x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Jerusalem back to normal after riots but tension still simmers

Spread of settlements and marginalising of Palestinian residents seen as part of plan to present a 'Judaised' city and forestall talks.

A Palestinian man prays at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City yesterday after Israel lifted restrictions on enstrance to the mosque.
A Palestinian man prays at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City yesterday after Israel lifted restrictions on enstrance to the mosque.

JERUSALEM // With the "day of rage" over, a semblance of normality returned to Jerusalem yesterday, as Israel lifted five-day-old restrictions on Palestinian travel and entrance to Al Aqsa mosque.

The city remains, however, a powder keg of tensions. And hopes for a negotiated agreement between Palestinians and Israelis over the future status of Jerusalem are diminishing with every new brick in Jewish settlements in the occupied eastern half. That, at least, was the view from Jerusalem's Old City on Tuesday, where Palestinians and Israeli security forces had clashed, leading to dozens of arrests and injuries.

Nasser Qous, a community leader of one of the neighbourhoods adjacent to Al Aqsa, said""Israel is trying to Judaise Jerusalem as fast as possible before going into any negotiations with the Palestinians." He had to be reached by telephone, since Israeli police had cordoned off his neighbourhood and forbade access, even to journalists. Earlier that day, the neighbourhood had been the scene of confrontations and Israeli security forces had stormed through its narrow alleys, arresting males aged 14 and older. Those rounded up included Mr Qous's older brother, Suleiman, a journalist and father of two. He was released yesterday but has been banned for 14 days from entering the Old City and subsequently reaching his home and his family.

That clashes broke out in the Qouses' neighbourhood is no surprise, leading as it does to Al Aqsa. The mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, remains a focal point for Palestinian demonstrations. It was a visit there in 2000 by the then opposition leader Ariel Sharon that sparked massive demonstrations, which spiralled out of control and led to the second intifada. Mr Sharon's visit, however, was only the spark, not the cause. The intifada that followed was fuelled by years of pent up anger, shared by leaders, factions and ordinary Palestinians at a negotiations process they saw being pre-empted every day on the ground in the form of Israeli settlement building and expansion, which saw the number of settlers in occupied territory double between the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993 and 2000.

Now, the ground is laid for a third intifada, many are predicting, not least because of East Jerusalem's settlements, where the Jewish population has gone from zero in 1967 to almost parity today. According to B'tselem, an Israeli human rights group, Jews constitute 45 per cent of East Jerusalem's population, against 55 per cent who are Palestinian - Christian or Muslim. According to numbers from the Jerusalem Centre for Social and Economic Rights, JCSER, Jews are in fact now a majority in East Jerusalem, with tens of thousands of Palestinians severed from the city by Israel's separation barrier, which excludes areas of high Palestinian population density such as Kufr Aqab and Shufat refugee camp.

Although the Palestinian population growth rate outstrips Jewish population growth, this only increases the pressure on Palestinian Jerusalemites, for whom it is very difficult to obtain municipal construction permits to expand homes or build new ones. This has forced many to move to suburbs, outside the municipal borders and, now, outside the barrier. This dilemma contrasts starkly with the treatment afforded the Jewish population of East Jerusalem for whom, last week alone, 1,600 new houses were granted planning permission, and cheaper housing make Jerusalem settlements an attractive proposition.

Leaving the city, meanwhile, carries with it the danger for Palestinian Jerusalemites of not being able to return. In 1995, two years after the Oslo accords were signed, Israel introduced legislation compelling Palestinian Jerusalemites with Jerusalem ID cards (the 98 per cent who chose not to take an Israeli passport because they did not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the city) to prove that their "centre of life" is in the city. Failure to comply can lead to a revocation of the ID and thus the right of residence.

That same year, a "Metropolitan Plan for Jerusalem" was developed to integrate the eastern and western parts of Jerusalem and abutting settlements, and plans were floated for a city-wide light rail project. The latter was started in 2006, and has cost 1.4 billion shekels (Dh1.4bn) to date. None of this suggests to Palestinians that Israel intends one day to share or divide the city with them. Successive Israeli governments have never been anything but clear that they consider Jerusalem their "eternal, undivided" capital.

Many observers have for years warned that continued Israeli construction in East Jerusalem will render any possible negotiated agreement over the city impossible. More and more are now saying that that point has long been passed. Indeed, said Ziad Hammouri, director of the JCSER, new settlement construction - like the 1,600 units that led to a diplomatic row between Israel and the United States last week, and the 50,000 units reportedly in various stages of planning - are only "decoration".

"Israel is presenting the world with a fait accompli; that it is impossible to divide the city," Mr Hammouri said. The target for Israel in the next two to three years, he said, is "to get rid of as many Palestinians as possible". Palestinians are not the only ones to believe this. A confidential 2008 EU report, which was leaked to the media in 2009, accused the Israeli government of using settlement expansion, house demolitions, discriminatory housing policies and the separation barrier as a way of "actively pursuing the illegal annexation" of East Jerusalem.

"Israel wants to obliterate the Palestinian identity in Jerusalem," Mr Qous said. "This way, if there are any negotiations, whether direct or indirect, there will be nothing left for the Palestinians to negotiate concerning Jerusalem." @Email:okarmi@thenational.ae