"Israel keen to crack down on East Jerusalem"

This morning, I decided I would make a good try to buy some kaak – a delicious foot-long oval of chewy white bread (maybe it could be described as a cross between a bagel and a French baguette) completely covered with toasted sesame seeds.

The man who sells the kaak in our Twilight Zone used to sell 300 pieces a day, but by early 2008 it was down to 80, I was told by a former resident who — like the previous purchasers of the 220 other pieces of kaak — moved out to get further into town, into the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina.

For nearly a year I had wanted to get some kaak to enjoy in the morning — but either I was busy writing, or not dressed, or I didn’t hear the vendor’s call until it was too late and he had already disappeared, around the corner.

But today, I was up, dressed, and ready. I heard the call come from further down the hill, and I went outside to try to intercept the kaak-seller. But, what did I see instead? An Israeli Border Police jeep — olive green, bristling with antennas — careening up the hill, kicking up clouds of dust in its wake, not looking very peaceful.

The military jeep squealed around the corner, and screeched to a halt at the open garage door of my next-door neighbors. A soldier jumped out of the double-doors at the back of the jeep, and — covered by his comrades who stayed inside — he began shouting loudly and agressively at a man and his small son, about four or five years old, who were standing next to their car pulled into the neighbors’ open garage door, and chatting with another man.

The soldier continued shouting, even more loudly and aggressively, and then pointed his big black automatic machine gun at the man and his small son. At that moment, they obeyed his orders, and got into his car, and drove 50 meters up the road, crossing through the still-open hole in The Wall into the other side of Dahiet al-Bariid, the West Bank Side. Their car had Palestinian licence plates (green numbers on a white background).

The military jeep followed them up to the opening in The Wall, and then turned on the Israel-built access road on the Jerusalem side of The Wall, to wait, unseen from the West Bank side.

After a few minutes, the military jeep careened out of its hiding place, and returned back in the direction of where I was standing. It passed, and went further in the same direction, towards the huge Israeli administrative complex, where a number of huge red and white communications antennas (so high that they have lights on the top to warn any planes that might be flying in the area — these could be only Israeli military planes, of course, as no other planes can fly here.

The jeep came and went over the next 40 minutes, making a number of forays to intercept cars. It even crossed opening in The Wall and went into the West Bank side of Dahiet al-Bariid, to intercept a blue car that had been in our area a few minutes earlier, when the jeep was ostensibly out of sight.

I asked the neighbor, what is going on? The Israeli Border Police soldiers — who get overtime for doing their duty in our neighborhood — are telling people that it is forbidden for West Bankers to be in our area.

Isn’t there a better way to do it?

Or, is this part of the crackdown presaged by the remarks reportedly made earlier in the week by Yuval Diskin, the head of the Israeli security agency, or Shin Bet, in an article published in Haaretz under the title: “Shin Bet chief warned of copycat terrorists 3 hours before Jerusalem attack”.

In this article, Haaretz correspondent Shahar Ilan wrote that Diskin said to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense committee on Monday that: ” ‘If we do not take care of the power vacuum, Jerusalem will turn into a serious problem’, Diskin told the committee when asked about the spate of recent attacks in the capital. The Shin Bet chief called on the government to seal and destroy the terrorists’ homes in order to preserve Israel’s deterrent capability. Diskin warned that sections of Jersualem on both sides of the West Bank separation fence have become security vacuums, and that Israel is unable to properly enforce the law in these areas without deploying large numbers of forces. ‘Today, entering [the East Jerusalem area of] Shuafat requires massing a greater number of forces than it does entering Jenin’, Diskin said”… This article can be read in full in Haaretz here .

So, was this new Israeli Border Police presence in my neighborhood the beginning of a crackdown?

It seems clear that the Israeli military is preparing to close the gap in The Wall in our area. They have given no information, of course, to the residents of the neighborhood, or to anyone who might be affected.

There were rumors that it would be closed at the end of the school year, in June. This week, there are rumors that it will be closed in two weeks’ time — before the opening of the next school year.

But, nobody really knows anything …

View from the West Bank side of the gap still open in The Wall in Dahiet al-Bariid

Workers are putting double rows of razor barbed-wire on top of The Wall on both sides of the opening where the road to the West Bank passes through now. Razor barbed-wire! I haven’t seen this anywhere else on The Wall (I have passed many, many miles of The Wall, but I haven’t seen all of it).

The tension, the misery, the anxiety, the waiting for the neighbors to be immured, the non-stop stream of traffic by the house including heavy trucks carrying all sorts of heavy materials, the dust, the huge pot-holes in the road…

The neighbors say they will be happy and relieved when our opening in The Wall will finally be closed — despite the misery it is causing on the other side.

The neighbors predict that it will be very dangerous then, just on the other side, in the areas now consigned to the West Bank — with many attacks and robberies anticipated.

And, they say, they will be happy when the closure of the opening in The Wall means the dismantlement of the miserable and aggressive Israeli checkpoint down the hill (known usually as the Ar-Ram checkpoint, according to the name of the next village in the direction of Ramallah, once known as the garden of Jerusalem, which became a commercial hub in the region during the boom years of the Oslo Accords, where some some 25,000 to 30,000 Palestinian inhabitants who mostly have Jerusalem IDs now find themselves trapped).

So, I ask, if the Israeli military is going to close this gap — where literally thousands and thousands of cars, busses, and trucks pass each day — couldn’t they bother to inform the people who will be affected?

Couldn’t they put up a big sign, announcing their intention, and maybe the target date — even just an approximate date?

Couldn’t they post a couple of jeeps at the present opening in The Wall to stop West Bank cars in a reasonable and more respectable way?

