Israeli security measures turn East Jerusalem into virtual prison

The draconian new crackdown came as Israeli police shot dead two more Palestinians.

An Israeli policeman checks a Palestinian man at Damascus Gate of the Old City in East Jerusalem on October 13, 2015. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP Photo
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JERUSALEM // Occupied East Jerusalem was in virtual lockdown on Wednesday as Israel set up checkpoints, deployed 300 troops and authorised security forces to seal off streets and demolish Palestinian homes.

The draconian new security crackdown came as Israeli police shot dead two more Palestinians. Bassel Sadr, 20, from the West Bank city of Hebron, was killed at an entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City. Police claimed he had tried to stab a security guard, but admitted the guard had not been harmed.

Later in the day, an unidentified Palestinian was shot dead by police near Jerusalem’s central bus station. He was alleged to have stabbed and moderately injured a woman.

Thirty Palestinians and seven Israelis have been killed in two weeks of violence. Most of the Palestinians killed have been protesters or civilians shot by Israeli security forces.

Palestinian officials and human rights groups condemned the new security measures, the most serious clampdown in the Jerusalem area since a Palestinian uprising a decade ago, as collective punishment.

They were agreed at a meeting of Israel’s security cabinet on Tuesday night, when prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also ordered the residency rights of Palestinians accused of attacks to be revoked, and authorised the demolition of more homes of people accused of carrying out attacks.

The Israeli cabinet also approved an expansion of the national police, extra guards on public transport and the deployment of army units in “sensitive areas” along the steel and concrete barrier that divides the West Bank.

Dimitrii Delliani, an official in Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, said closing entrances to Palestinian neighbourhoods was “collective punishment in violation of all international law”.

The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem called the government’s response “the very inverse of what ought to be done” to stop the violence.

“The events of recent weeks cannot be viewed in a vacuum, isolated from the reality of the ongoing, daily oppression of four million people, with no hope of change in sight,” the group said.

An Israeli police spokeswoman said checkpoints were being set up at “the exits of Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem”.

Israeli security specialists said the threatened closures were unworkable: it was impossible to fully cut off Arab areas and risked further fuelling tension.

In a city of more than 800,000 people – about 65 per cent Jewish and 35 per cent Palestinian – sealing off the Arab areas is not only a logistical challenge but economically problematic. A large number of Palestinians work in the west as bus drivers and in bakeries, hotels, shops and petrol stations.

In all, the virtual border runs for about 12 kilometres, from the district of Beit Hanina in the north, around the edges of the walled Old City, and down to Jabel Mukabar and Sur Baher in the south.

“I don’t think the Israeli government would be stupid enough to do it,” said Mustafa, 47, a father of five who lives in Abu Tor, a mixed neighbourhood on the dividing line. “It’s like shooting yourself in the leg – it would kill the economy.”

He shook his head, hoping the violence would pass and the closures would not be fully imposed. “They tried it in the first intifada, but it only made things worse,” he said. “Not again.”

Human Rights Watch said the lockdown was “a recipe for harassment and abuse”.

“Locking down East Jerusalem neighbourhoods will infringe upon the freedom of movement of all Palestinian residents,” it said.

Hamas spokesman Hussam Badrawn said the measures “will not stop the intifada. People of resistance do not fear new security restrictions.”

The hilly backstreets that twist around the illegally annexed eastern half of the city were quieter than normal yesterday, as were the streets on the western, Jewish side.

Israeli paramilitary border police used their vehicles to block an exit at the edge of Jebel Mukabar, an East Jerusalem neighbourhood and home to three Palestinians shot dead on Tuesday.

Police carried out body searches and examined the identity papers of Palestinian motorists. Cars were then allowed to leave.

“You can’t shut this street down. I have Jewish and Arab customers,” said Ammar, who helps run a falafel and kibbeh restaurant on Abu Rabi’a street in Jabel Mukabar, six metres from Meir Nakar street in the Jewish district of Talpiyot Mizrah.

Across the road, on a raised plateau protected by a fence, stood two Israeli policemen, one an Arab Christian, the other a Druze, watching closely from the shade of an umbrella. Two stun grenades hung from the awning.

“It’s quiet for now,” said one, wearing a stab vest and carrying a riot helmet. “But you never know.”

The causes of the increased turmoil are many, but Palestinians are angry about increased Jewish encroachment on Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City.

There is also deep-seated frustration with the failure of years of peace efforts to deliver an end to Israeli occupation, with the Palestinians no closer to statehood and no end to Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state, together with Gaza and the West Bank. Israel sees all of Jerusalem as its undivided capital.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said he would travel to the region to try to ease tensions “and see if we can’t move away from this precipice”.

* Agencies