Fear and Loathing in Greater Jerusalem

(Jacob Greenwald)– When my friend calls me back I am just back from the city. I’ve just gotten in the door, and I can hear the sound of explosions coming from the towns of Silwan, across the city, and from Issawiya next door. It’s a sound that’s become ubiquitous here in Jerusalem. For the most part, it’s fireworks, though occasionally the fireworks are used to cover gunfire. The first month that I was here, every night had a beautiful fireworks show, coming from the same towns. They were complemented with police stops, the lights from the police vehicles out in the city visible up on Mount Scopus, where I live. One day, it all tapered off–but since the clashes began at al Aqsa/the Temple Mount, both are back in force.

Over the phone, I ask my friend a question about where I should have gotten hummus in the city, and then look at the window. Columns of white smoke are coming out of the precincts just outside of the Old City. I count the domes to figure out where it’s coming from. If they’re that close to the Dome of the Rock (the middle dome, between the Sepulchre and Hurva synagogue), then the smoke is almost certainly coming from Silwan. When he’s finished answering my first question, I ask him about it. My friend is the older brother that I never had, and as a politically-conscious Israeli Arab (or as he would prefer me to say “a Palestinian who incidentally holds an Israeli passport), I generally turn to him first to get up-to-the-minute analyses of what’s going on around me.

“The situation is very bad,” he intones, the pitch of his sentence changing drastically. “It’s been bad since a guy from Silwan did something very stupid. You heard about that, right?” He’s referring, pretty obliquely, to an episode in which a car drove into the Jerusalem light-rail stop which many Israeli Jews get on at; Ammunition hill. The attack left seven wounded and an two dead, an infant and an Ecuadorian woman interested in converting to Judaism. The driver was shot and killed at the scene. It’s bizarre to imagine that I would have missed it. I know he doesn’t take the light rail, but the rest of our friends do, and Ammunition hill is one of the stops that we use consistently. “Now, the police have lost control of a neighborhood.” Lost control of a neighborhood? My stomach lurches a little bit.

“Which one?”

“Silwan.” I think for a moment about how a) if there is that much smoke pouring out of the neighborhood, then the situation is pretty bad, and b) the phrase “lost control of a neighborhood” hasn’t been featured in a press report that I have read. It’s a good reminder that news coverage about this place, while there is a lot of it, is somehow consistently incapable of capturing the realities on the ground within the city. Or maybe my friend is mistaken. Who knows?

“Yeah, I did. Also, is there anything I can do when the police are hassling Arabs?” This is something that I’ve run into since I got into the city this year. The last time I lived here, I almost never saw it. Now, it’s pretty common. Police can hold people up for two hours without cause, and depending on the day or the cop in question, it can be sickening to watch.

It generally begins with the murmured phrase “jib il-‘awiyye” (or, ‘present your papers’ in Arabic), and a tap by police of the person’s back pocket. Checks of pockets and clothing. The removal of any clothing that could be used to conceal identity (i.e. Baseball caps, which plenty of Palestinians wear from working outside in punishing physical labor). The repeated calls via police radio to see if persons with the following description are wanted by police. Repeated, to the point that it seems the officers merely want the satisfaction of bringing somebody in, rather than caring if the person in question has done anything wrong. And the people who go through this? Studies in calm. They don’t complain or protest, they keep their voices level, and they comply with the demands made of them. And they always make sure to switch the conversation to Hebrew, if they can.

“No, nothing you can do,” he tells me. “If you stick around to watch, they might check your papers and start giving you trouble. There’s nothing you can do. And you know not to film anything on your phone, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. They’ll either take away my phone, break it in front of me, or if I’m at a protest, they’ll try to shoot it out of my hands, and then I’ll get hurt.”

“Yeah, so if you film anything on your phone, then make sure to stand far away.”

“Hey, I’m not a coward for not trying to get banned from here, right? Like, is there something that I could be doing?”

“No, not really. If I were in your position, I would do the same thing. Listen, you are a very nice, normal guy, which is why what is going on bothers you so much. (the line breaks up here, so I don’t catch exactly what he’s saying) But no, nothing you can do. And nothing I can do. Our situations are very different, but if do anything, they might throw me out of the university.”

We talk for a bit more, small talk, how was the weekend, that type of thing. Before we hang up, I ask him one final question.

“How close are we to an Intifada?” The other side of the line is silent. It’s a thoughtful silence, but that may not have been the most politic of questions to ask.

“Listen, for an Intifada to happen, all of the Arabs need to get mobilized. What is going on right now is only in Jerusalem. There was almost an Intifada this summer, after Abu Khdeir died. But the Hamas rocket fire stopped that. Maybe, if two or three kids, young ones, die at the same protest, that will really start things.”

“Ok, thanks for the info. I’ll see you tonight?”

“Yeah, see you then!” As the phone calls ends, and I’m back to looking at my home screen, I’m overcome by the nauseating feeling that I’m in a city that’s on the edge of an abyss, precariously perched over its depths. My first time here I was nine, and I saw the city as it was pulling itself out of another, equally deep hole. But I’ve never seen anything like this, and I fear contemplating what happens when the wrong MK says the wrong thing, or as my friend says, when a routine protest death becomes one too many. Then, this place will go tumbling down into the pit, and after that, I don’t know.