This week, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro became the second prominent rightwing world leader to step up his support for Jerusalem being Israel’s capital, thus joining President Donald Trump in showering Benjamin Netanyahu with diplomatic gifts in the run-up to Israel’s April 9 election.
Inside Jerusalem itself, the Israeli government’s push to encircle, suffocate, and expel the city’s 320,000 Palestinians has greatly intensified in the months since the U.S. Embassy moved there. What these Palestinians now face can be seen as the Fourth Wave of a decades-long Zionist assault on their presence and institutions in the holy city.
The First Wave occurred back in 1948. The UN’s 1947 Partition Plan decreed that Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and a broad swathe of land around them should be made an “international city,” separate from the Palestinian Arab and Jewish statelets around it. That never happened. Jewish/Israeli fighters took over West Jerusalem and the Jordanian Army took over East Jerusalem (including the historic, walled Old City), along with the rest of the West Bank.
West Jerusalem, where many upper and middle-class Palestinians had lived in gracious, beautiful homes, was thoroughly ethnically cleansed by the Israelis. Most of those expelled ended up living, many in deep poverty, in the east of the city. The Jordanians meanwhile expelled a much smaller number of Jewish residents from East Jerusalem but allowed the Hebrew University to retain its campus there.
Jordan’s British-backed monarchs never allowed self-rule for the Palestinians of East Jerusalem or the rest of the West Bank. They simply annexed it all to their own “East Bank” land, exerting their dictatorial rule over East Bankers and West Bankers alike.
The Second Wave of Zionism’s assault on Palestinian Jerusalem started in 1967. In the short Arab-Israeli war of that year, the Israeli military captured East Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan, and Sinai. The first steps it took to transform and Judaize any of the newly occupied areas were those it took in East Jerusalem.
Shortly after the war’s end, the Israeli government annexed East Jerusalem–within city boundaries that it greatly increased. It created a whole new legal category for the Palestinians of East Jerusalem: that of “permanent residents” of the city, but without any defined nationality. (The “permanent” part of that status is always deeply in question. )
Israel also speedily reclaimed control of the ancient Jewish Quarter of the Old City while it destroyed the ancient Moghrabieh (Moroccan) Quarter—to make space for the broad plaza in front of the Western Wall. And it built a string of large new Jews-only settlements within the new city boundaries.
For the first 27 years after 1967, the Israeli overlords of Jerusalem treated the East Jerusalem Palestinians in much the same way their military counterparts in the rest of the West Bank, or Gaza, treated the Palestinians there. They seized, exploited, or transformed Palestinian private and public lands as they wished. They undertook wide arrest campaigns and tortured many arrestees. They shamelessly ripped off the economies of these captive markets and tightly censored Palestinian media.
After 1967, the Israelis built scores of settlements across the whole of the West Bank– but especially in East Jerusalem. In a small portion of these cases, they claimed that the arriving settlers (or their forebears) had owned those properties before 1948. But not a single Palestinian in Jerusalem or elsewhere was allowed, reciprocally, to reclaim properties that they had been expelled from that year.
But still, during the years 1967-94, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza could travel fairly easily travel across the whole of the area now under Israel’s control.
In December 1987, after the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza had lived under occupation for 20 years, they launched the lengthy campaign of active civil resistance called the First Intifada. Its planning headquarters was in East Jerusalem. Emissaries of the political and civil-society groups running the intifada would gather there from throughout the West Bank and Gaza to coordinate plans and issue their monthly action calls.
When I was researching the First Intifada, I found it easy to drive from Jerusalem to almost anywhere in the West Bank—though there were sometimes Israeli “flying checkpoints” to avoid—or even down to Gaza. Near Gaza, we’d park the car in a chicken coop near Nahal Oz and simply walk the last few yards into the Strip.
