What's Behind the Explosions of Violence in Palestine? -- The Destruction of Religious Sites and "Extrajudicial Executions" of Palestinian Teenagers

It is predominantly young Palestinian people, seeing what they consider the brutal theft of their religion and culture, who are paying a disproportionate price in an asymmetrical war.
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If what we see going on in Israel-Palestine is not yet a third Intifada, one may not be far off. As presented in the mainstream press, the stabbings of Israeli settlers, the rock-throwing, the mass uprisings, all seem chalked up to some inexplicable proclivity toward violence on the part of Palestinians. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact of the matter is that this wave of violence comes in response to an on-going campaign to desecrate and destroy holy sites that anchor non-Jewish peoples to their faiths -- not only are mosques being destroyed, so too are Catholic churches.

Most egregiously, Israeli groups are attempting to replace the al-Aqsa mosque with a Jewish temple. In mid-September "Israeli forces entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound's southern mosque on Tuesday sparking the third straight day of violent clashes at the third holiest site in Islam. Dozens of Palestinians were injured in the clashes, during which Israeli forces fired stun grenades, tear gas canisters and rubber-coated steel bullets at Palestinian worshipers." These efforts are part of what is called "temple activism."

Parallel to the illegal destruction of Palestinian homes and the building of settlements, what we find here is the destruction and appropriation of holy sites.

It is important to note that this purposeful destruction of religious institutions continues a process we witnessed during Israel's attack on Gaza last summer:

In the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, Israel's 51-day military assault, the Palestinians in Gaza are faced with the huge task of reconstruction. Most of the shattered civilian infrastructure can be replaced, but Palestine's cultural heritage in Gaza, built over a thousand years and more, has been damaged irrevocably. Many of Gaza's most ancient sites have been left in ruins by Israel's attack on the territory. Houses of worship, tombs, charity offices and cemeteries have all been damaged by the shelling, but Gaza's historic mosques have been the worst affected. Many of these sites date back to the time of the first Islamic caliphs, the Ottoman Empire and the Mamluk Sultanate.

Protective Edge damaged 203 mosques, of which 73 were destroyed completely. Two churches were also damaged, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs. The targeting of mosques by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in the latest offensive was three times more than in the 2008-2009 attack, the ministry's report said.

The current clashes over the Noble Sanctuary have been depicted in the mainstream press in the usual fashion -- omitting or distorting key details to make it appear that there is nothing that warrants the violence coming from Palestinians. The Institute for Middle East Understanding has issued a corrective to that. Two key points stand out. The IMEU notes that while some news accounts assert that Israelis pushing for greater access to the Noble Sanctuary mosque (known as the Temple Mount to Jews) just want religious freedom, what we actually find is the appropriation of another religion's holy sites.

The right-wing Israeli individuals and groups that are pushing for more access and Jewish prayer in the Noble Sanctuary want to remove the Muslim holy sites that it houses and replace them with a Jewish temple. On its website, one of the movement's most prominent organizations, the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement, declares as its objective:

"Liberating the Temple Mount from Arab (Islamic) occupation. The Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque were placed on this Jewish or biblical holy site as a specific sign of Islamic conquest and domination. The Temple Mount can never be consecrated to the Name of G-d without removing these pagan shrines."

Second, IMEU debunks the idea that Israeli authorities reject attempts to change the status quo in the Noble Sanctuary and oppose actions by Jewish extremists that provoke tensions over it:

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly that he has no intention of changing the status quo in the Noble Sanctuary, senior officials in his current and previous governments have openly called for the construction of a Jewish temple in the Noble Sanctuary, including Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel of the extreme right wing Jewish Home party and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely of Netanyahu's Likud party. In July 2013, then-Housing and Construction Minister Ariel declared to an "archeological conference" in the occupied West Bank: "We've built many little, little temples... but we need to build a real Temple on the Temple Mount."

Without this context the violence we are witnessing now seems inconceivable. But a people deprived of their land, their resources, their human rights, indeed of thousands of their loved ones, is reacting now to the destruction and appropriation of an essential set of cultural and religious sites. These acts of destruction are not random -- they are targeted acts of intimidation and brutality, and as racist and bigoted in nature as the burnings of black churches we saw in the US south last July.

