Letter from Palestine

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Last month the Israeli government approved plans to build a synagogue next to Al-Aqsa mosque. This is part of Israel's strategy to drive native Palestinians out of Jerusalem, writes Abdul Wahab Sabbah

Last month the Israeli government gave the green light for settlers to open the Hurva synagogue in east Jerusalem next to the Al-Aqsa mosque. The mosque is one of the most important sites in the world for Muslims.

This sparked protests around east Jerusalem, where Israeli soldiers used tear gas, horses, rubber bullets and live ammunition. Around 100 Palestinians were seriously injured. Five boys from my local school were shot in the back with rubber bullets. One boy had his leg broken after he was shot, captured and beaten by soldiers.

This comes just weeks after the Israeli government announced their intention to annex the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron and the Bilal bin Rabah mosque in Bethlehem, listing them as "Jewish heritage sites".

The settlers claim that opening the Hurva synagogue is about religious heritage. But in reality this is a massive provocation and undermines the rightful claim by Palestinians for east Jerusalem as their capital.

When settlers tried to construct a temple next to the Al-Aqsa mosque in 1990 Israeli soldiers murdered 20 Palestinians in the protests that followed. When Ariel Sharon led hundreds of Israeli special forces into the mosque compound in 2000 it triggered the second Intifada (uprising).

For decades the Israeli government has been building tunnels under the Al-Aqsa mosque which, according to international observers, have seriously damaged its foundations. Now they are going to shut the Damascus Gate, which most Palestinians use to go to the mosque or the old city market, for three years of "renovation". It is widely believed that this will mean more houses for settlers.

Palestinians in east Jerusalem are living under an apartheid system. They are evicted from their homes, despite having lived in them for generations. In the Sheikh Jarrar district one family live in a tent on the street while the settlers who occupy their home walk past them every day. The Israeli mayor has announced plans to destroy the entire Palestinian Silwan district in order to build tourist facilities.

In the past 15 years 1,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished in the city, but not one single settler home. If Palestinians want to build on their own property they must wait years for permission, and even then around 90 percent of applications are rejected.

The municipal tax system in Jerusalem discriminates against Palestinians. It is not based on income, which would favour Palestinians, but on property size, which is generally greater for Palestinian homes due to the size of families and their style of building.

Up to 80 percent of Palestinian residents owe tax. Failure to pay can mean denial of public services and employment, imprisonment and seizure of property, which is often then sold to settlers.

If a Palestinian resident leaves east Jerusalem for a few months they can lose their ID and therefore their right to live in the city. Furthermore, Palestinians are now cut off from the West Bank by the separation wall. This is all designed to make life so intolerable that if they cannot be forced out, Palestinians will "choose" to leave.

The roots of the conflict over the Al-Aqsa mosque are ultimately political rather than religious. It is about Israel trying to achieve its goal of removing the Palestinian presence in the city and claiming it as the undivided capital of Israel.

Israel knows that east Jerusalem is crucial to any settlement which offers justice to the Palestinians. It is the economic, cultural and religious focal point for Palestine. The latest provocations are part of Israel's usual game of creating facts on the ground and stoking tensions to avoid meaningful negotiations and a just resolution.

There has been some talk of a third Intifada, but although I believe in my people, I don't think the atmosphere is right for it - at least not yet. Firstly, the people are very tired and disappointed by the results of the last Intifada. Secondly, the current Palestinian leadership has no strategy for resisting the occupation.

Abdul Wahab Sabbah is coordinator of the Camden-Abu Dis Friendship Association in east Jerusalem. He was interviewed by Jeremy Matthews.