The Third Wave of the Zionist assault on Jerusalem started in 1993-94, after the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s conclusion of the Oslo Accords with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Oslo “gave” the PLO some things its leaders valued. Many of them were allowed to “return” to Gaza and the West Bank to run the “Palestinian Interim Self-Governing Authority” (PA) born from the accords. The PA was allowed to set up– under strict Israeli supervision– its own education, health, justice, and policing systems within the land blobs of “Areas A and B”. They were promised that negotiations on a final-status agreement would be completed within five years.
But at Oslo, the PLO leaders gave up a lot. They received no guarantees about either the timing of the final-status peace, or its content. They agreed that the newborn PA would act under Israel’s supervision for as long as the interim status lasted. (Now 25 years and counting.) They gave up on insisting on a halt to settlements—indeed, they said the Israeli government could build new roads to tie the settlements even more closely to each other and the Israeli heartland. And they effectively gave up on the PLO’s longstanding demands on both the return of refugees and Jerusalem.
The fallout in Jerusalem was rapid. Rabin was adamant that the PA should exercise zero authority in East Jerusalem. When the PLO’s leaders “returned” to the West Bank after decades of exile elsewhere, he refused to allow them even to enter Jerusalem, insisting they set up their PA in the small town of Ramallah, instead.
Rabin’s government rapidly set up a ring of semi-permanent checkpoints all around East Jerusalem, that for the first time ever cut it off completely from its West Bank hinterland. (People in cars with distinctive Israeli yellow plates could go through these checkpoints easily. Those with West Bank plates, never.
Since 1995, these checkpoints have been progressively hardened and from 2002 on they were connected by Israel’s odious and illegal wall–which when it slices through the heavily populated Palestinian areas around Jerusalem is three times as high as the former Berlin Wall…
In 1995, I made a lengthy reporting trip to Jerusalem. Some of my most poignant moments were spent interviewing people in the Old City, or some of the numerous East Jerusalemites who were refugees from West Jerusalem—or Faisal Husseini, the much-respected Palestinian leader who was holed up in the research center he ran in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, as Jewish extremists camped outside it, harassing everyone entering or leaving.
Husseini always looked exhausted. Along with the other leaders who had suffered during the First Intifada, he had insisted throughout those years that only the PLO could represent the Palestinians. But then, when it did so at Oslo, he realized the PLO’s leaders had no understanding of the situation in the occupied territories and had gotten the Palestinians a terrible deal. Especially regarding Jerusalem. He felt badly betrayed by Yasser Arafat, though he tried hard to hide that.
In 2001, Husseini was found dead in a hotel room in Kuwait in a possible Mossad assassination. Since then, Jerusalem’s Palestinians have not had any leader of his authority—but their quiet, determined resistance to Israel’s assaults has continued. Most notably, in summer 2017, a series of mass Muslim “pray-in’s” in the Old City forced Israel to end a plan to erect metal-detectors at entrances to the sacred Haram al-Sharif.
Last summer, Trump’s moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem opened the floodgates for the Fourth Wave of Israel’s assaults on the city’s Palestinians. On the ground, this Fourth Wave will likely see greater government support for projects to extend the extremist settlers’ matrix of control over all parts of the Old City. It will see city and central government planners working to complete and connect a tight “noose” of Jews-only settlements and Zionized tourist attractions around the Old City, including in Sheikh Jarrah, at-Tur, and Silwan… along with continued construction in outer-Jerusalem settlements like Giv’at Ze’ev, Ma’ale Adumim, or Gilo.
Meantime, there are new moves toward stripping the “permanent resident” status from many Jerusalem Palestinians, including the 55,000 who live outside the Wall but inside the municipal boundary (which Israel could anyway redraw.)
The PA’s sclerotic leadership in Ramallah is unable, probably unwilling, to do anything to save what remains of Palestinian Jerusalem. The UN is hog-tied by Washington’s veto. Jordan may be able to play a key role, since it retains some responsibility for Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian holy sites—and its national population also has a majority of heritage Palestinians. But global civil society, especially in the countries most supportive of Israel, needs to step up.
Otherwise, this current Fourth Wave of Zionism’s assault on Palestinian Jerusalem could be the one that destroys it for generations to come.