Will (East) Jerusalem Ever Be the Palestinian Capital? Raff Piccolo

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas allegedly confessed to the Emir of Qatar that he would change his approach to the negotiations. Abbas claimed that he would transfer control of the West Bank to Israel if the peace talks failed to bring about the creation of a Palestinian state according to the 1967 borders.

Abbas’ parameters are not out of step with international opinion. The United Nations (UN) has on numerous occasions observed that the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza are not the sovereign territory of Israel. They are envisaged as the lands of a future Palestinian state.

However justified Abbas may be, and however much standing Palestinian territorial claims may have amongst the international community, one cannot shy away from observing the facts on the ground, particularly when it comes to Jerusalem. These facts really undermine the likelihood that (East) Jerusalem will ever be Palestinian again.

Unlike the West Bank and Gaza, Jerusalem is particularly important to Israel. This much is reflected in its Basic Law (akin to a national constitution) which provides that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” Moreover East Jerusalem, the portion of the city that is foreshadowed to constitute the future capital of a Palestinian state, is administered as part of the Israeli Municipality of Jerusalem. In contrast, the remainder of the West Bank and Gaza are administered separately by the Israeli Civil Administration in Judaea and Samaria.

Since 1967, and in full view of the world, Israel has sought to consolidate its control over all of Jerusalem; a process of “Judaization.”

In the first instance, Israel went confiscated large tracts of privately owned Palestinian land under the guise that it was for “public purposes.” However it is now abundantly clear that the “public” was to be understood as the Jewish Israeli population and “purpose” was for the construction of Israeli Jewish settlements (privately owned Jewish Israeli residences). Today, East Jerusalem is home to some 200 000 Jewish Israelis living in 12 settlements.

Then there is Israel’s concentrated effort to restrict the ability of Palestinians resident in East Jerusalem to construct or extend their housing stock and accommodate natural population growth. The Municipality and State have in concert implemented a planning regime that while objectively non-discriminatory, is designed to severely restrict and dissuade any Palestinian attempts to obtain the permits necessary to “legally” construct a house. As a result, many Palestinians in East Jerusalem have been forced to construct or extend their homes “illegally.” They risk financial ruin, fines, imprisonment, harassment and the demolition of their house. The UN estimates that since 1967 some 2000 houses have been demolished in East Jerusalem, with almost half occurring since 2000. A further 15-20,000 are deemed to “illegal” and are at risk of demolition. This places an estimated 93,100 Palestinians at risk of displacement.

Displaced Palestinians are forced to move into already overcrowded houses with family members, live on the street or leave Jerusalem.

The precarious state of residency in Jerusalem for Palestinians is compounded by the fact that many are not Israeli citizens, but rather “permanent residents.” This status was bestowed upon the Palestinians still resident in (East) Jerusalem after the Israeli annexation of the city in 1967. Despite being permanent residents of Jerusalem, the reality is that there is nothing “permanent” about “permanent residency.” Their permit can be rescinded at the discretion of the Minister for the Interior.

Palestinians who hold permanent residency must demonstrate that Jerusalem is their “center of life.” This requirement must be satisfied on a continual basis by way of documentary evidence. They are required to produce rental agreements, home ownership documents, tax receipts, school registration and receipts of medical treatment in Jerusalem. The Israeli authorities are even known to go as far arriving unannounced at a person’s house early in the morning, inspecting the bedroom and seeing if it is still warm so as to ensure the veracity of a claim for permanent residency. If unable to produce the relevant documentary evidence or absent during an unannounced inspection, Palestinians risk having their residency permit revoked.

The revocation of permanent residency is not a rare occurrence. It is on a scale to unfortunately merit the description of “quiet deportation.” From 1967 to 2008, 13,000 Palestinians had their permanent residency revoked. Moreover, the number of revocations in the two years between 2006 and 2008 was the same as for the period 1967 to 2005.

Then there is what the Israel calls the “security fence” or “barrier,” but which Palestinians refer to as “the Wall.” As the Israeli name for the object suggests, the purported objective of the Wall is security. However, it is hard to ignore the route of the Wall with respect to Jerusalem. It meanders its way about and disconnects Palestinian landmarks traditionally connected with Jerusalem; Al Quds University, Abu Dis and the Palestinian Parliament. Yet on the other hand, many of the Israeli settlements built on former Palestinian lands remain connected to the city. In effect, the Wall has created a new boundary, a boundary that further strengthens Israel’s hold on East Jerusalem and hampers its future as the capital of a Palestinian state.

Yet despite all this, Abbas maintains that East Jerusalem is (will be) the capital of a Palestinian state. The facts on the ground really call this stance into question.

This is not to suggest that the process of “Judaization” has been completely successful in East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem is still very much Palestinian. Walking down a street in Beit Hanina (a Palestinian neighbourhood of Jerusalem), one can certainly identify a different feel. The culture, layout and the feel of East Jerusalem is very distinct from its western counterpart. However, one cannot escape the facts: Palestinian East Jerusalem neighbourhoods such as Beit Hanina are surrounded by Israeli settlements and East Jerusalem is no longer exclusively Palestinian.

Although Abbas may seek a Palestinian state which adheres to the 1967 boundaries, it is hard to imagine that any resolution of the conflict will see the deconstruction of these settlements or the eviction of their Israeli Jewish residents. The famous Clinton Parameters from the 1990s did not even provide as much. Instead, they stipulated that Israel would remain in control of the Israeli Jewish neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem (and the Palestinians of the respective Palestinian neighbourhoods). Then there are the interests of the European and western parties which unfortunately must be satisfied if any resolution is to be forthcoming. They are unlikely to demand or allow for mass eviction of Israeli Jews from East Jerusalem.

For all that the international community and (again more recently) Abbas claim that East Jerusalem is to be the capital of a Palestinian state, the reality speaks otherwise. The most that Abbas can hope for is some of East Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the international community has been complacent for much too long on this matter for the claim to a Palestinian East Jerusalem to hold true.