And it is predominantly young Palestinian people, seeing what they consider the brutal theft of their religion and culture, who are paying a disproportionate price in an asymmetrical war -- knives and stones against armor-plated vehicles and heavily protected soldiers with rifles with laser sights.

Here are excerpts from Amnesty International's report on the killing of a young woman, 18-year-old Hadeel al-Hashlamoun, an event they termed an "extrajudicial execution":

Israeli soldiers shot and mortally wounded 18-year-old Hadeel al-Hashlamoun after they stopped her at a checkpoint in the Old City in Hebron. Pictures of the stand-off that led to her death and accounts by eyewitnesses interviewed by Amnesty International show that she at no time posed a sufficient threat to the soldiers to make their use of deliberate lethal force permissible. This killing is the latest in a long line of unlawful killings carried out by the Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank with near total impunity...

According to [one witness], Abu Aisheh, the soldier who had shot first got up and moved closer to her, until he was about a metre away, and then shot at her upper body four or five times again while she was lying motionless on the ground. He said that the soldier shot a few times despite other soldiers yelling at him to stop.

Israeli authorities claim that a metal detector found that al-Hashlamoun had a knife, but this has been disputed. Amnesty International addresses this possibility:

Even if al-Hashlamoun did have a knife, Israeli soldiers, who are protected with body armour and heavily equipped with advanced weapons, could have controlled the situation and arrested her without threatening her life. Open fire regulations of the Israeli military in the occupied West Bank allow soldiers to open fire only when their lives are in imminent danger, and Amnesty International concludes that this was not the case in the shooting of al-Hashlamoun, as she was standing still and separated from the soldiers by a metal barrier. There was no attempt to arrest al-Hashlamoun, according to the eyewitnesses, or to use non-lethal alternatives. To then shoot al-Hashlamoun again multiple times as she lay wounded on the ground indicates that her killing was an extrajudicial execution.

Obviously both sides of the conflict will have their version to present when asked about many of these sorts of incidents. Yet a pattern of obfuscation, misinformation, distortion, unequal punishment and immunity from prosecution is emerging. For example, the New York Times reported the killing of two Palestinian youths in the occupied West Bank last year: "Mohammad Mahmoud Odeh Salameh, 16, and Nadeem Siam Nawara, 17, were fatally shot in the chest during a demonstration in Beitunia, a West Bank town outside Ramallah. A spokeswoman for the Israeli military said the matter was still under investigation but no live bullets had been fired -- an assertion disputed by Palestinian officials."

New York Times story also reports another, quite different version of this event: "Ahmad Badwan of the Palestinian Medical Relief Committee, whose ambulances attended to the victims, disputed [that] account in an interview, saying the protest 'began peacefully' and 'turned into violence when the Israeli Army used live fire to disperse stone throwers.'" So far, both sides have equal claim to the truth.

Yet a videotape shows that neither boy was actively participating in the protest or posing a threat to Israeli soldiers when shot. And the result of a forensics investigation refutes the Israeli claim that their forces were not using live ammunition:

After undertaking an autopsy of the body of Nadim Nawarah, 17..., forensic pathologists have determined that a live bullet was the cause of his death. The Palestinian teenager was killed by Israeli forces on May 15 during clashes in the West Bank town of Beitunia... At the request of the Nawarah family, Al Haq, Defense for Children International-Palestine, Physicians for Human Rights and B'Tselem coordinated the attendance of the international forensic pathologists.Responding to the conclusions of the autopsy, the four non-government organizations stated: "These findings underline the urgency of our demand that the criminal investigation into the Beitunia killings be conducted efficiently and concluded promptly."

And that is what Representative Betty McCollum (D-Minn) too is demanding. In a letter to Ambassador Anne Woods Patterson and Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, McCollum notes:

Nadeem's murder was captured on video by local security cameras as well as [by] international journalists. One can literally watch the murder of this Palestinian teenager as he walks innocently down the street. A 16-year-old youth, Mohammed Dahar, was shot and killed in the same location, one hour after Nadeem's murder. Like Nadeem, Mohammed was innocently walking down the street, and his murder was also captured on video.

