Jerusalem and Gaza: Taking Stock with Daniel Seidemann

16th January 2024

Daniel (Danny) Seidemann has lived in Jerusalem since 1973. He has been a member of the Israeli Bar Association since 1987. Since 1991, he has specialized in the geopolitics of contemporary Jerusalem, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the city.

Danny and his colleagues founded, Terrestrial Jerusalem, and are frequently consulted by senior decision-makers and governmental bodies on matters pertaining to both unfolding developments in Jerusalem and the broader issues relating to a permanent status agreement. He has also been conducting ongoing discussions on Jerusalem issues within the Arab world, and with Christian faith communities and diaspora Jewish communities. He has participated in numerous Jerusalem-related projects, colloquia and track-two deliberations.

In 2010, Queen Elizabeth II awarded him the title of honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his work in Jerusalem.

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First of all, I’d like to thank you for organising this and I followed Balfour Project from afar for quite some time.

Jerusalem is not in the headlines – and that’s good ! Eyes are riveted on Gaza, where they belong, north with Hezbollah, and the events in the West Bank. But Jerusalem is not burning; and that’s not a trivial statement. I think it surprised everybody. It certainly surprised me; that there has been relative calm in the City since the outbreak of the war ; it may not last. But I want to examine that a little bit.

Traditionally, there’s a hidden bond, an affinity, between the residents of Jerusalem, and the residents of East Jerusalem and the residents in Gaza, for all sorts of reasons. When there’s violence between Israel and Gaza, there’s a tendancy for it to spread beyond. It’s not only an issue of Gaza and Israel ; and frequently there will be protests and clashes here in Jerusalem as a result of events in Gaza.

Part of it is due to the fact that Gaza perhaps is the most devout Palestinian constituency and they’re the ones who’ll never see al-Aqsa; and that creates something special.

We can witness that in May 2021 where the war was triggered by events in Jerusalem and there were two events. One, the erosion of the status quo of al-Aqsa, which was tinkering with explosives; and it’s still happening. And the other was the prospect of large-scale displacement in Sheikh Jarrah which has been suspended in the meantime. But those two events were the immediate detonators of this conflict.

That didn’t happen this time. The situation’s not better in Jerusalem, but it didn’t happen; and the question is, why?

Well, on the first day of the war, I got reports from Palestinian colleagues that our neighbourhoods had been blocked. And I couldn’t get a straight answer from anybody so I went up and looked at things. And the Police has indeed placed concrete blocks at the entrances and exits to the Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem – they were never used. They were anticipating and it didn’t happen.

The question why ?…Don’t forget, I’m an Israeli, I base myself almost exclusively on my Palestinian colleagues and those whom I rely on. I don’t dare speak on behalf of the Palestinians. I’m an observer.

One of the first notable things, interestingly, the streets were empty, both in Jerusalem East and West. I don’t think it was necessarily fear, although there was an element of that, but people were withdrawing into themselves, into their familiar, into their own communities, people were not going to work; and that was especially the case in East Jerusalem. And to a certain extent, it remains to be the case. Almost 40,000 Palestinians from East Jerusalem, and it’s a population of 400,000, work in West Jerusalem or in Israel proper.  Initially, they stayed away from work. They were cautious and apprehensive of the workplace.  And there were tensions. It was not baseless. But that gradually has let up. What has not let up is the devastating impact of this war on the economy of East Jerusalem because so much of it is based on tourism. And there are zero tourists. And that spreads; so the situation in Jerusalem started out being challenged by way too high poverty levels. That has increased significantly.

I don’t know, perhaps some of you have experienced this, when my wife and I would be in the middle of a crisis, that had nothing to do with the kids, and were handling the crisis, it’s the kids that would shut up. This is not the time to mess with your parents. And they would move aside.

I think that’s somewhat of the case in East Jerusalem, from what I’m hearing from my friends. This is not the time for the third intifada, is the general sentiment. Again, that can change, rather quickly ; but until now, that has been the case.

