What’s Behind the Unrest in Jerusalem?

Don't blame recent bloodshed in Jerusalem on religion. The incitement is Israeli policy.

Abu Dis checkpoint, East Jerusalem. Kashfi Halford / Flickr

Nobody should be surprised that Jerusalem is once again a site of conflict. Clashes in the city have reignited following this summer’s murders of three Jewish yeshiva students and a Palestinian teen and the subsequent Gaza war in which Israel killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, most of whom were civilians.

In the fall, Israel restricted Palestinians’ right to worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and there has been a series of attacks and counter-attacks in Jerusalem including the hanging death of bus driver Yusuf Hasan al-Ramuni and the murder of four Israeli civilians and an Israeli police officer in a synagogue. But media coverage of fighting in the city since October has failed to situate it in its larger context. What these accounts completely avoid is the deep structural crisis that makes peace in Palestine so elusive.

One popular explanation for the bloodshed is that Israelis and Palestinians are battling each other in some type of religious war. For example, the Los Angeles Times argues that the fate of the site regarded by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary is “now driving the conflict,” a view that overstates the centrality of religion to the Israel-Palestine struggle and ignores many other important factors.

Another explanation, put forth by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, focuses on attacks by Palestinians and blames Palestinian leaders. According to Kerry, the synagogue killings were “a pure result of incitement” by groups like Hamas and Fatah.

The ideological motives behind both analyses aren’t hard to figure out. But the recent bloodshed in Jerusalem can only be understood by situating it in the wider system of Israeli settler capitalism, which has led to dispossession and oppression for generations of Jerusalem’s Palestinians.

Ethnic Cleansing and Settlement

Israel has been ethnically cleansing Palestinians from Jerusalem for more than sixty-six years. As Stanford historian Joel Beinin writes, “no Israeli court has recognized the property rights of any of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have resided in East Jerusalem and the West Bank since becoming refugees in 1948 and who owned land and buildings subsequently included in the territory of the state of Israel.” Since Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, it has forced out sixty thousand Palestinians and illegally settled two hundred thousand Jewish people in that part of the city.

Andrew Clarno, a sociologist at the University of Illinois, points out that in the 1970s, Israel started building an “inner ring” of settlements within East Jerusalem, which cut Jerusalem off from the West Bank and encircled Palestinian neighborhoods.

Afterwards, settlements were constructed on the high and low points in and around East Jerusalem to preempt the expansion of Palestinian neighborhoods and to settle Jewish people in Palestinian areas. These were early steps toward consigning Palestinian Jerusalemites to territories similar to the reserves in which many indigenous people live in Canada and the United States.

Salim Tamari, a professor at Georgetown University, notes that in 1970 Israel began creating a “Greater Jerusalem” by “redrawing the boundaries of the city to include Jewish-only settlements” and by restricting the natural growth of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

In 1973, the Israeli state legally mandated a 73-26 demographic advantage for Jewish people in Jerusalem. Since 1967 the government of Israel has expropriated almost 35 percent of East Jerusalem from Palestinians in order to build new Jewish neighborhoods, including the construction of fifty-one thousand Jewish residencies, most of which have been state housing. Clarno adds that as of 2006, “Due to land confiscations and zoning regulations,” just 10 percent of the land in East Jerusalem remains for Palestinian use.

This has to be understood as a specifically capitalist conquest. Whatever the Biblical echoes of the land in Jerusalem, it is not taken over merely out of religious or tribal zeal. Land is expropriated here and by other settler-colonial enterprises largely because it is valuable. This is a classic case of primitive accumulation, a process in which capital addresses its unending need for new markets to exploit by forcefully taking and privatizing resources.

Much of the Palestinian housing construction that does take place in East Jerusalem violates Israeli law. It is prohibitively difficult for an Arab to get a building permit because they are very expensive and because they are not granted in areas with infrastructure shortages, which is an Israeli-created problem in many Arab neighborhoods. Because these Palestinian homes are deemed illegal, Israel has a pretext to demolish them.

