By Osama Al Sharif
October 09, 2018
East Jerusalem’s Palestinians are facing a vicious onslaught as Israel begins to implement a series of measures aimed primarily at limiting their presence in the Holy City and its environs, and weakening their position as residents. Israel’s Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat, this week announced plans to shut down and expel UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, from East Jerusalem. Furthermore, he said Israel would take over responsibility for schooling more than 1,800 Palestinian students from UNRWA. The agency runs seven schools in the Arab part of the city.
The plans, which were rejected by UNRWA, would also see the Jerusalem municipality take over buildings and offices belonging to the UN agency in East Jerusalem. Barkat, known for his open hostility to the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, who make up about 40 percent of the city’s total population, is also planning to strip more than 18,000 Palestinians living in Shuafat camp in Jerusalem of their refugee status. The municipality will also confiscate the land on which the camp is located. UNRWA leased the land from the Jordanian authorities in 1965.
Aside from losing access to UNRWA’s education, health and other services, East Jerusalem’s Palestinians continue to suffer from discriminatory Israeli practices. They are denied basic services and more than 95 percent do not have Israeli citizenship. In addition, 75 percent of Palestinians in East Jerusalem live below the poverty line, as opposed to 29 percent of the Jewish population.
While expelling UNRWA from East Jerusalem is in violation of treaties signed between Israel and the UN, the Israeli authorities have been emboldened by recent anti-Palestinian measures taken by the Trump administration. Israel has been adopting and executing plans to dilute East Jerusalem’s demographic character for years, but it is now accelerating such plans openly and brazenly.
Since US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the far-right Israeli government has moved to end all of its obligations under the Oslo Accords. Jerusalem, in particular, has seen a number of steps taken to detach it completely from the West Bank. US attempts to defund UNRWA and change the definition of Palestinian refugees are also controversial moves that have encouraged Israel to sever the agency’s ties to East Jerusalem.
By stripping the Shuafat residents of their refugee status, Israel is creating new facts on the ground; denying those refugees their inalienable right to return or be compensated. What will eventually happen to them remains unclear.
Similarly, and despite international outcry, Israel is about to tear down the Palestinian community of Khan Al-Ahmar, east of Jerusalem. Amnesty International has described plans to relocate the village’s 270 residents as a “war crime.” The small village is one of more than 20 that Israel plans to raze to the ground in order to expand the area of Greater Jerusalem. Once finished, Greater Jerusalem will occupy about one-fifth of the total area of the West Bank. More importantly, it will physically separate the northern West Bank from the southern part, making it impossible for a viable Palestinian state to emerge.
It goes without saying that all of these measures are taken directly from the Israeli far right’s playbook, which rejects the Oslo Accords and the creation of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. And, regardless of the US’ “ultimate deal,” these Israeli actions on the ground will make any settlement impossible to implement. In fact there is strong evidence to suggest that Trump’s peace team — Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman — are taking their cues directly from the Israeli far right’s agenda. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, rejecting the two-state solution, defunding UNRWA and downsizing the number of Palestinian refugees are a few examples.
Unfortunately, Arab and Muslim nations have done little to support East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents. Rhetoric and verbal expressions of solidarity won’t stop Israeli bulldozers from tearing down Palestinian villages and changing the demographics of East Jerusalem. Moreover, Arab leaders have little influence over the White House. But, to be fair, even America’s allies have not been able to affect the US position.
On the other hand, the Israeli far right is unable to provide a viable alternative to the now defunct two-state solution. Even as Israel beefs up its settlement activities, expropriates Palestinian lands, rejects Palestinian statehood and vows to keep security control over the Jordan Valley, it fails to answer pertinent questions about the fate of millions of Palestinians in the partitioned and fragmented West Bank territory. These are questions that challenge Israel’s own existence in the long run.
Only one power can throttle down Israel’s hunger for territory and expansion and that is the US. Unfortunately, it is instead emboldening Israeli extremists and putting all parties on an inevitable collision course. Moreover, by failing to intervene, it is making sure that Trump’s peace plan will be stillborn.
• Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman