Palestine Pulse

Israeli census on Jerusalem a political game ahead of elections

Article Summary
Reports that Arabs could become 50% of population of Jerusalem in the coming decade have major implications as Jerusalem's municipal elections approach.

The population of the city of Jerusalem has increased tenfold since 1948, according to an Israeli census report. Palestinians in Jerusalem constitute 37% of the population but could reach 50% if their current birthrate continues, according to the report, which was highlighted by various Israeli newspapers and translated into Arabic by the Egyptian daily Youm 7.

The issue has gained importance as the municipal elections in Jerusalem are set to take place in October of this year.

According to the report, at the beginning of 2016, the population of the entire city of Jerusalem stood at 870,000, with Jews numbering 548,000 and Arabs 322,000 — a 63% to 37% ratio. The report said Arab and Jewish children and young people account for 50% of the population, and said that as a result of the higher birthrate of Arabs and the exit of many Israeli Jews from the city, Palestinians could wind up constituting half the city in the coming decade.

Bernard Sabella, an elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council representing Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor that the population equation in Jerusalem is clearly in favor of Palestinians in the mid and long term, and that is precisely why Israel is trying to gerrymander the city’s borders. Sabella said, “By taking out of Jerusalem municipal boundaries areas such as Kufr Aqab, the Shuafat refugee camp, Beit Hanina and other areas with relatively high population density, the Israelis are hoping to redress the population equation so that it would be in their favor.” Israel has been considering cutting those areas from the municipality of Jerusalem to reduce their impact on the overall situation.

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Sabella, however, doubts that the Israel efforts will work in the long run.

Talal Abu Afifeh, a resident of the Shuafat refugee camp, says that the Israelis are running wild trying to figure out how to deal with what they call the demographic problem in Jerusalem. “The Palestinians living in Shuafat camp and Kufr Aqab alone number 100,000, and they all have legal permanent residencies. This is not a small group of people you can get rid of by destroying or demolishing a house here and a house there,” he told Al-Monitor.

Daniel Seidmann, an Israeli lawyer who specializes in Jerusalem affairs and the director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, a nongovernmental organization focusing on life in Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor that a couple of years ago it seemed that a Palestinian majority was inevitable. “But with a more educated Palestinian female population, the growth rate has slowed. The size of the Palestinian population is still growing, but more slowly.”

Seidmann said the major takeaway from all this is that one of the major battles of Jerusalem is “the war of the womb.” He told Al-Monitor that “the discourse is controlled by ideology, but it is clear that the Israeli goal of maintaining a robust Israeli majority failed historically, continues to fail today, and all indications are that it will continue to fail in the near future.”

While the Palestinian population of Jerusalem is made up of legal residents of the city but not citizens of Israel, the importance of their numbers can be felt in municipal elections (city residents who are not Israeli citizens are allowed to vote in city elections). For the past 50 years, Palestinians have largely chosen not to legitimize the unilateral Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem by participating in the city’s elections. However, some are having second thoughts, and it seems to have raised the Israeli worries to high levels.

Mohammad Zahika, a resident of al-Sawahreh neighborhood in East Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor that the issue of participation in the Jerusalem municipal elections is still very muddy. “It is one big mess. There are no strategies on whether to participate or not and no reference point as to how to deal with the elections issue and other issues regarding Jerusalem.”

Zahika confirmed that some Palestinian leaders are calling for participation in the upcoming municipal elections, but there is no vision or strategy yet. “Without a clear alternative that can support the steadfastness of people in Jerusalem, the issue of participating in elections becomes a real possibility.”

Sabella said that the question of municipal elections is problematic. He asked, “It has legal and international implications — would Palestinians recognize the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem and hence give tacit approval of occupation of the city if they participate?"

Sabella is also concerned that Palestinians have failed in developing a strategy on how to counteract Israeli measures in the city. “We have failed not only in terms of politics but also in cultural rejuvenation, economic development, social and inter-group resolve to re-create the public sphere, especially in the Old City. What is needed in Jerusalem is a tall order, but we do need to get going,” he added.

Hanna Issa, a Palestinian and head of the Islamic-Christian Commission in Support of Jerusalem and Holy Sites, told Al-Monitor that the demographic predictions are exaggerated on purpose to justify political decisions regarding the borders of the city. “If you look at the birthrate alone, the religious orthodox Jews are having many more babies than Palestinian families in Jerusalem.” Issa argues that the ultimate Israeli goal is to reduce the ratio of Palestinians in the entire city to 12%.

Regardless of the numbers and percentages, it is clear that the demographic issue of Jerusalem is one that can’t be simply ignored by political leaders. Palestinians are confident that their biggest act to resist Israeli attempts to fully control Jerusalem and to make it more of a Jewish city rests on their ability to be steadfast and not to leave their homes and city. But the absence of a strategy and respected leaders to implement such a strategy continues to hamper Palestinian efforts.

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Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist, a media activist and a columnist for Palestine Pulse. He is a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University and is currently director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab

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