By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif
In the frustrating pursuit of Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement based on the concept of a two-state solution, one particular issue emerges as the most cumbersome and, in the view of most Israelis, non-negotiable.
It is the fate of Arab East Jerusalem, occupied along with the rest of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Earlier this week Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told participants in an international conference on Jerusalem in Doha that Israeli measures to Judaize East Jerusalem represent the last battle to seal the fate of the Holy City and its environs. He described Israeli “measures of annexation” as “null and void. East Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine.” Israel, he said, was “using the ugliest and most dangerous means to implement plans to erase and remove the Arab Islamic and the Christian character of East Jerusalem.”
The Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani called on the UN to “investigate the measures Israel has taken to Judaize Jerusalem since its occupation in 1967.” President Abbas supported the suggestion and Palestinian officials said they will take their case to the UN General Assembly if their bid to censure Israeli actions were foiled by an American veto at the Security Council.
Israel has condemned the conference as Israel-bashing carnival and criticized the presence of UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Palestinian leader’s remarks “a harshly inflammatory speech from someone who claims that he is bent on peace.”
But in spite of the heated rhetoric Israel appears committed to systematic scheme to destroy East Jerusalem buildings and neighborhoods, build and expand Jewish settlements in and around the city, enforce economic siege on Arab residents to force them out and threaten the integrity of Al Haram Al Sharif complex that includes Al Aqsa Mosque whose Western Wall is holy to Jews and is believed to be the only remaining structure of the destroyed Third Temple.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war. It declared the city its eternal and united capital. And although such move was never recognized by the international community, little has been done to stop illegal Israeli measures to change the character of occupied East Jerusalem.
And since Palestinian-Israeli negotiations took off in Oslo, Norway, in the early 1990s, culminating with the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, negotiators on both sides were unable to decide the final status of the city although the principle of withdrawal from East Jerusalem or parts of it was agreed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.
East Jerusalem and other issues such as Palestinian refugees and borders were left unsettled as part of a final status round of negotiations that should have been concluded by the end of last century. After the failure of the Camp David peace talks in 2000, particularly over the future of East Jerusalem, the entire process collapsed.
But even after Oslo successive Israeli governments continued to build and expand Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In recent years Israeli plans to Judaize the Arab part of the city surged, and in recent weeks tension between Arab residents and Jewish radicals over access to Al Aqsa Mosque reached unprecedented levels.
Sustained Israeli measures target the Arab residents of Jerusalem in many ways but with one aim in particular; to alter the demographic realities in favor of non-Arabs. Between 1980 and 2007 the Jewish population of Jerusalem grew from 100,000 to 489,000, according to Jerusalem Municipality figures. On the other hand and according to Azmi Abu Souad, a former employee of the Jerusalem Municipality who is now the general director of the civil rights department at PLO, while 170,000 Palestinians carry Jerusalem identity documents, the number of Palestinians actually residing in the city is, in fact, less than 100,000. This contradicts other figures, which put the total Arab population of the old city and its neighborhoods at over 200,000.
Souad estimates that of the 200,000 Palestinians, 60,000 live outside the region — in Jordan, the US, and elsewhere. As many as 70,000 Palestinians with blue identity cards live in the West Bank, outside the boundaries of the city. With Israel’s restrictive policy of granting building permits many of the city’s residents are moving to the West Bank. Arabs have become a minority in their own city. It is the remaining 70,000 to 100,000 Palestinians still living in East Jerusalem who are now being targeted by Israel. Ending Arab presence in the Old City could become a reality by the year 2020.
Of the half million Jewish residents of both sectors of Jerusalem, more than 40 percent are living in East Jerusalem. But recent government plans to build new housing units and expand existing settlements will make Jews the overwhelming majority in East Jerusalem in few years.
Jerusalem’s predicament is representative of the plight of Palestinians living in the West Bank, where Israel too is engaged in settlement building in order to annex major chunks of the Palestinian territories.
The Doha conference has underlined the real threats to the character and identity of East Jerusalem. But that is not enough. Jerusalem is an Arab and Islamic city and the task of saving it must lie with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Israel is so close to achieving its sinister goals and unless an international campaign is launched now its fate will be sealed within few years.
— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.