QALANDIA, West Bank – The future of East Jerusalem and of Palestinian access to it has again been brought under the spotlight.
Thousands of Palestinians were turned away at West Bank checkpoints leading into Jerusalem by Israeli security forces as they tried to attend Friday Ramadan prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque.
IPS witnessed dozens of heavily armed Israeli soldiers and police cordoning off the Qalandia border crossing south of Ramallah and preventing hundreds of Palestinians from crossing through.
Women wept and elderly men argued with law enforcement officers. Several scuffles broke out, and a number of young men were beaten and arrested as they tried to force their way through the metal barriers.
The first Friday of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, is one of the holiest days of the period. Praying at al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, is considered a religious duty for all Muslims.
While thousands of Palestinians from elsewhere, mostly children, women over 45 and men over 50 made it to Jerusalem, the vast majority of the West Bank and Gaza’s population of nearly 4 million people are forbidden by the Israeli authorities from traveling there.
This year many Palestinians from the occupied territories didn’t even bother trying to get to Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, Israel’s policy has caused immense anger. "East Jerusalem has cultural, religious, educational, business, and family importance for Palestinians," Dr. Adnan Husseini, Palestinian Authority (PA) minister responsible for East Jerusalem told IPS.
"Without East Jerusalem as our capital there will be no Palestinian state, and without a Palestinian state there will be no peace process. Without a peace process there will be no regional stability. No Arab or Muslim country will accept Israel’s continued occupation of East Jerusalem," says Husseini.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, a move not recognized by the international community, which considers East Jerusalem a part of the Palestinian West Bank.
Palestinian apprehensions about their rights to the eastern sector of Jerusalem have been raised once again as it appears the U.S. might be caving in to Israeli intransigence.
U.S. State Department officials have acknowledged that a compromise from their previous firm stance on settlements laid out by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may be necessary due to the inflexibility shown by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent talks with U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell in London.
A statement released by a U.S. State Department spokesman suggests that President Barack Obama could be easing pressure on Israel to cease settlement expansion and building in East Jerusalem.
P.J. Crowley said that the administration would be showing flexibility on "pre-conditions for all parties involved in Middle East peace negotiations."
"We put forward our ideas, publicly and privately, about what it will take for negotiations to be restarted, but ultimately it’ll be up to the parties themselves, with our help, to determine whether that threshold has been met," he said.
Up until this statement the U.S. and the EU have repeated unequivocally that Israel is obliged to cease its settlement expansion and building in East Jerusalem as this prejudices a future settlement on the city and the peace process itself.
"The statements coming from the U.S. administration are ambiguous, and we are concerned. We are waiting to be informed personally by the American administration if there has been a change in their policy. We don’t believe the U.S. has the right to negotiate away our rights to East Jerusalem," Husseini told IPS.
"However, if Israel continues to build settlements in East Jerusalem, then the matter has to be handed over to the UN Security Council and sanctions placed on Israel. Why should we continue to negotiate with Israel if it continues to take our land?"
Prof. Moshe Maoz from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University says it is too early to say whether there has been an about-face by the U.S.
"The language is very ambiguous, but it is very worrying at the same time. I hope that Obama is not giving in to Netanyahu. This would be a disaster for all concerned, both Israelis and Palestinians. What is needed now is for the U.S. to increase pressure on Israel, not reduce it," Maoz told IPS.
"I think it could be a tactical move on the part of the Americans. They are aware that the settlement issue is stalling peace talks. There are rumors that Obama has a settlement plan in the pipeline which could involve final borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
"If this is true, then I think the U.S. could come back to the issue of a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem at a later stage. One of Obama’s former Mideast advisers Rashid Khalidi is from East Jerusalem, so I’m sure the president is well aware of the facts on the ground."
Meanwhile, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit told reporters in Stockholm last Friday that East Jerusalem is Arab "and it will continue to be so." He said the Arab world expects the area to be included in a moratorium on Israeli settlements.
(Inter Press Service)