Extreme Makeover? (II): The Withering of Arab Jerusalem
Extreme Makeover? (II): The Withering of Arab Jerusalem
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The UAE, Israel and a Test of Influence
The UAE, Israel and a Test of Influence
Report 135 / Middle East & North Africa 6 minutes

Extreme Makeover? (II): The Withering of Arab Jerusalem

The announcement of significant new Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem has put the spotlight on the city, but the changes it has undergone since 2000, when the parties first negotiated its fate, are far broader and have far deeper roots. Israelis, Palestinians and the international community must adjust their strategies accordingly, or Arab East Jerusalem will continue its perilous decline, with catastrophic consequences for all.

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Executive Summary

For many Arab East Jerusalemites, the battle for their city is all but lost. Settlements have hemmed in their neighbourhoods, which have become slums in the midst of an expanding Jewish presence; trade with the West Bank has been choked off by the Separation Barrier and checkpoints; organised political life has been virtually eradicated by the clampdown on Palestinian institutions; their social and economic deprivation is rendered the more obvious by proximity to better-off Jewish neighbours. Israel may not have achieved its demographic goal. But its policies have had profound effects: Arab Jerusalemites are disempowered and isolated from the Palestinian polity as rarely before. Since 1967, Palestinians overwhelmingly have boycotted Israeli institutions in the city on the grounds that acting otherwise would legitimate occupation. This is understandable, but potentially obsolete and self-defeating. As Palestinian Jerusalemites increasingly are adrift, bereft of representation and lacking political, social, and economic resources, it is time for their national movement to reassess what, no longer a considered strategy, has become the product of reflexive habit.

Palestinian political life in Jerusalem has changed drastically since the Oslo Accords excluded the city from the temporary governing arrangements in the West Bank and Gaza. National institutions that sprung up in Ramallah competed for the spotlight with and eventually came to overshadow historic Palestine’s traditional political, economic and social capital. In the 1990s Jerusalem held its own, barely, in no small part due to the outsized role played by a scion of one of its venerable families, Faysal Husseini. But the city never recovered from the triple blow of Husseini’s death; the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 and the consequent limitations on access to the city; and the subsequent shuttering of Orient House, the Jerusalem headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The Palestinian Authority (PA), too distant and ineffectual, never provided an alternate address for its public in the Holy City. Fatah and Hamas withered as Israel prevented them from organising.

The city’s large families to some extent filled the authority gap, but they could not stop the dissolution of the social fabric and even became one of its agents: with East Jerusalem largely a no-go area for Israel’s police except when the country’s own security interests were threatened, families got into the crime business. East Jerusalem today is a rough and angry place. As for local popular committees, despite their political roots in the first intifada and before, they have had to focus on re-stitching the social fabric. The Holy Esplanade is the only site where mobilisation seems to have a purpose – with predictably incendiary results, particularly in light of increasing Jewish activism there.

With Jerusalem cut off from its natural West Bank hinterland, Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli activists increasingly are entering the fray. Efforts of Israeli and international solidarity movements on behalf of Arab residents confronting Jewish settlers have ebbed and flowed, but on the whole they have not gained much purchase. The northern branch of the Israeli Islamic Movement, an Israeli Arab group under the leadership of Shaykh Raed Salah, has played a much greater role. Although its capacity for large-scale mobilisation in Jerusalem is limited, Arabs in the city appreciate the boost to the economy provided by the pilgrims it brings as well as Salah’s loud voice on behalf of them and the Islamic holy sites. But many also consider his approach excessively religious and his language vituperative. Israel certainly does, deploring his incendiary and sometimes hateful rhetoric.

Arab Jerusalemites – who in 1967 overwhelmingly chose permanent residency over Israeli citizenship – have resorted to formal channels to protect a valuable status that seems ever more precarious given Israeli revocations of residency and construction of the Separation Barrier that has left some 50,000 Arab Jerusalemites on its east side. Numbers applying for Israel citizenship have grown over the past several years; the subject no longer is taboo. Some also have started to participate in municipal activities, including lobbying city hall for their due.

Without ever quite feeling that they fit in, Arab Jerusalemites have developed ties to the western part of the city, in terms of school, work and socialising. Their national address is Ramallah, but their executive and legislative representatives do not have jurisdiction over them; meanwhile their ostensible municipal representatives are their occupiers. For the vast majority of the population, this schizophrenic reality is the only one they have known.

A population that feels abandoned by everyone is in nobody’s interest. It certainly does no good to the Palestinians themselves, but it does not help Israel either. Boundaries are porous, particularly for drugs and criminality; the problems confronted by Arab Jerusalemites do not stop at neighbourhood borders. The absence of a credible leadership likewise will hinder any effort to manage future tensions and prevent an escalation. Finally, and more broadly, any future political arrangement between Israelis and Palestinians will require a cohesive and capable Palestinian community in East Jerusalem.

The default Palestinian strategy, strongly urged by the leadership, long has been to boycott all voluntary contact with the Jerusalem municipality. Reluctance to engage with Israeli institutions is understandable. Palestinians fear this would create the impression of endorsing Israel’s claim to the city. In the early years after 1967, the boycott was an active strategy that aimed at and achieved concrete if minimal gains, primarily in the form of limited Arab autonomy. This made sense in the 1960s and 1970s when East Jerusalem still was largely distinct. But today it has been simultaneously marginalised from, and integrated into West Jerusalem: marginalised, in that what used to be an autonomous city centre now is just a crowded and hemmed-in neighbourhood, with poor services and infrastructure badly in need of updating; integrated, in that no small number of Arab Jerusalemites work, study and socialise on both sides of the Green Line, and the roads, light rail and utilities that run through the eastern half are central to the entire city’s functioning.

As currently devised, the boycott largely is an artefact of a bygone era. It is a product of inertia more than of conscious deliberation. It has become a symbolic form of politics that covers an absence of politics. From a Palestinian perspective, it arguably carries advantages – reinforcing separateness and identity while refusing to legitimise occupation – but also unmistakable costs. The material and distributive dimensions of politics have been left to the side; the question of how the community can capture resources to strengthen itself is not only unanswered but unasked. Ultimately, the absent national debate about how to maximise Palestinian power in the city has facilitated both Israel’s and the Palestinian leadership’s evasion of responsibility.

However difficult, a Palestinian discussion about whether the current boycott strategy makes sense is long overdue. Such self-examination could yield any number of potential responses: that it still does; that it needs revision; or that it ought to be abandoned wholesale. Too, there are several options for adjustment: Palestinian East Jerusalemites could stand in municipal elections and vote for candidates who are Palestinian citizens of Israel; they could establish a shadow municipality in Ramallah; or they could try to set up a kind of collective representation that works in concert with the Israeli municipality. Even asking the question of whether the boycott should be tweaked or ended will be anathema to many Palestinians. But the question of Palestinian strategy, in Jerusalem and beyond, is greatly in need of rethinking, and until difficult and unpleasant issues are raised, will not be answered.

Extreme Makeover? (I): Israel’s Politics of Land and Faith in East Jerusalem, the first of two reports published simultaneously today, looks at Israel’s territorial policies in occupied East Jerusalem and the religious shifts that underlie some of them. This report examines the effects of that policy on the Palestinian body politic.

Jerusalem/Brussels, 20 December 2012

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