What is happening in East Jerusalem ? Are there extraordinary developments ? And I would say there are a number. One, Jerusalem / East Jerusalem, de facto, is under something very reminiscent of martial law. That is not an accident. In 2021, the Commander of the Police Department said :  “I attribute a lion’s share of the outbreak of violence in this round to Itamar Ben Givr, the rabble-rouser, who was in Sheikh Jarrah, causing trouble.”

Today, Itamar Ben Givr is the Minister of Internal Security – clinical racist – and he’s the commander of the same police chief who said that of him. In general, over the last year, the Police have become more violent and less tolerant of freedom of expression. But it’s particularly the case in East Jerusalem and now there is the inspiration of the Minister and a war. So there are summary arrests, often on the street, sometimes in the middle of the night. Initially, there were people being arrested who were associated with al-Aqsa without any political affiliation, literally plucked off the streets, a very disturbing development.

You know, you have to carry an ID in Israel, everybody, and, when requested by an authority, you have to present it. In my 50 years living here, that’s happened to me three times. Every Palestinian in East Jerusalem undergoes that several times a year. It’s not uncommon. It’s one of the low-key abuses of occupation. But they’re not doing that now. They’re saying : “Give me your cell phone.” And, if the cell phone’s locked : “Open it !” And, if you don’t, it’s going to be smashed under the boot of a policeman. And they will go in and check your feeds, your WhatsApp, your Facebook, your photographs. Now, there are cases of criminal language all over the World on social media. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about taking people’s most private things and examining it. It is not legal, they need a search warrant and they don’t get a search warrant. There have been dozens of arrests on this and not one indictment. In other words, this is part of the endemic harrassment of everyday life, which is worse than it was in the past. There have been very few clashes between Palestinians, and youth or otherwise, and the Police where it does not reflect the level of tension. The level of tension is very high.

Now, I wanted to observe something, and I do it with caution, because it lends itself to caricature. But it’s something that I noticed. The Palestinian Citizens of Israel have not been protesting. I mean, there’s a great deal of consternation, concern and worry, and Ahmad Tabibi lost three of his family members in Gaza and is in mourning, but the polls indicate that the Palestinian Citizens of Israel identify more with Israeli society today than at any level in the past and there are… these  9.56[polls]. are of limited use but it’s a phenomenon, and there’s volunteer work, civil society and things of that nature. Among the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, I have to rely on friends who monitor these things and they’ve told me that the discussions, not public, internal discussions among Palestinian youth, in social media, Facebook, etc., WhatsApp, is overwhelming sympathy with Hamas. “Only Hamas was able to put us back on the table.”  Sympathy does not equal support. People have not converted their political beliefs in the direction of Hamas but clearly, the sympathy is there. Zero solidarity or identification with Israel. And the question of the events of October 7th – some of the people who are speaking are expressing distress and dissatisfaction with the violence that took place and we all know what it is but there are others who have bought into massacre denial, which I know doesn’t belong to the Palestinians of East Jerusalem but it is a phenomenon. “It never happened!” It did. We have to deal with it. It did.

Two generations ago, the Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were brothers and sisters, living together. Yet, one has moved in the direction of solidarity with Israel – by the way, this is not condoning Israeli actions, it’s a social identification – while the Palestinians, no solidarity. I think that that is a very compelling and interesting view of what occupation is. Israel’s democracy, as flawed as it it, and I know how flawed it is, and I know it’s not a democracy in the West Bank, has, in spite of all of the crises, fared pretty well.

Israeli occupation, including the occupation of East Jerusalem, is a failure.

