EAST JERUSALEM –Two months after US President Donald Trump announced his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem are expressing renewed fears of a changing status quo in the city.
Earlier this month, Israel completed construction of a permanent watchtower checkpoint at the entrance of Damascus Gate, the main entrance to the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.
The checkpoint is the first of three of its kind set to be erected in the area, which was the site of several attacks during a wave of unrest that began in October 2015, which was largely characterized by small-scale stabbing attacks against armed Israeli forces.
A number of Palestinians were also shot and killed in the area by Israeli forces in alleged attempted attacks.
While Israeli media and authorities have lauded the checkpoints as deterrents of “lone wolf attacks” — which the current right-wing Israeli government has attributed to “online incitement” — the more than 300,000 Palestinian residents of the area vehemently dispute the Israeli narrative.
Palestinians have attributed the unrest to frustration brought upon by decades of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and its treatment of Palestinians in Jerusalem as second-class citizens.
Nevertheless, Israel has moved forward with its new security strategy in East Jerusalem, prompting residents to brace for an escalation of unwarranted stops and searches, arrests, and mistreatment at the hands of Israeli forces.
“It’s not just Jerusalemites who enter through Damascus Gate, but everyone who visits Jerusalem from the West Bank and 1948 Palestine, Hanadi Halwani, 38, a resident of East Jerusalem, told Mondoweiss.
“This checkpoint will greatly reduce the number of people that come here,” she said, adding that the watchtower was “threatening” and created “an atmosphere of fear” amid the backdrop of what she called all the “field executions” carried out against Israeli forces against Palestinians in the area.
According to Ma’an News Agency, between Oct. 1, 2015, and Sept. 30, 2016, 236 Palestinians were killed by Israelis, while 34 Israelis were killed in the same time period.
Of the 236 Palestinians killed, 36 were killed in Jerusalem — 19 of whom were killed in the Old City.
For many Palestinians like Halwani, the constant presence of armed Israeli soldiers in front of Damascus Gate is a daily reminder of the violence that has taken place in the area.
Nasser Isa, 49, also a resident of East Jerusalem, told Mondoweiss that the construction of the watchtower is a clear step towards Israel establishing full control of the city.
“This tower reveals the occupation’s security strategy for the city and the people who live here, and how they don’t believe in the freedom of expression, the freedom of movement, and the freedom of worship,” he told Mondoweiss.
For Isa, Israel’s militarization of areas such as Damascus Gate is part of its ongoing policies that aim to drive out the local Palestinian population and further what groups have called the Judaization of Jerusalem.
“They have no claim to the city demographically, culturally, or historically, because the Palestinians who live here have protected these things So, they are now trying to militarize the area,” he said.
Extensive research from rights groups such as Israeli NGO B’Tselem have detailed Israel’s attempts to shape the demographic reality of East Jerusalem.
Since Israel’s annexation of the territory in 1967, and its subsequent military occupation of it, Israel has expropriated huge swaths of Palestinian-owned land for the construction of Jewish-only settlements, severely restricted Palestinian construction through the denial of permits and declaration of national parks, and demolished hundreds of Palestinian homes under the pretext of being built without Israeli licenses.
“Israeli policy in East Jerusalem is geared toward pressuring Palestinians to leave, thereby shaping a geographical and demographic reality that would thwart any future attempt to challenge Israeli sovereignty there,” B’Tselem said in a 2017 report.
“Palestinians who do leave East Jerusalem, due to this policy or for other reasons, risk losing their permanent residency and the attendant social benefits. Since 1967, Israel has revoked the permanent residency of some 14,500 Palestinians from East Jerusalem under such circumstances,” the group added.
Despite decades of policies aimed at pushing out the Palestinian population, many locals like Dr. Kareem Amr, 60, say they have resisted Israel’s push for years, and will continue to do so.
“The occupation has many ways of attacking Palestinians and making life hard for us. These watchtowers are just one of the ways they do that,” he said, highlighting the extensive network of surveillance cameras, military watchtowers, and Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“The thousands of watchtowers and checkpoints across Palestine are not for security, as Israel says. They are meant to strangle the people and all aspects of our lives — from our economy and education, to our worship and freedom of movement.”
Referencing Israel’s previous attempts to install metal detectors inside the Al-Aqsa compound — which was met with a widespread civil disobedience campaign among Jerusalemites — Amr told Mondoweiss that the new watchtower was just another face of the same coin.
“They took the metal detectors out of Al-Aqsa to appease people, but now this is something bigger, because they are not just controlling the mosque, but all of the Old City,” he said.
“Through these cameras and checkpoints, Israel thinks they can take the love of Jerusalem out of the hearts of the Palestinian people, but this is impossible.”
Video by Akram al-Wa’ra & Saleh Zghari