Israel Under Pressure Over Divided Jerusalem

RAMALLAH – By late Saturday afternoon hundreds of heavily armed Israeli security forces on horseback and on foot had arrested over 20 Palestinians, assaulted a handful of people, and prevented numerous festivities from taking place.

Police in riot gear on horseback charged at groups of Palestinian youths in Salahadin Street, the major thoroughfare of Palestinian East Jerusalem, forcibly dispersing them.

Several Palestinian women handing out celebratory T-shirts at Damascus Gate at the entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City were arrested and taken in for questioning.

A football game affiliated with the culture festival was broken up as students attempting to release balloons were arrested. A group of young girls gathered at a local youth club were forcibly dispersed.

Earlier in the week police stormed a meeting of festival organizers, arresting several participants and confiscating laptops, mobile phones, and files.

The Israeli police were following the orders of Israel’s Public Security Minister Avi Dichter to use whatever force was necessary to prevent the Palestinian Authority (PA) from celebrating “Jerusalem as the capital of Arabic culture for 2009.”

The tough crackdown, on what on the surface appeared to be a harmless and fun cultural event, underlines the growing conflict between the Israel government and the PA over the division of the city between Israeli West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem.

Israel sees a united Jerusalem as its undivided capital forever. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Under international law, underpinned by various UN Security Council resolutions, East Jerusalem is illegally occupied by Israel and belongs to the Palestinians.

Jerusalem is not recognized as the legitimate capital of Israel by any foreign country, all of which base their embassies in Tel Aviv.

Following the breakout of the second Palestinian uprising (Intifada) in 2000, Israel banned the PA from carrying out any activities in East Jerusalem as competing claims over the future of the eastern part of the city exacerbated tensions.

The Palestinian population in East Jerusalem comprises 253,000 people, while there are approximately 192,000 Israeli settlers residing there in 12 illegal settlements.

The war over East Jerusalem has been fought on a number of fronts and on various levels since Israel captured the territory during the six-day Arab-Israeli war in 1967.

One of the first laws implemented after the 1967 war was the Absentee Property Law, which Israel used to expropriate Palestinian homes and property. Any Palestinian who vacated his home, even on a temporary basis to escape the fighting or as a result of expulsion, was designated an “absentee” landlord.

The “absentee” automatically lost ownership or the use of his or her property, and the homes were subsequently often sold or rented to Jewish Israelis. Since then the Jewish state has meticulously tried to establish facts on the ground by Judaizing East Jerusalem with the establishment of settlements. Jerusalem municipality has redrawn the city’s municipal boundaries to incorporate the illegal settlements.

The building of the separation barrier, which separates Israel proper from the West Bank, has increased the number of Palestinians on the “wrong side” of the barrier or wall, thereby further limiting a Palestinian presence.

Conservative UN figures estimate currently that about 25 percent of the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have been cut off from the city by the barrier.

Furthermore, Israeli rights organization B’Tselem states, “Palestinians residing outside of Jerusalem for seven or more years lose their Jerusalem residency status unless they can prove Jerusalem residency within the municipal boundaries and the importance of the city in their daily life, which is imperative in order to keep their identity cards.”

In 2003, the Citizenship and Entry Into Israel law was enacted. This prevents Palestinians from the territories from living in East Jerusalem, or Israel proper, with their Palestinian spouses who may have Israeli citizenship or Jerusalem residency.

Another tactic has been to limit the number of building permits for Palestinians, forcing many to build illegally and then risk demolition by the authorities.

The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) says there is currently a housing shortage of more than 25,000 units in East Jerusalem. Palestinians receive up to 300 permits annually, while 150 homes are simultaneously demolished.

Suhail Khalilieh, head of the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem (ARIJ) settlement unit, told IPS that “even if Palestinians are fortunate enough to get the permits, they are still restricted to building on only 25 percent of their land.”

Furthermore, B’Tselem explained that Palestinians account for only about 20 percent of illegal construction in the city, yet more than 75 percent of the demolitions are carried out on Palestinian homes.

While Israel has been winning the war on the ground and in the media to date, the tide may be turning.

Pressure from the new U.S. administration over Israel’s planned demolition of 88 Palestinian homes in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, among others, might force the demolition orders to be frozen.

Furthermore, a report released by the EU in December accused Israel of using settlement expansion, the security barrier in the West Bank, Palestinian house demolitions, and discriminatory housing policies to gain control over East Jerusalem.

Another boost has come from an unexpected quarter recently. Turkish officials, at the behest of lawyers acting on behalf of Palestinian owners, have uncovered archives going back to the Ottoman empire days (that ended in 1922) in Ankara confirming that Palestinians are the owners of a number of homes in East Jerusalem.

The officials recently helped to trace documents which could end a 30-year-old dispute over the ownership of around 30 buildings in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood

Hitherto, a number of Sephardic Jews (Jews from the Arab countries) claimed to have legal documentation to prove their ownership.

The Palestinian owners had claimed for years that these documents were forged but were unable to prove their case due to lack of cooperation from the Turks who were hesitant to spoil their relationship with Israel prior to the Gaza war.

According to the Palestinians’ attorneys, one of the Ottoman documents proves that the Sephardic leadership never purchased the compound but only rented it. Another Ottoman document confirms that the ownership document presented by the Jewish party is not authentic.

Other dispossessed Palestinians have also claimed forgery was committed in regard to their homes.

Author: Mel Frykberg

Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.