By Hasan Afif El-Hasan
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated recently that the status of Jerusalem will not be negotiated with the Palestinians at this time. Right wing Israelis are against conceding any part of the Old City or any suburb of Jerusalem municipality to the Palestinians. The ultra-orthodox right wing party in Olmert government threatens to leave the governing coalition if the question of Jerusalem comes up for discussion with the Palestinians and that is why Olmert will not discuss it now. This has been the same rationale that successive Israeli governments have always cited whenever they were pressed to stop settlement expansion. And if Israel says no negotiations on the future of Jerusalem, the Palestinians cannot do anything about it.
The Palestinians’ concession to keep Jerusalem out of the Oslo interim agreement in 1993 gave Israel the time to alter its status quo prior to any possible permanent status talks. Israel since Oslo has expanded the boundaries of the City, confiscated more Arab lands and constructed new settlements. Schemes have been devised to take over private Arab and Church properties inside and outside the Old City, and large settlements have been built on its outskirts. Some of these are Har Homa (Jabal Ghaneim), Gilo, Piscat Ze’ev, Atarot, Ramot settlement. Jewish settlers evicted Palestinian residents from their quarters in the Old City and took over St. John’s Hospice and other church and Islamic endowment (wakf) properties. The Israeli government dug Hasmonean Tunnel under al-Aqsa Mosque compound endangering the structure of the Islamic shrine.
The area of East Jerusalem has been isolated by Jewish only settlements from Ramallah in the north by Givat Ze’ev, from Bethlehem in the south by Gush Etzion and from the east to the Dead Sea by Ma’ale Adumim. Jewish settlements have been established in the Old City and in the surrounding Arab neighborhoods of Silwan, Ras el-Amoud, Wadi el-Joz and Sheikh Jarrah. Palestinian enclaves are divided so that people traveling from one to the other have to go through areas controlled by Israel.
When the subject of Jerusalem came up during the 2000 Camp David summit, Mayor Ehud Olmert led a mass march of some 350,000 protesters against the plan to divide the city. Today, a group of Kadima members, headed by Otniel Schneller, is demanding adhering to the party’s agenda, which calls for Jerusalem’s unity under Israel. US neoconservatives and the Israeli right are partners in the Greater Israel project which calls among other things for the absorption of East Jerusalem and the rest of occupied territories, excluding the Arab population centers, into a Jewish state.
Zalman Shoval, head of the foreign affairs department of Likud party, said before the Annapolis conference was convened, that the issue of Jerusalem should "not be on the table in any way". Sixty-one members of the Israeli parliament signed a petition against a proposal to give the Palestinians sovereignty over Shoufat refugee camp out side the Old City. The Prime Minister floated the idea of giving back the overcrowded Shoufat refugee camp to be the capital of the future Palestinian state. Two months after the conclusion of Annapolis conference, Ehud Olmert backed away from this position and told his coalition partners that the issue of Jerusalem would not even be discussed in the foreseeable future. According to the news media, Olmert told the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Israel would continue to expand the settlements throughout the expanded East Jerusalem municipality. Palestinians’ aspirations to have Jerusalem as their future capital are being undermined by Israel’s deliberate attempts to alter the status quo in the occupied land including the Old City.
The Old City constitutes only a small geographic area of the expanded municipality of East Jerusalem, but its holiness distinguishes it from the rest of Jerusalem. The 420-acre of walled real estate that is the City has been playing a distinctive role in the beliefs of the world-wide adherents to the three monolithic religions. It is where three world religions meet and compete over the interpretation of the divine. The City is home of the Dome of the Rock, al-Aqsa Mosque, Mosque of the Ascension, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Convent of Deir al-Sultan, Church of St. Anne, Church of St. James, Church of St. Mark and the Western (or Wailing) Wall. The Palestinians want Jerusalem to be their capital, and since Israel occupied East Jerusalem 40 years ago, all Israeli governments maintained that Jerusalem must be “the eternal indivisible” capital of Israel. To this effect, Israel exercised its power as an occupying force in control of the city to create facts on the ground by expanding the Jewish quarter and planting settlers in the other sectors of the Old City.
Since 1967, changes taking place in the Old City spearheaded by organizations acting as settlers’ front with authority from the Israeli governments. In the face of the Israeli colonization and absorption since then, the City has been transformed from a Palestinian city to Palestinian enclaves within a Jewish city. The Palestinian enclaves are continuously shrinking and they are increasingly cut off from other Palestinian areas outside the wall.
