My nephew Aziz, a bright young man who returned to Ramallah this summer after studying in London, called me on Thursday morning, the day after the decision by the United States to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
“I don’t know what can be done,” he said, with obvious pain in his voice. I didn’t have much to propose. I had just heard an announcement from the nearby mosque calling on people to go to the center of town at noon. There we could gather to denounce the American decision. I suggested to my nephew that we go together and see what was happening.
On the way over, the taxi driver told me that he felt let down by the Palestinian response to the news. I asked him about the call of the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniya, for another intifada. “What intifada, when we are all burdened by loans?” he answered. “Thirty years ago I never thought twice about taking part in every strike that was announced, but now if I don’t make money I will not be able to pay back the bank loan on this car. How then will I survive without it?”
When I met my nephew, he told me he was pleased that the Bethlehem city government had decided to turn off the lights of the Christmas tree in Manger Square in protest of Washington’s decision. A few days earlier he had gone to the tree-lighting ceremony, which he found impressive. Now, he was praising the lights gone dark.
At the center of Ramallah, we found scores of people milling around. No one knew what was expected, and the police had not made any preparations to divert the traffic. Drivers were forcing their way through the crowds, causing havoc.
I asked around to see if anyone knew the plan for the day. I’m a stranger to social media and thought I could have missed an announcement. Ramzi, a musician I have known for many years, had also come intending to take part in a demonstration. He said he kept obsessively checking Facebook and found nothing.
“There were no mobile phones during the first intifada when I was a boy of 10 in the Amari refugee camp, yet I remember that people knew when to assemble and what to do,” he said.
He noted the scarcity of young participants at the gathering. “Some people,” he said, “feel they can stay home and yet consider that they’re taking part; they think they can have virtual participation.” He concluded by saying: “Spirits are low. The leadership has abandoned Jerusalem.”
I didn’t say anything. But I thought the city had been abandoned by Palestinian leaders long ago. The Palestinians in Jerusalem have been on their own, without effective leadership, for years, enduring heavy taxation and overcrowding that makes their lives miserable, while suffering the Israeli discrimination that leaves the Palestinian side of the city underdeveloped.
There had been a moment of hope among Palestinians after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, when our leaders believed that the status of Jerusalem would soon be negotiated. They began developing their political presence in the city, which we thought would lead to an improvement in daily life.
But Israel’s right wing fought hard against the Oslo Accords, and the mood eventually deflated. Right-wing Israelis lobbied the United States Congress, which in 1995 passed a bill calling for the American Embassy to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The act was disregarded by American presidents until President Trump’s announcement on Wednesday.
Ramzi told me that he hadn’t been able to get a permit to visit Jerusalem in 15 years. I realized that he was not aware of the cultural revival that has been taking place in East Jerusalem. An old movie theater has been renovated and a music academy has been established. Book stores and cafes are popping up, along with dance and drama festivals. Despite the hardships, Palestinian Jerusalemites have been determined to revive their city.
Crowds began to swell and an hour later a demonstration came together. We roamed the Ramallah streets, where businesses had closed up shop as a sign of protest. At the exit of the city, where the Israeli army still has a presence, it wasn’t so calm. Young men and women were attempting to break through the barriers that prevented Palestinians from reaching Jerusalem, but they were being rebuffed by the Israelis.
That evening I went home feeling dismayed that Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was made with no consideration of the discrimination and underdevelopment of the past 50 years designed to drive Palestinians out of the city. The United States not only has confirmed its bias in favor of Israel but also has given approval to the kind of relations between Israel and Palestine that cannot possibly be the basis for peace and coexistence.
What I witnessed on Thursday was a mild beginning to what may develop into a sustained violent expression of the pent-up anger felt by most Palestinians — whether they live in Jerusalem or outside. On Friday, thousands of protesters in Jerusalem, Gaza and here in the West Bank took to the streets. At least two Palestinians were killed and 100 wounded. President Trump might have unwittingly lit a fuse that Israel may have great difficulty putting out.
Raja Shehadeh is a lawyer and the author of Where the Line Is Drawn: A Tale of Crossings, Friendships and Fifty Years of Occupation in Israel-Palestine.