Early October 2016, Misbah Abu Sbeih left his wife and five children at home and drove to an Israeli police station in occupied East Jerusalem. The thirty-nine-year-old Jerusalemite was scheduled to hand himself over to serve a four-month term for, allegedly, “trying to hit an Israeli soldier.”
Misbah was familiar with Israeli prisons, having been held there before on political charges, including an attempt to sneak into and pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Al-Aqsa Mosque is part of a large compound known as Haram al-Sharif, which includes the famed Dome of the Rock and other Palestinian Muslim sites, revered by Muslims across the globe.
Al-Aqsa is believed to be the second mosque ever built, the first being Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. The Quran mentions it as the place from which Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven, journeying from Mecca to Jerusalem. For Palestinians, Muslims, and Christians alike, the mosque took on a new meaning following the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian city of al-Quds (Jerusalem) in 1967.
Scenes of Israeli soldiers raising the Israeli flag over Muslim and Christian shrines in the city fifty years ago are burnt into the collective memory of several generations. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound has been a focal point of regular clashes between Palestinian worshipers and the Israeli army.
Daily visitors to the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem include non-Muslim tourists. They are often welcomed by the Al-Waqf administration, which is the Islamic religious trust that manages the holy shrines, a practice dating back five hundred years. Even after the Israeli occupation of the Arab city, al-Waqf has continued to be the caretaker of the Muslim site, as arranged between the Jordanian government and Israel. Israeli designs on the east of the city are far greater than the mosque itself.
Last April, the Israeli government announced plans to build fifteen thousand new housing units in east Jerusalem, contrary to international law. The international community recognizes the east to be a Palestinian city under occupation. The United States, nominally, accepts this international consensus on Jerusalem. Previous attempts by the US Congress to challenge the White House on this issue had failed. That is, until Donald Trump came to power.
Prior to his inauguration in January, Trump had promised to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The announcement was welcomed by the Israeli right — from politicians to various hardline groups. While the move is yet to take place, the announcement and its defense by the new administration sent a clear message: the United States no longer offers the pretense of being bound by international law with regard to the Occupied Territories.
Not only is the United States abandoning its self-written role as a “peace broker” between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, but it is sending a clear signal to Israel that there will be no pressure on it regarding the status of Jerusalem. In response, the United Nations and its various institutions have moved quickly to reassure Palestinians. The UN cultural agency, UNESCO, has been the most active in this regard. Despite US-Israeli pressure, several resolutions have been passed by UNESCO and the UN General Assembly in recent months, which have reaffirmed Palestinian rights in the city.
But Israel and the United States moved to punish Palestinians for UNESCO’s decisions. The Israeli Knesset began to pass laws making life even more difficult for Palestinian Jerusalemites, including one that limits the Muslim call for prayer. The law, which passed its second reading in March, was championed by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israeli police also expanded the ever-growing list of Palestinians who are not allowed to reach their houses of worship, a list which included Misbah Abu Sbeih.
The next step for the Israeli government was to open the floodgates on settlement expansion in the occupied east of the city, having been somewhat limited during the presidency of Barack Obama. Netanyahu’s response to UN Resolution 2334, which demanded an immediate halt to Israeli settlement construction in Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories, was to display its impotence. His Housing Ministry announced plans to build fifteen thousand new settlement homes in east Jerusalem, this after a 70 percent increase in settlement construction in the city in the past year.
Concurrently, the new US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, took on the task of silencing any international criticism of the Israeli occupation, calling international attempts to end the occupation a form of “bullying.” Assured by the unconditional US support, Netanyahu moved to sever his country’s ties with UNESCO and called for the dismantling of the UN headquarters in Jerusalem.
East Jerusalem was illegally annexed by Israel in 1981 in a move that was never internationally recognized. Now, Israel feels that the Trump administration offers a window of opportunity to normalize its illegal occupation and annexation of the city. In recent months, Palestinians have responded by working with the international community to challenge these plans. But their efforts have failed to deter Israel.
The inevitable outcome is more violence. Thousands of Israeli soldiers and police have been brought to the city to restrict Palestinian movement and block worshipers from reaching Al-Aqsa in recent months. Hundreds of Palestinians were also detained in a massive security campaign.
In the absence of a strong leadership, Palestinians are growing increasingly desperate and angry. The Palestinian Authority, busy with its own pitiful power struggles, appears to have no plan to counteract the loss of the city, whose residents are left with little hope for politics. Many have resisted with peaceful mass campaigns to reach Al-Aqsa, or demonstrations of protest, but others are reaching the breaking point.
One of these was Misbah Abu Sbeih. When he arrived at the Israeli military police station in October, Abu Sbeih did not give himself up. Instead, he opened fire, killing an Israeli woman and an army officer before his car was sprayed with bullets, killing him in turn. Other attacks have followed. On Friday, July 14, the holiest day of the week in the Muslim calendar, three Palestinian men attacked Israeli soldiers and police officers stationed near one of the Haram’s gates. They killed two Israeli officers, and were killed by Israeli soldiers soon after.
This was the first time that an attack of this nature had been recorded inside the Al-Aqsa compound. Hundreds of Palestinians had been killed around the holy shrine, but its religious importance meant there had yet to be an Israeli killed in response. This is no longer the case.
The escalation follows a speech last June in Jerusalem by Israeli prime minister Netanyahu who, speaking to a crowd celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Israeli military occupation of the city, declared that the al-Aqsa Mosque compound would “forever remain under Israeli sovereignty.”
Empowered by the Trump administration and assured by Haley’s tactics at the United Nations, Netanyahu feels that his dream of conquering East Jerusalem is being realized. The price will be a new phase of violence — something the Israeli government is more than prepared for.
During his recent trip to Europe, Netanyahu’s message was clear: the world must accept Israel as it is, with its occupation and its settlements. Gone is any pretense at peace or the two-state solution. In its place a realpolitik future with only military dictatorship, racist laws, daily murders, and occasional slaughter.
Meanwhile Palestinians, aware that this course is all but assured under a Trump presidency, are desperate and angry. Their holy city is disappearing before their eyes, along with any prospect of a political solution. They are running out of options.