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Arab Israel Conflict
Jerusalem’s mayor defends crackdown
From the Financial Times of Tue, 04 Nov 2014 17:27:58 GMT
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat during an interview at his office in Jerusalem Tuesday Nov 04 2014. Photo By Eyal Warshavsky©Eyal Warshavsky

Most Palestinians do not want to be part of a Palestinian state, according to the mayor of Jerusalem, who also denied that protests by rock-throwing youths in recent weeks constitute an uprising against Israeli rule.

“The Arab residents of Jerusalem know what side of the bread the butter is spread on,” said Nir Barkat in an interview with the Financial Times. “They know where they want to be in future (eg part of Israel).”

His assertion that “the majority of Palestinians don’t want to be part of the Palestinian state” was challenged by Palestinian officials.

Mr Barkat, a millionaire former software entrepreneur and venture capitalist, has cracked down hard over the past week on rioting in the city’s Arab east, deploying more than 1,000 police from other Israeli cities, floating surveillance balloons above the city and more vigorously enforcing action against petty crimes such as parking offences and building code violations.

He insisted that a four-month-old wave of unrest in East Jerusalem was now over and defended the crackdown. “There is no doubt in my mind that by doing so we are starting to return law and order to neighbourhoods where problems occurred,” he said. “Everyone is clear that we will not be tolerant with violence any more.”

Tensions between Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites boiled over in early July, when the burnt body of a Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir was found after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed on the West Bank, sparking a wave of night-time riots in the east in which Arab youths hurled rocks and petrol bombs at police and the city’s light railway. In recent weeks, more than 800 Palestinians – many of them minors – have been arrested and Arabs have been further angered by Jewish settlers moving to the inner East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan.

Palestinians have also clashed violently with police at the Haram al-Sharif, the Muslim holy site of the al-Aqsa mosque – known to Jews as Temple Mount – where rightwing Israeli politicians want to overturn a status quo prohibiting Jewish worship, imposed after Israel conquered Jerusalem’s Old City in 1967. Last week Yehudah Glick, a far-right rabbi who wants the destroyed Jewish temple to be rebuilt at al-Aqsa, was shot and wounded, and Israeli police shot and killed Muatnaz Hijazi, his assailant.

Mr Barkat made a controversial visit to al-Aqsa on October 28, before the shooting, wearing a yarmulke, or Jewish skullcap. He was sharply criticised by the Islamic Waqf, the Jordanian religious trust that administers the site, which condemned what it called the “storming” of the mosque by an Israeli civilian official.

The mayor defended his decision to go to the site at a time when Israeli-Palestinian tensions in the city are at breaking point.

“I walked there with a yarmulke, with respect to the holy mount,” Mr Barkat said, defending his visit. “I was shouted at, ‘Allahu akbar’ for wearing a yarmulke.”

Mr Barkat said that he supported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that he favours keeping the status quo, but the mayor rejected the Waqf’s remarks about his visit.

“I don’t accept the criticism as a Jew, as a mayor,” he said. “It’s part of the status quo, and I don’t accept the criticism.”

During the weeks of recent unrest, Mr Barkat has scolded journalists and officials at CityPass, the company that runs Jerusalem’s light rail, for publicising clashes along its line, saying this could harm tourism and business. Some commentators have dubbed the unrest the “Jerusalem intifada” in reference to the Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation in the late 1980s and early 2000s.

“You don’t know the difference of the intifada,” Mr Barkat retorted sharply, when asked to comment on the comparisons. Of the current unrest, he said: “It’s not supported by parents and principals; it’s not supported by the public.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Jerusalem was quiet and an Israeli police spokesman said that the number of violent incidents was “going down gradually” because of increased police presence and quicker response time.

Israel’s government this week passed a law imposing stiff penalties of up to 20 years in prison for rock-throwing. Since last week’s shootings, the weather has turned cold and rainy, which officials say is also serving to damp the unrest.

The 55-year-old mayor, a former chairman of the successful Israeli software company Check Point, was elected to a second term last year, appealing to secular and moderately religious Israeli Jerusalemites on a platform of improving services and drawing investment into the city. Most Palestinians in East Jerusalem boycotted the vote.

“The Palestinian people have their own voice, and our voice rejects occupation, rejects apartheid,” said Xavier Abu Eid, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organisation. “Only the Israeli occupation considers East Jerusalem to be part of Israel. It is an occupied city.”

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