Jerusalem's political orphans

Israeli officials are making unilateral decisions about the fate and future of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem.

al-monitor An Israeli barrier runs between the East Jerusalem refugee camp of Shuafat (R) and Pisgat Zeev, both located in an area Israel annexed to Jerusalem after capturing it in 1967, Feb. 15, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.

Jan 9, 2018

Some 150,000 Palestinians living in Jerusalem neighborhoods on the eastern side of the Israeli-built wall snaking in and out of Jerusalem and the West Bank continue to live in a legal and administrative limbo. The political orphans of East Jerusalem are not allowed to be connected to their Palestinian leadership but are also not part of the Israeli political system even though the latter decides, unilaterally, what happens to them. This was recently reiterated by the Israeli Knesset.

While much of the attention was given to a law passed Jan. 2 requiring 80 out 120 Knesset members to agree to any changes to the boundaries of Jerusalem, another part of the original bill was of much more direct interest to the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. The New York Times reported Jan. 2 that right-wing Knesset member Naftali Bennett, leader of HaBayit HaYehudi, had unexpectedly decided at the last moment to remove a clause that would have made it easier to redraw the map of East Jerusalem.

The Times reported, “The surprise move came around 3 a.m., when members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition stripped from a bill they were about to enact language that would have made it easier to exclude Palestinians from the map of Jerusalem.” The move left the status of Kufr Aqab, Shuafat and other Palestinian neighborhoods in the city unchanged.

The decision appears to have been made for tactical reasons. According to the Times, right-wing Israeli officials, fearing that a left-wing government might one day take power, did not want to make it easier for such a government to create a separate Palestinian municipality to be called al-Quds by using administrative powers rather than the Knesset's legislative process.

Whether changes in the status of Palestinian communities beyond the wall will be made easier or harder has not much affected the outlook of Palestinians contacted by Al-Monitor.

Khader Dibs, a Jerusalem activist, told Al-Monitor, “We are working hard to defend our national rights in Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Palestine, and to work against their efforts to impose apartheid rule on our communities,” he said.

Dibs called the decision by the Knesset the latest proof that the Israelis negotiate among themselves about the future of Palestinians, but not with the Palestinians themselves. He stated, “They act unilaterally as if the Knesset is the only party that is involved in this conflict. They refuse to negotiate with us or with the Quartet or any other reliable mediator. They simply negotiate among themselves about our future.”

In terms of events on the ground, Dibs said that the Knesset decision not to impose changes on the status of Palestinian communities will hopefully allow for some slight improvements to the deteriorating situation.

“In recent times, they had withdrawn the services of the Jerusalem municipality, but now they have decided to keep us within the municipality,” he said. “And there are talks now that they will be establishing a post office and offices of the Interior Ministry at the Shuafat checkpoint to provide services, while at the same time preventing, as much as possible, Palestinians from entering Jerusalem.”

While Jerusalem's municipal boundary zigzags between the homes of the Shuafat refugee camp (part of the West Bank) and the neighborhood of Shuafat (part of Israel), and between areas under Israeli control and areas that are under the Palestinian government, the situation in Kufr Aqab to the north is an even bigger humanitarian issue. Munir Saghair, head of the Kufr Aqab local council in areas under Palestinian administrative control, told the Israeli daily Haaretz in October that some 64,000 Palestinians live in crowded and unregulated areas.

According to Saghair, since 2001, the Israeli municipality has refused to issue a single housing permit, leaving some 25,000 Palestinians living in unlicensed homes. Israel issued orders in October to demolish five high-rise buildings housing 138 families in Kufr Aqab. “The unlicensed, rented buildings also include offices belonging to various Israeli health and social services offices in these supposed illegal structures,” Saghair told Haaretz when the demolition orders were issued and then approved by Israeli courts.

In its weekly meeting, the Palestinian government blamed the deteriorating situation on one factor in particular. “The decision by US President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has whetted the appetite of Israeli extremists to demolish the peace process,” it said in a statement after meeting Jan. 3.

Meanwhile, the status of some 150,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites continues to be in flux. The time has come, however, to pay closer attention to the political and humanitarian rights of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, in the Old City and outside its walls and on both sides of the Israeli-imposed security wall.

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