Now, have there been any developments where the Government is taking advantage of the situation to do things that they wouldn’t do otherwise? I think not. I think there are a couple of exceptions : the crisis and takeover attempt in the Armenian Quarter, which is extremely dangerous, and extremely consequential, and warrants close monitoring and help. I think there was an attempted takeover because people were so riveted and looking elsewhere, in Gaza. But the other events have been going on as usual. Now, that may sound good, – it’s not ! Because  the first part of the year, before the war, there was unprecedented settlement development. It’s not slowing down. The day after the war, there was to be a Planning Committee meeting on a very controversial settlement, Kidmat Tzion, in the middle of Abu Dis, and the members of the Committee asked the Chairperson “Put it off, I mean, we’re reeling, we don’t want… we have loved ones, we don’t know where they are.” She said “No.” I don’t think she was told to say no but I think the zeitgeist is, when it comes to helping the settlers, it is business as usual. The settlements that are being promoted now, and they’re being promoted daily, are particularly damaging. I can single out a couple of them. One is Kidmat Tzion, which, if built, will be the largest settlement enclave in East Jerusalem and it’s being ramrodded, fast-tracked through the committees. Would not happen without directions from the political echelon.

And then, something new has happened, which I haven’t even put into writing yet; but I will shortly. The Israeli Government made a decision in 1967, we will not build Israeli neighbourhoods in the midst of Palestinian neighbourhoods. Menachem Begin opposed that. We’ve kept that policy. I know all of the exceptions. The settlement enclaves, which are not directly government – they’re proxies of government. So it’s false innocence on my part to say it’s never been done. But it was always at a distance. We now have, currently, two plans initiated directly by the Government of Israel. One is Shu’afat which is a section of Beit Safafa. I think it’s 20 – 25 stories. Perfect for a Palestinian village ! And it was approved.  We’re awaiting statutory approval. And the second one in Nof Zion which is part of Jabal Mukaber. All of this backed up by the settler organisations. This is not the grand scheme of Israel to encircle Jerusalem. This is the transformation of Jerusalem. The target of many of these things are the visual basin around the Old City which is being encircled by settlements and settlement-related activities and that does continue apace.

Final point before I open it to questions : What about an election ? Everybody’s fear was that war in Gaza would trigger flashes – at al-Aqsa, particularly volatile on Fridays, during Friday services. And that hasn’t happened. I’m not telling you it’s not going to happen. And they should know. But it hasn’t happened. And there are a number of reasons, and not all of them are good reasons. One is, there’s a closure. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, who normally would have access to Friday prayers at al-Aqsa are not allowed into the City. So the numbers have gone down. The Palestinian Citizens of Israel, in 2021, rallied around al-Aqsa. It was the flashpoint of the conflagration of this conflict. This time, the leadership, both political and religious, have told their constituencies : “Stay away !” So, on Fidays, if you ever stood on the Mount of Olives and looked towards St. Stephen’s Gate, you would see a kilometre of buses blocking the street. They were buses from the Galilee, Palestinian Citizens, and they were buses from the Negev, largely Bedouin. No buses. So, another reason the numbers are way down. Third reason the numbers are way down is that the Police are limiting access, during prayers, to people aged 45 and above. And the closure of al-Aqsa to people younger than 45 is not at the Gate of Haram al Sharif, it’s further away, in Sheikh Jarrah – Wadi al-Joz. So there are clashes but the clashes are not near al-Aqsa, but on the way to al-Aqsa and it has been pretty much contained. For reasons – I have no idea, but this is what my friends are telling me – that the sermons during Friday prayers have been very vocal. In majority, strong in condemning Israel and in protesting what is happening in Gaza. They were not incitement. And there was little tension. Now, on the Police side, it’s different. I told you that the Jerusalem Police has the trappings of a private militia, directed by Ben Givr. Not the case here. The Police is more restrained. This is not saying they’re doing great, they’re not as bad. The access to those who are allowed is fairly smooth. There’s more restraint. There’s been little or no violence or clashes with the Police. I understand one thing from this. And that is – I’m pretty convinced, although I have no verification, there’s a deal between Netanyahu and Ben Givr : “You’re staying away from al-Aqsa – too dangerous. Wherever else you want to go in Jerusalem, fine !” So, basically, you have two Polices and I believe that what is happening at al-Aqsa is a directive coming from the Prime Minister’s Office.