Israel’s apartheid wall is a further tool of ethnically cleansing Jerusalem. By the time of its completion, Francesco Chiodelli of the Polytechnic University of Milan writes, “the wall will exclude several Arab neighborhoods from Jerusalem. This is the case of Samiramis, Kafr Aqab, Shu’fat refugee camp, Ras Khamis, Dahiyat As Salam, and Al Walaja. These neighborhoods are inhabited by almost 55,000 Arab Jerusalemites.”

The Kafr Aqab and Shu’fat refugee camps, Clarno points out, are “two of the most densely populated Palestinian Jerusalem neighborhoods.” A central function of the wall, therefore, is to enshrine a demographic advantage for Jewish Israelis.

On display here is a reservation-style settler capitalism wherein those members of the indigenous population who cannot be driven out are squeezed into the smallest possible space, a process similar to that which has been taking place in the Gaza Strip since Israel removed its setters from there.

Differential legal rights also minimize the presence of Arabs in Jerusalem. Tamari describes how Palestinian Jerusalemites are given blue ID cards, providing them “residency rights but not citizenship rights. Their status was suspended in limbo. Palestinians in the outer periphery, outside the greater Jerusalem area were given green IDs, which blocked them from entry to the city.”

Clarno adds that, because the Israeli state classifies East Jerusalem as part of the country, residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip require a permit from the military authorities to enter the city that had been the center of Palestinian life, including their economic life.

Yet Palestinian birth rates have driven the Arab population of Jerusalem city to almost 40 percent, so the state and the municipality pressures Palestinians to leave the city. Clarno writes:

Revanchist efforts to quietly transfer Palestinians out of Jerusalem have been standard for over thirty years. These efforts have intensified since the early-1990s, when Israel began aggressively confiscating the Jerusalem identity cards of Palestinians who could not prove that Jerusalem was the ‘center of their life.’ Unless Palestinian Jerusalemites could provide evidence that they both lived and worked in Jerusalem, the Ministry of the Interior confiscated their Jerusalem residency documents and forced them to relocate to other parts of the West Bank.

Thus much of the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem has in recent years played out through legalistic means such as the shifting of municipal boundaries, the withholding of building permits unless Palestinian Jerusalemites meet conditions that they are structurally prevented from meeting, and bureaucratic rationalizations for population transfers so that Israeli capital can scoop up property and the Israel state can work toward its overarching goal in historic Palestine: the most land possible for Israel, with the fewest Arabs.

More vulgar methods of ethnic cleansing might be less palatable for Western liberals, but the United States’ decisive support of Israel can continue without significant disruption from progressives as long as the plodding, systemic capitalist colonization of Jerusalem resembles its contemporary parallels in the West, namely gentrification and the continuing erosion of indigenous sovereignty.

Poverty and Inequality

Israeli control of East Jerusalem has also been characterized by Palestinian residents of the city living in vastly worse socioeconomic conditions than their Jewish counterparts. Entire Palestinian neighborhoods are unconnected to a sewage system and lack paved roads or sidewalks; West Jerusalem has 1,000 public parks, East Jerusalem has 45; West Jerusalem has 34 swimming pools, East Jerusalem has 3; West Jerusalem has 26 libraries, East Jerusalem has 2; West Jerusalem has 531 sports facilities, East Jerusalem has 33.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) describes the “deep disparities” in how education is provided to Jewish and Palestinian residents, as well as the “discrimination in the distribution of professional personnel positions” and shortage of 2,200 classrooms in mostly Palestinian East Jerusalem. The group points out that “75.3% of East Jerusalem residents, and 82.2% of East Jerusalem children, live below the poverty line.”

As Tamari writes, Israel’s policy toward the city has “condemned Palestinians in Jerusalem to fend for themselves on issues of daily survival,” and the result has been “the ghettoization of Jerusalem.”

Settler-capitalism involves systematically de-developing the indigenous population and preventing them from even beginning to create anything resembling an infrastructure on which to base independent economic production. Colonialism works by creating material conditions that in every way undermine the capacity of indigenous peoples to survive, let alone thrive, pushing them into conditions of exile, despair, or compliance.

