Jerusalem’s recently elected mayor, Nir Barkat, is traveling to the United States on a six-city fundraising tour this week, amid signs his city is becoming the next big focus of Palestinian-Israeli tensions. While Barkat’s pitch, as prominently previewed in the New York Times, is one of simple urban renewal in a context in which Israel’s control over the whole city remains unquestioned, the city’s 270,000 Palestinian residents and their compatriots, co-believers and supporters around the world see things very differently.
On a vacant lot in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood I recently met Um Kamel al-Kurd, a woman in her early 60s who’s been braving the foul winter weather in a tent since late November. On the night of November 21, at 3:30 am, a large force of armed police came to the house she and her invalid husband had lived in since 1956 and threw them out on the street so that a group of Jewish settlers could move in.
She and her husband erected and moved into the tent on their neighbor’s property. Shortly thereafter, her husband died.
Um Kamel is a mild-mannered woman with sixteen grandchildren and a steely core. “We don’t need donations of tents or clothing from the international community,” she told me, referring to the growing numbers of Palestinian evictees in Jerusalem as well as those whose homes have been destroyed by the IDF in Gaza. “All we need is our rights. No one can simply overthrow the rights of others…. We need all the three groups here–Jews, Christians and Muslims–to live in peace and equality together.”
Um Kamel’s tent has become a focus for the protests that Palestinians and their Israeli supporters have organized against the escalating campaign that Barkat’s municipality has mounted to demolish Palestinian housing in East Jerusalem and repopulate the area with Jews from Israel or elsewhere.
On March 23 the tent hosted a gathering of Palestinians from inside Israel (where they are citizens) and from elsewhere in East Jerusalem (where they are not.) They were celebrating the Arab League’s designation of Jerusalem as the “Capital of Arab Culture for 2009.” The Israeli police, under orders to break up all public gatherings of the city’s Palestinians, intervened quickly and arrested a key participant, Sheikh Raed Salah, a leader of Israel’s increasingly vocal community of Muslim Palestinian citizens.
Under international law the whole area of East Jerusalem seized by the IDF in 1967 is still–like the rest of the West Bank–judged to be “occupied territory.” Under the Fourth Geneva Convention Israel is therefore prohibited from either implanting its own population as settlers into East Jerusalem or in any other way materially changing the lives of the city’s indigenous Palestinian residents.
Successive Israeli governments flouted these prohibitions from the beginning. In 1967 Israel unilaterally expanded the municipal boundaries and then annexed the whole of the expanded city. That act of Anschluss has never been judged legal by the United States or any other significant government. Since 1967 Israel has implanted nearly 200,000 Jewish-Israeli citizens into settlements in East Jerusalem.
Most of these settlers live in big full-service settlements that Israelis tend euphemistically to refer to as “neighborhoods.” Other settlers, including many highly ideological immigrants from the United States, have used a variety of legal scams to acquire properties deep within traditionally Palestinian areas such as Sheikh Jarrah or the walled Old City, and have created small but highly inflammatory settlement “outposts” there.
The Israeli organization Ir Amim (“City of the Peoples”) provides great information about how the authorities’ claims that Palestinian housing is “illegal” are manipulated to justify home demolitions; about the tight restrictions on Palestinian public activities; and other issues connected to the status of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Now the settler ideologues expect to receive good backing from Mayor Barkat and incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But for Palestinians, regaining their rights in East Jerusalem, which they claim as their capital, is still seen as crucial to any prospect of salvaging a viable two-state outcome to the conflict.
In the past, Washington has usually turned a benevolent blind eye to Israel’s violations of the Geneva Conventions in Jerusalem. This time, with Barkat already having announced sweeping new demolitions of Palestinian homes and Hillary Clinton already having publicly criticized that plan, the “blind eye” option might not be so easy. Already, two Ha’aretz reporters have warned that the dispute over East Jerusalem home razings “will likely become the first clash between the Obama administration and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.”