24 March 2010
Hillary Clinton has firmed up US opposition to construction in Jewish neighbourhoods in occupied East Jerusalem
[And see the associated 26 March briefing: Background Paper: Israeli policies in East Jerusalem]
The international community, while formally opposing the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem and refusing to locate foreign embassies there, has generally stopped short of openly challenging this annexation.
At most, international leaders have reminded Israel that East Jerusalem is ‘occupied territory’ and warned of changes to the ‘status quo.’ These admonitions have usually come in the wake of the demolition of Palestinian homes, evictions and appropriation of property by settlers in the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods near the Old City.
Now, as repeated by Hillary Clinton several times at her address to AIPAC Monday, it is the status quo itself that is seen to endanger the peace process.
Most Israelis do not regard the established Jewish neighbourhoods built in East Jerusalem after 1967 – such as French Hill, Gilo or Pisgat Ze’ev – as ‘settlements’ in the sense of the Jewish settlements in the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, although this is clearly their status under the laws of war and in the opinion of the international community. For Israelis, even many in the peace camp, they are seen as part of Israel, built “legally” by Jerusalem’s popular former mayor Teddy Kolleck, based on the annexation of the eastern part of the city and the subsequent application of Israeli law to it.
Similarly, even those Israelis who think that the settlements on the West Bank should be dismantled because they are provocative, illegal under international law and non-negotiable, consider challenging established settlements in Jerusalem as taboo.
The rules of this game have recently been challenged – by the Israeli government, which has accelerated the building of new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem to unprecedented levels. More importantly, it now openly supports the more aggressive type of settlement in the heart of the Old City and adjacent Palestinian neighbourhoods. It is precisely this type of settlement that is viewed by many Israelis – and certainly by the international community – as provocative and dangerous.
In the past, such settlements were initiated by private groups; and Israeli governments kept a careful distance (albeit providing indirect support by funding their private security arrangements).
Now, Jerusalem’s hardline mayor Nir Barkat has come out in public support of these settlers, and his municipal administration has earmarked large tracts of lands around the Old City, ostensibly for development, but in fact in order to entrench Jewish control over access routes to the sacred sites.
According to Israeli watchdog Ir Amim, there are plans to build tens of thousands of new housing units in East Jerusalem in the Old City, in adjacent Palestinian neighbourhoods, and in newer Jewish neighbourhoods such as Ramat Shlomo, Giv’at HaMatos and Giv’at Yael.
This policy will deepen Israeli control over East Jerusalem and sever the city from the rest of the West Bank. It will seriously compromise any future negotiations by creating a situation that it will be almost impossible to reverse. The building is taking place as fast as possible before any real pressure is exerted on Israel to stop.
It is this situation that the US is referring to when speaking of the ‘status quo’ in the city, and it is exactly right in demanding a clear freeze in this process before new negotiations can begin. Any other approach will play into the hands of the ‘facts-on-the-ground’ factions, and lead to inevitable failure.
Paradoxically, the decision of Netanyahu’s government to blur the distinction between official governmental settlement policies and unofficial settlers’ activities may yet undermine the faith of the Israeli public in the distinction between the expansion of settlements on the West Bank and the continuation of construction in Jerusalem.
According to a poll held by Haaretz last week, Israeli public opinion could go either way. Almost half (48%) are willing to risk a rift with the US, and think Israel should keep building in the capital; close to this number (41%) think Israel should accept the American demand to stop building in Jerusalem until the end of any future negotiations.
The real question may already be whether the current situation is reversible – whether separation, even now, is possible in Jerusalem. One is reminded of the words of Edward Said, who believed, already in 1999: ‘…In the area between Ramallah to the north and Bethlehem to the south, eight hundred thousand Israelis and Palestinians live on top of each other and cannot be separated.’