Do they really have to behave like storm troopers, and point their big black automatic weapons at a father and his small son? Does this enhance Israel’s security?

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For more on this neighborhood, see Toni O’Loughlin’s article in The Guardian, It’s like living at the end of the world: “Dirty, dilapidated and desperate, al-Ram is typical of the Palestinian towns cut off by the barrier on Jerusalem’s eastern outskirts” – the photo used for illustration is of this gap in The Wall, just 50 meters from where I have been living, that I am writing about in this post.

Photo from The Guardian - by Gali Tibbon

The description of the neighborhood is good, but the implication that terror attacks come from areas like this is blatantly unfair.

The three most recent attacks have come from Palestinian villages inside Jerusalem at its southern end, it is true. But it is not clear whether any or some or all of these attacks are indeed, terror.

The article in the Guardian reports that “Sufian Odeh used to be able to see his cousin’s house across the street from his apartment window – until Israel built a wall of concrete down the middle of their neighborhood two years ago. Standing eight metres high and just 13 metres from his building, it overshadows Sufian’s second-floor apartment like the wall of a prison, darkening this once thriving Palestinian district…His neighbours fled long ago, as the West Bank barrier crept down the main street of al-Ram, dividing families, separating children from schools and patients from clinics, and severing the road back to Jerusalem. Stranded outside Jerusalem by the barrier, al-Ram has become a virtual ghost town. Palestinian customers who came to Al-Ram from Jerusalem’s centre in search of cheaper prices have disappeared, as have one-third of its 1,800 businesses. Vast numbers of its 62,000 residents, unable to sell their homes, have gone. The abandoned shops, with their ‘for sale’ signs, deserted streets and overgrown gardens are typical of the Palestinian towns cut off by the barrier on Jerusalem’s eastern outskirts. Fearing permanent exile, many have moved back to Jerusalem. Israel conquered east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza, in the Six Day war of 1967. Claiming to unify the city, which was divided at the 1948 birth of the Jewish state, Israel expanded Jerusalem’s limits, tripling the territory inside the municipality …

“From his kitchen, Sufian, can see the last gap in the barrier, through which he travels each day to work near Tel Aviv. It already takes him hours to pass the local checkpoint, and he fears things are about to get much worse: Israel needs only to insert two more concrete blocks to seal the gap and shut al-Ram out for good. When that happens, he will be forced to travel several miles to a new checkpoint, where thousands will queue each day. He is on the verge of joining the exodus to the other side of the wall … ‘Whenever I see the wall, I can’t control this ugly feeling inside me. It’s hatred and anger’, says Sufian”. The full article in The Guardian can be read here .

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This brings me to the article in today’s Haaretz, “Israel Keen to Crack Down in East Jerusalem”, written by Amos Harel. He writes: “Responding to the sharp rise in terrorist attacks in the capital, carried out by Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, Israeli authorities are keen to expedite procedures that would authorize the resumption of punitive measures, such as the razing of terrorists’ homes … Since the start of the year there have been five major attacks in Jerusalem, claiming the lives of 12 Israelis. During the first half of the year, the Shin Bet security service arrested 71 Palestinians from East Jerusalem suspected of being involved in attacks, compared to 37 such arrests during the entire year of 2007. In the first seven years of the second intifada (which began in September 2000), some 270 East Jerusalem residents were arrested for similar suspicions. The same security sources said that the last three attacks in West Jerusalem (at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva and the two bulldozer attacks) constitute a new challenge for Israel, and stressed that at present there is no means to counter them. The combination of a lone terrorist, who decides to attack without having an organizational structure behind him, and the freedom of movement an Israeli identity card guarantees East Jerusalem Arabs, constitutes a weak point in Israel’s defenses, making it difficult to prevent similar attacks in the future. The security sources further said that in the near future, efforts will be made to accelerate those administrative processes that will result in the razing of the homes of the two bulldozer terrorists from East Jerusalem … If the order is approved and survives the Supreme Court appeal of the terrorists’ families, the homes of the two bulldozer terrorists will also be razed. A security source claimed last night that one of the reasons for the delay in destroying the homes is that the Shin Bet has yet to officially rule that the attacks were terror-related. However, the Shin Bet has refuted this claim, calling it ‘baseless’. In recent talks among security officials, additional steps for deterring East Jerusalem terrorists were discussed. Past ideas were revived, including that of expelling the families of terrorists involved in serious attacks inside the city, and revoking the Israeli identity cards of their immediate relatives. Such measures would require legislative changes, and legal experts expressed doubts whether such proposals would be approved by the Supreme Court. Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin is in favor of resuming the policy. Speaking at the Knesset prior to Tuesday’s attack, he said that Israel faces a ‘problem of deterrence’ in East Jerusalem because it lacks any effective punitive tool, like razing homes. This article can be read in full in Haaretz here .

A day before, Amos Harel wrote in Haaretz that “In the terrorist’s village, Umm Touba, they were vociferous Tuesday that the whole incident was an accident: the bulldozer driver lost control over the breaks and was shot only because of the lessons of the previous bulldozer attack. This is a common Palestinian argument in attacks involving vehicles, unlike suicide bombings or shooting attacks where the intent cannot be hidden. Moreover, the family members of the terrorist are keen not to lose any of their rights, which they could if their relative is described as a terrorist. One the other hand, it is impossible not to remember the story of the Israeli truck driver who killed four Palestinian workers in the Gaza Strip in December 1987. That accident sparked the first intifada, but the Palestinians are convinced to this day that it was an intentional act”. This article can be read in full in Haaretz here .