Palestinian Militancy in Jerusalem

The ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem, and the subjecting of Palestinians to poverty and inequality has, of course, involved repressing them, often violently. Clarno writes:

Independent Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem — such as the Orient House — faced repeated threats of closure during the 1990s and were finally shut down by the state in 2001. Israeli police and border guards maintain a heavy presence in East Jerusalem — especially in and around the Old City — where they constantly detain Palestinians and demand to see their ID cards and permits. These detentions regularly involve assault and brutality by the police. And Jewish settlers have become increasingly aggressive over the last 15 years — violently appropriating property and establishing settlements in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods.

These are aspects of what Harvard University’s Sara Roy calls Israel’s deinstitutionalization of Palestinian society, a colonial process that inhibits the capacity of the indigenous population to function independently and facilitates smoother control by the colonizer than would otherwise be possible.

Moreover, Benin writes that Israeli “police harassment of the evicted [Palestinian] families, restrictions on peaceable assembly and the arrest and abuse of demonstrators are all aspects of Israel’s escalating efforts to repress non-violent, popular resistance to the settlement project in the occupied West Bank, which is nowhere more aggressive than in East Jerusalem.”

The clear message of these forms of state terror is that no challenge to Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, or expansion in it, will be tolerated.

Israel’s Jerusalem policies constrain the modes of resistance available to Palestinians. Clarno argues that the increasing poverty and inequality that Palestinian Jerusalemites face “generate(s) resistance — some of which has taken the form of suicide bombs. More suicide attacks have targeted Jerusalem than any other Israeli city.”

Beinin points out that the villages of Bil‘in and Budrus, which are along the wall in the West Bank, are world-renowned “centers of non-violent resistance to occupation involving Palestinians, Israelis and internationals alike. But it has been more difficult to sustain resistance and establish coordination among Arab residents of East Jerusalem neighborhoods than in villages of the West Bank. . . . And the economic dependence of the city on tourism undermines any kind of broad-based militancy.”

Tamari, similarly, points out that “in the period since the Oslo Agreement a regime of physical segregation of the city from its Palestinian hinterland in the West Bank was consolidated,” which consequently made “civil resistance (in the manner of the first intifada) impossible for the vast majority of Palestinians living in urban and rural enclaves of the West Bank. Paradoxically, since for Israel it was meant to be a security measure, it paved the way for increased militarization of Palestinian politics, as well as the use of rockets and suicide operations.”

In these ways Israel, as is typical of colonial reservation policies, has destroyed Palestinian social formations and their capacity to defend these.

Since 2000, Palestinians also lack political groups in Jerusalem, as Israel has expelled the Palestinian Authority and jailed or deported Hamas leaders. The severing of Palestinians in Jerusalem from their kin in other parts of historic Palestine and from their political groups has therefore hindered their capacity for mass-based, coordinated resistance and helps explain why the violent actions carried out by Palestinians in October and November appear to have been “lone wolf” operations.


Palestinian Jerusalemites have for many years endured material deprivation and violence. Clarno explains that life for Palestinian Jerusalemites is becoming increasingly precarious as they face “a collapsing economy, increasing taxes, decreasing benefits, serious overcrowding, rising poverty, and the constant threat of home demolitions, police brutality, and attacks by Jewish settlers.” Ultimately, Clarno argues, “the Israeli government is betting that most Palestinians will find life impossible and will transfer themselves out of the city.”

That these are the characteristics of daily life suggests that it is a mistake to say that the violence in Jerusalem is primarily religious in nature. Nor does any of the scholarship or reportage from rights groups discussed here identify theological matters as an overriding concern of Palestinians in Jerusalem.

I certainly do not mean to imply that religion plays an insignificant role in the lives of Palestinians or Israelis. Nor am I denying that restrictions being placed on Palestinian worship at the al-Aqsa mosque is a factor provoking Palestinian unrest. But as Tamari says, tensions over the use of religious sites can only be resolved by addressing the inequality and colonial subjugation in which the city’s conflict is rooted.

Given the conditions of Palestinians in the city, it is absurd to say that Palestinian leaders have incited the violence that has occurred in Jerusalem these past weeks. The incitement is Israeli policy. And the only way in which those of us living in states that underwrite Israeli colonization and apartheid can contribute to a solution is by struggling to end the support of the United States and its allies for Israel.