I want to note something else, which is very interesting : that the numbers of Jewish visitors to the Mount are also way down. Which is remarkable, because the ideological, messianic Temple Mount movements have been beating the drums; but the numbers are down. More importantly, the Police would allow the Jewish visitors to violate the status quo – you know, prayer, triumphalism, all sorts of things – they have been holding those from the Temple Mount movements who’ve been going to the Mount on a very short leash. The minute something like that happens, they’re escorted off the Mount. So all of that has created somewhat of a temporary equilibrium.

I’ll come back to that in one moment. There was one serious event – which didn’t happen, but could have happened. During December, I think it was, the last night of Hanukkah, the Temple Mount movements called for a mass march from the ’67 Border, through Damascus Gate, and ending up going through Al-Wad Street, ending up at the Western Wall, but that’s with a wink and a nod ; this is all about al-Aqsa. And the reports, which were credible, and substantiated, were that the Police had given the green light for this. That’s not policy, that’s pyromania. On Jerusalem Day, we have witnessed thousands of people of this ilk marauding through the Muslim Quarter, with impunity, shouting “Death to the Arabs”, and nobody in Israel, nobody in the Government, the Mayor’s Office, condemning it. And we were cautioning people : “This is precisely the kind of thing that can make Jerusalem detonate.” But it was going to happen. And again, I was receiving reports from the field, live, there are only about 200 to 300 people, and another 100 observers, not a big turnout, and they’re starting to march, but the Police aren’t letting them go in the direction of Damascus Gate. They’re letting them as far as New Gate and they’re not even letting them in New Gate. The organisers suggested “Okay, we’ll go through Jaffa Gate” No! The Police boxed them in. It didn’t happen. It was a non-event. And by the way, Ben Givr did not condemn the containment of this march, the prohibition of this march, even though it was his own friends and colleagues who were carrying it out and carrying it out in his spirit.

I can say two things with authority and one which is a bit of a guess. The approval of this march and the cancellation of the march by the Police, neither of these could have taken place without the knowledge and consent of Netanyahu. It is our experience that this is the least engageable government in the history of Israel. That Netanyahu listens to his extreme coalition partners far more than he does to member states in the EU, the UK or the United States, whereas in this case, he apparently responded. The conjecture is, I’ve been told that two hours before the march, President Biden had a conversation with Netanyahu. Now, if I had a suspicious mind, I would assume that it was one of the issues that was there. It can’t be built upon.

All of these things can change. It’s a tinder-box. But there’s one thing that is absolutely certain, and that is that in the beginning of March, it’s Ramadan and Ramadan will transform the conflict that exists into a very local Jerusalem issue and it will be pressure by the Temple Mount movements and Ben Givr threatening to take down the coalition. We’re watching a train wreck in slow motion and preparation for Ramadan is absolutely essential. There have to be quiet talks and a few guidelines of dos and don’ts. We know what causes violence to erupt at al-Aqsa. We know who the provocateurs are and we know that the status quo has been compromised, including during Ramadan. So we now have a few weeks to try and use friends in the international community – and, by the way, especially in the Arab world – Jordan, of course, has its historic role and can still be, and is, involved. Egypt has expressed concerns. And, in one of my discussions with people from the Gulf, one of them laughed at me and said : “Your Prime Minister doesn’t listen to you, does he !” And I say, “Yeah, my Prime Minister doesn’t listen to a word I say – but he listens to you, and this is an Arab cause, Ramadan, al-Aqsa, it is a Muslim cause, you have equity, there’s no one can say this is none of your business and I would use whatever levers of power as there may be to try and diffuse a potentially very tense situation.

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