Jerusalem at the heart of the conflict

My article was first published in Palestine News in February 2016

  
Jerusalem at the heart of the conflict

Violence has erupted in Jerusalem in recent months with scores of deaths and regular clashes between Palestinian protestors and Israeli Occupation Forces. Here Kamel Hawwash, a native of East Jerusalem and vice chair of PSC, explains why the future of the city lies at the heart of any peace agreement.

The issue of Jerusalem was one of the final status issues under the Oslo Accords, one that was so sensitive that the peace process may not have been set up if it had been one of the issues the Israelis and Palestinians had to tackle first. But after 22 further years of futile negotiations, the peace process has now failed in its entirety. Meanwhile, on the ground, Israel has created facts that make the achievement of peace based on what is termed “the two-state solution” unattainable.

Jerusalem has suffered more “facts on the ground” than most. This is because after Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, it illegally annexed the city and successive Israeli governments have referred to it as the eternal united capital that will “never be divided.” They have pursued a policy of the Judaisation of East Jerusalem in an attempt to destroy its Palestinian Arab, Muslim and Christian character.

Fast forward to 2015/16 and, apart from the iconic skyline of Alaqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock compound, the city is unrecognisable. Many Israeli flags flutter over the city, both in the old part and where illegal settlements have been deliberately planted in what used to be completely Palestinian neighbourhoods like Attur and Silwan.

The settlements are built on Palestinian land which mainly ended up in the hands of settler organisations through shady deals, for example where Palestinians believe they are selling to other Palestinians but find they are victims of an act of deception. Israel also uses the law of absentees to confiscate Palestinian land and homes handing them over to settlers with Israeli courts generally approving these immoral acts.

In addition Israel has almost completely encircled Jerusalem with a belt of settlements built on illegally occupied land in the West Bank to cut the city off, making it impossible for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a Palestinian state. The rest of the area in the centre of the West Bank, often referred to as E1, is subject to regular Israeli plans for construction which the international community strongly opposes as filling the area with settlements would finally kill off any prospect of the two-state solution.

As well as building settlements, the Israelis have evicted many Palestinians from homes in Jerusalem neighbourhoods like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah because settler organisations claim they used to belong to Jews before 1948. Apart from the immorality of these acts, the effect is that space for Palestinians to build and develop is reduced and opportunities for young people to set up homes in their neighbourhoods are almost nonexistent. Meanwhile they are forced to watch Jewish Israelis develop their lives on land illegally taken from them as a people.

When Israel occupied East Jerusalem it issued the indigenous Palestinian population with special identity cards carried in a blue wallet which denoted residency rights. But the Israeli authorities can take away the “blue ID,” as it is known, at any time if they judge that Jerusalem is longer the “centre of your life.” This can be if a Palestinian moves to work in the West Bank or live or study abroad. A Jewish Jerusalemite who leaves the city to work elsewhere in Israel or to live abroad does not lose the right to live in Jerusalem.

Israel has also used the route of the separation wall to exclude tens of thousands of Jerusalemites from the city. They have to pass through checkpoints to reach services they used to access prior to the construction of the wall such as education or health. They pay taxes to the city’s council but do not receive services in their neighbourhoods and Israel bars the Palestinian Authority from offering alternative services. This leaves residents of areas such as Abu Dis and Alram in no man’s land.

Palestinians are also witnessing a replacement of Jerusalem’s Palestinian history with a Jewish one by stealth. This can be seen through road signs which no longer list the road or neighbourhood name in Arabic using its historical Arabic name but by a Hebrew replacement. So young Palestinians and visitors will use the Hebrew replacement thus providing further Judaisation of the city.

Under PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, the number of “visits” by Jewish settlers to Alaqsa mosque has increased. They take place without invitation or coordination with the Jordanian Waqf, which under the various agreements administers the Muslim Holy site. The settlers are accompanied by Israeli Occupation Forces and clashes erupt regularly between Palestinian worshippers and the settlers.

In order to facilitate the settler visits, Israel regularly bars Palestinians from entering the mosque. This has led Palestinians to believe that Israel plans eventually to divide the site between Jews and Muslims and to fear that the number of settlers who wish to replace Alaqsa with a Jewish temple is increasing both in number and influence in what is a settler-led government.

In Jerusalem Palestinians and Israelis interact regularly, unlike other parts of the West Bank. At times of rising tensions, this can lead to friction and in some cases outright violence. While Israelis are protected by the occupation forces, Palestinians feel vulnerable as they have no confidence in the occupation forces offering protection. Incidents such as the burning alive of Palestinian child Muhammed Abu Khdair in 2014 and the lack of justice for him confirm these fears.

The impact of all these things has been to create a feeling among the Palestinians of Jerusalem that they are losing their city to the colonisers. Israel controls every aspect of their daily lives and does all it can to control the demography of the city to at best maintain the current proportions of Israeli Jews and Palestinians but at worst to change it over time to ensure a clear Jewish majority.

This has helped ferment a state of continuous Palestinian anger as they see their city being taken away from them. This anger can explain the recent Palestinian uprising which started in October in which over 150 Palestinians have lost their lives in alleged attacks against Israeli civilians and occupation forces. Because the Palestinian Authority, which exercises a security cooperation with Israel in the rest of the West Bank, has no presence in annexed East Jerusalem, it has paradoxically allowed the population to hit back at the occupation with acts of revenge that have at times been violent.

As the French try to initiate another attempt to find a way forward to peace, all stakeholders should see East Jerusalem Street as the barometer for the seriousness of any initiative. If Palestinians can see an end to the rabid Israeli colonisation of their city, then peace might have a chance of coming to the Holy Land. Without this, the current rise that started in Jerusalem could morph into a full intifada.

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