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East Jerusalemites need to be a priority in any new strategy for the Israel-Palestinian conflict

U.S. President Donald Trump’s December 6th announcement, in which he recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, shed light on the significance and symbolism of the city. The priority of the MEPP is to maintain the viability of the two-state solution with Jerusalem as the future capital of two states. Any formula acceptable to both sides needs a political solution for Jerusalem and its holy places. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are however increasingly becoming culturally, economically and socially marginalised amid institutional inertia, political and physical separation from the West Bank, as well as demographic pressures.

2017 has been a year brimming with commemorations related in one way or the other to what has come to be known as the Israel/Palestine conflict. Various events cast light on its most intractable issue: Jerusalem. Back in July, East Jerusalemites reunited and joined forces with Palestinians from the rest of the West Bank as a consequence of the crisis over Israeli restrictions placed on the entry to Al-Aqsa Mosque. On November 2, marking 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, the who’s who of East Jerusalem was in attendance to a conference on the text held in the city’s National Theatre El-Hakawati, while a group protested outside the British Consulate in the same area. Those unifying moments are infrequent for the 350,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem that have been unrepresented, dispossessed, disenfranchised, and leaderless for many decades since 1967, more acutely so since the Second Intifada. Last but not least, U.S. President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6th2017 contradicted longstanding international assurances to the Palestinians that the fate of the holy city would only be determined in negotiations.

Israeli forces occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem in 1967, annexing it in 1981 in defiance of international law. East Jerusalem is destined to be, as it was for most of the 20th century, the future capital of a Palestinian State, the epicentre of Palestinian nationalism and cultural life. It is however increasingly becoming culturally, economically and socially marginalised amid institutional inertia, political and physical separation from the West Bank, as well as demographic pressures. Israeli authorities behave as if its policies and actions in Jerusalem were an internal issue. The incremental strategy aimed at deepening divisions between Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and beyond, as well at ascertaining its sovereignty over all of Jerusalem – its ‘eternally unified capital’ – rests on three pillars.

Attack on institutions
The first pillar of the blueprint consists in disfiguring the city’s communal life and cultural identity and shrinking the space for Palestinian civil society. Two of the institutions that symbolised Palestinian historic and cultural presence in Jerusalem, the Orient House and the Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry, were closured in 2001. Ever since, Israel has closed more than 20 Palestinian cultural institutions and nongovernmental organisations, while frequently banning social activities and suspending public meetings. Israeli authorities argue that any activities related with the PA should be limited to areas under its jurisdiction, for the Oslo accords prohibited PLO official presence in the city and deferred the entire issue of Jerusalem to final status’ negotiations. Oslo however also assured political integration with Palestinian Authority offices and then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres promised the institutions would be allowed to operate freely.

Palestinian leaders, increasingly regarded with mistrust and disillusionment, tried to piggyback off a pyrrhic victory after the ‘Al Aqsa crisis’, a triumph they were not only unwilling, but also unable to spearhead. PA members cannot visit or hold meetings in Jerusalem, have to cross a checkpoint to reach the city, and are forbidden from funding any kind of activity in Jerusalem. The institutional and leadership vacuum in East Jerusalem has serious consequences not only in the political, but also on the economic, social and cultural fields.

Institutions symbolise Palestinian claims to sovereignty in East Jerusalem. If Europe intends to prevent religious elements from taking over the reins of what could be considered political matters, it should push for Palestinian institutions to be allowed to carry out operations as focal points in East Jerusalemites, in accordance with the 2003 Quartet Roadmap. In addition to that, the EU’s East Jerusalem Programme should further deepen and encourage cooperation with cultural institutions and civil society organisations, as well as other grassroots groups and activities on the ground.

Right to hold elections
Most East Jerusalemites have decided not to become Israeli citizens. They are permanent residents of the city, a status that does not confer the right to vote in national elections. They can vote in Jerusalem municipal elections, although most of them refuse to do so. Part of the deeper cantonisation undergone by the West Bank consists in Israeli authorities not facilitating – or even allowing – their having a say in forging a Palestinian leadership.

Even though the Jerusalem electorate participated in Palestinian legislative elections in 1995, Israel has hindered all other electoral processes: security forces shut registration stations and detained election commission officials before the 2004 presidential elections, and deprived more than 120,000 Jerusalemites from their right to vote in the 2006 legislative elections. The latest electoral summoning in Palestine, the local elections of May 2017, were prohibited from being carried out in East Jerusalem.

Now that reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah seems to be on the right track, the EU should make sure Palestinians in East Jerusalem are allowed to participate in an eventual vote at the national level. If conditions on the ground and Israeli obduracy still preclude an actual electoral process, the EU could work in close cooperation with the Palestinian authorities to develop a secure and efficient alternative system allowing East Jerusalemites to designate their leaders.

Demographic engineering
The third pillar of the strategy aims at gerrymandering a Jewish majority in the city. Since 1967, Israel started following a policy intended to shrink the Palestinian Arab population of the municipality while increasing the number of Jews. The mechanism of choice is deliberate urban planning. There are nowadays 15 settlements in Occupied East Jerusalem: 50 years ago, East Jerusalem was populated exclusively by Palestinians, while nowadays it is the place of residence for more than 210,000 settlers.

As of lately, two initiatives to redraw the borders of the city municipality have been put forward in the Knesset. The ‘United Jerusalem Bill’ would amend the Basic Law on Jerusalem to transfer two major Palestinian population centres- over 100,000 residents – to separate ad hoc municipalities. The ‘Greater Jerusalem Bill’ would increase Jerusalem’s Jewish population by about 130,000/150,000 by expanding the municipal boundary and annexing five settlements. A vote on the latter was postponed under American pressure, epitomising the potentialities of international action.

Demographic engineering also takes the shape of measures such as the ‘Centre of Life Policy’, whereby Palestinian Jerusalemites have the status of ‘permanent’ residents but their permits can be discretionally cancelled on the ground of alleged change of their centre of life or disloyalty to Israel. Furthermore, hundreds of Palestinians’ private properties have been confiscated because the owner was not present in 1967, or expropriated for public purposes or security reasons. Last but not least, a majority of Palestinian housing permit applications are rejected, whereas dozens of Palestinian houses face an imminent danger of demolition.

Add to that the separation wall, that not only severs Palestinian communities from the city but also isolates East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. The wall thus contributes to the unviability of any future Palestinian state and hinders economic development and access to social services. The poverty rate among Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem reached almost 82% in 2014.

What role can – and should – Europe play?
The EU has a responsibility to put an end to what Daniel Seidemann called the ‘myth of benign occupation’, and the US’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel should get the Union back in the driving seat. Israel’s actions in the city, coupled with an unrelenting refusal to include negotiations over the status of East Jerusalem, shouldn’t escape the scrutiny of international law. An effective approach calls for actions beyond mere European ‘concern about the situation’. Condemnation seems to have so far fallen on deaf ears, doing nothing to alter the trajectory of Israel’s actions.

The stalwart of this approach, both in terms of East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Territories and Gaza, is the differentiation strategy. The EU ought to cease prioritising its trade relations with Israel at the expense of political engagement with the MEPP dossier and put an end to preferential trade agreements so long as undertakings endangering future understandings do not come to a halt. Any step in an opposite direction could signal the EU’s acquiescence to developments on the ground or, even worse, its departing from being a compass for international legitimacy.


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