Michael Dumper, a specialist on the Palestinian issue identified three major categories of settler groups operating in Jerusalem, that have been supported by the government financially and logistically. The first category is “active in attempts to settle Jews in Muslim quarters”. The second category includes groups that locate, acquire and renovate Palestinians’ real estate. The third category known as “the Temple Mount group, is active in supporting the messianic vision of reconstructing the Jewish temple on al-Aqsa site”. The groups receive money from the ministry of housing, expressly given to buy properties in the Palestinian Muslim and Christian quarters and the surrounding parts of East Jerusalem. They also receive large funds from American millionaires such as Irving Moscowitz.
The settler groups are the proxies of the State of Israel in a policy to acquire property and extend the Jewish character in the Old City. The Jewish quarter has been enlarged by administration fiat to include Harat el-Magharbi and Armenian properties. Existing structures were erased gradually and the area has been overtaken by settlers. Settler movements such as Gush Emunim and Tehiya, that have been given free hand to encircle Hebron, Nablus and Jerusalem with settlements, have been active in asserting Israel’s control over the Old City by building a strong Jewish presence in the Palestinian quarters. In 1968, the Ministry of Finance ordered the expropriation of the whole area that extends between the walls in the southeast to the Tareeq Bab al-Silsileh in the west, and from the Western Wall in the north to the Armenian Quarter in the south. The confiscated property included more than 600 Palestinian buildings, according to Dumper.
Settler supporters have been appointed in key state ministries and agencies, and settler groups sat on inter-ministerial committees that set policies and plan strategies for implementing them. They carried out overt and covert operations that made serious inroads which impacted the lives of the Palestinians living in the Muslim and Christian quarters including some dramatic events such as the massacre in Haram ash-Sharif in 1990 and the opening of the Hasmonean Tunnel in 1996. The Israeli-Lands Administration and the Custodian’s Office helped many settler organizations, home grown and foreign, to locate and acquire non-Jewish properties, evict the Palestinian tenants, renovate the properties and settle only Jewish families in the reconstructed units.
Acquiring and leasing Islamic endowment and church-owned land in the Old City and in its suburbs has been a major part of the Israeli agenda to Judaize the holy City and its surroundings. As the mayor of Jerusalem from 1993 to 2003, Ehud Olmert was very aggressive in implementing plans to strengthen Jewish domination over the whole city. He appointed the leader from the Ateret militant settler group, Shmuel Evyatar, as his advisor on issues related to the Christian communities in Jerusalem. The appointment was perceived as part of a campaign to acquire Church properties because Evayatar had been active in taking over such Church owned properties. Two years before this appointment and on the eve of 1990 Good Friday, Evyatar and 150 members of his militant group occupied a Jerusalem property known as St. John’s Hospice that belonged to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate which is located in the Christian Quarter, very close to the Holy Sepulcher Church. The take over was condemned by the Christian Churches but it was defended and encouraged by the Israeli government.
The present fundamentalist Jewish mayor of Jerusalem Uri Lupliansky declared recently that he was going to Judaize East Jerusalem even more by confiscating land and expanding the Jewish only settlements. Lupliansky was referring to the expanded Jerusalem municipality that includes 5% of the West Bank as well as the Old City. According to Haaretz, Lupliansky vowed that he would turn Jerusalem into an "illegal outpost". Israel has succeeded in creating the concept of legal and illegal settlements just to circumvent the international law that considers all settlements illegal. Israel uses what it calls the illegal outposts for bargaining purposes. Even President Bush bought into this scheme and called for dismantling the so called “illegal settlements”. According to the Israeli news media, Housing Minister Zeev Boim declared in February that, "bids will go out soon to build 1,100 apartments for Jews in East Jerusalem.", 350 settler units would be built in the Har Homa settlement and 750 in Pisgat Zeev, north of Jerusalem.
For the Palestinians, Jerusalem especially the Old City is the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fate of the peace negotiations for them and the destiny of Jerusalem is the same. While Israel calls for postponing the subject of East Jerusalem, actions to Judaize it never stopped. The Israeli operatives have been working hard to colonize the City as well as the rest of the occupied lands. If Israel is not ready to discuss Jerusalem after forty years of occupation, it will never be ready in the future. More time before discussing Jerusalem is more time to transform the City’s character and with that, the hope for withdrawal to the 1967 borders becomes increasingly unlikely.
-Born in Nablus, Palestine, Hasan Afif El-Hasan,Ph.D, is a political analyst. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com