McCollum then makes three critical requests, stating:

1)The case must be raised with Israeli officials, impressing on them that the US government expects a fair, transparent and credible trial. The person(s) responsible for the murder of this Palestinian youth must be held accountable;

2)I would request that a US State Department official be present to observe the conduct of the trial to ensure appropriate standards of justice are achieved;

3)Finally, I request the State Department investigate whether the killing of Nadeem Nawara and Mohammed Daher constitute violations of the "Leahy Law." If a Leahy Law violation occurred, then the 38th Company of the Israeli Border Patrol should be ineligible to receive future US military aid and training, and all border police involved in this incident should be denied US visas as stipulated by the law.

There are three reasons why this letter is extremely important. First, it shows that the killing of Palestinian youths by Israeli soldiers, police and settlers is not uncommon at all; rather, such murders can take place at demonstrations and checkpoints, but also on quiet streets, and with clear pre-meditation. Second, the letter brings out the fact that these actions are materially supported by our US taxpayer dollars, and thus we have a special obligation to, as McCollum does, insist in fair, transparent trials and that those responsible be held accountable. Finally, her letter indicates her concern that justice may not be delivered solely through the agency of the Israeli justice system.

Indeed, routine mishandling of investigations is complemented by a two-tiered system of justice--this is a crucial point. Emily Schaefer Omer-Man, Coordinator of the Criminal Accountability of Israeli Security Forces project for Yesh Din notes:

Israel operates a dual legal system in the West Bank. In practice, this means that a Palestinian and an Israeli settler who stand accused of the same crime, committed in the exact same territory, experience fundamentally separate criminal justice systems, from arrest through interrogation, trial and punishment. The Palestinian is tried under the Israeli Military Court system of laws, procedures and penalties and his or her Israeli settler neighbor is tried under the Israeli civilian criminal justice system.

The result is a system that is both separate and unequal, and which denies basic due process rights to the Palestinian population living under occupation.

Finally, changes in the laws regarding police action have been modified to guarantee that such crimes will only increase. Here is Haaretz's report on the discussions which recently took place, loosening the constraints on the use of open fire and punishing the parents of children who are convicted of throwing stones (such collective punishment is illegal under international human rights law):

"Until recently, police officers would open fire when their own lives were at risk," Netanyahu said. "From now on, they will be allowed to open fire -- and they will know they have a right to do so -- when anyone's life is in danger."

The cabinet also decided to take measures against minors over the age of 14 who throw stones, as well as their parents. The measures include revoking stipends of parents whose children are sentenced to prison. The cabinet will examine the legality of fining parents to minors aged 12-14, and imposing bail on parents to minors under the age of 12.

Again, we in the US know very well how "risk" to police officers can be very loosely interpreted. In Israel, a 10-year-old throwing a rock in an officer's direction now constitutes a "threat" answerable with a live bullet.

A few months ago, over a thousand Black activists, scholars, cultural workers, students and organizations issued a statement of solidarity with Palestinians, and a recent film featuring Ms Lauryn Hill, Danny Glover, Angela Davis, Omar Barghouti, Nora Erakat and many others gives visual expression to that solidarity. These activists draw the parallels between life under Israeli occupation and life under American racism. As Cornel West declared,

There is no doubt that Gaza is not just a "kind of" concentration camp, it is the hood on steroids. Now in the black community, located within the American empire, you do have forms of domination and subordination, forms of police surveillance and so forth, so that we are not making claims of identity, we are making claims of forms of domination that must be connected.

When people's schools, hospitals and mosques are purposefully bombed, when an illegal blockade strangles their economy, when they are deprived of electricity and water and when their homes and places of worship are taken over brutally, it is no wonder they will resist and fight against those committing those acts. With this rash of summary executions of Palestinian youths, seemingly sanctioned by the state, it is no wonder that those interested in social and racial justice in the United States will find these stories deeply disturbing, and familiar. And people of conscience will act. We can boycott Israeli products, and academic and cultural institutions, divest from companies that profit from investments in Israel, and call for sanctions. We can answer the call for solidarity emanating from Palestinian civil society -- the legal, non-violent movement called BDS.

In so doing we are saying that the status quo is unacceptable and we refuse to go along with it.

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