-thirds were between the ages of 18 and 22.
Such travails are not the product of an economic cycle or austerity policies, but rather the result of systematic institutional discrimination by a colonial regime over many decades. In East Jerusalem, which is not only occupied but has also been illegally annexed by Israel, the government and municipal authorities demolish more Palestinian homes on the pretext of a lack of planning permission than they issue permits for new construction; seize land and property for the further expansion of illegal Jewish settlements; and revoke the residency status of entire families. In the remainder of the West Bank, most of it under direct Israeli military rule, similar policies are pursued with even greater brutality.
If political and economic despair created the underlying conditions for revolt, two proximate causes triggered it. First is what Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group has characterized as the “crumbling status quo” at the Haram al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem, which contains the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. A growing campaign of incursions by radical settler groups dedicated to demolishing the mosques and replacing them with a Jewish temple, provocative visits by prominent Israeli politicians including serving cabinet ministers, restrictions on access for Muslim worshipers, and the resultant clashes with Israeli security forces have persuaded Palestinians that the most extreme government in Israel’s history is determined to partition the Muslim holy site and Palestinian national symbol. Such fears draw upon experience, as this is precisely what Israel did at Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque two decades ago after an American-born settler massacred 29 Palestinian Muslims during dawn prayers. Palestinian concerns are additionally shared by Jordan, which shares custodianship of the Haram and last year felt compelled to withdraw its ambassador to Tel Aviv in protest at Israel’s increasing belligerence on the issue. More recently, tensions came to a head in September as the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha coincided with the Jewish Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot holidays.