Project Jerusalem

Published : Feb 11, 2011 00:00 IST

Palestinians watch as an excavator demolishes Shepherd Hotel in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem on January 9 to clear the way for 20 new homes for Jews in a settlement project that has angered Palestinians and drawn U.S. objections. - RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

Palestinians watch as an excavator demolishes Shepherd Hotel in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem on January 9 to clear the way for 20 new homes for Jews in a settlement project that has angered Palestinians and drawn U.S. objections. - RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

After creeping annexation, Israel now seems to be accelerating its plan to gobble up all of Jerusalem.

IN blatant disregard of international law and public opinion, Israel has approved the blueprint for changing the demography of East Jerusalem. The demolition of Shepherd Hotel, a landmark in East Jerusalem, in the second week of January was a signal of the intent of the Benjamin Netanyahu government to go ahead with this plan. This building of facts on the ground is to make redundant the claims of Palestinians on Jerusalem as the capital of their state. The contours of the plan to obliterate the last vestiges of the Arab-Islamic identity of East Jerusalem, the designated capital of Palestine, started emerging after the 1967 war. From 1967 to 2003, as many as 90,000 Jewish housing units were completed in Arab East Jerusalem, many of them with Israeli government funding. Under the present Likud-led government, the plans for the Judaisation of East Jerusalem have been accelerated dramatically.

The recent speeding up of settlement activity both in Jerusalem and in the West Bank comes as the peace talks remain stalled. According to observers, the burst in settlement activity in the latter half of 2010 was the most frenzied witnessed in the last decade.

The Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, sent a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council in the last week of December saying that the situation in and around East Jerusalem was most severe and that it required urgent attention and strong action from the international community. The Palestinians have been circulating in the Security Council a draft resolution that seeks to declare Israel's settlement-building in East Jerusalem illegal.

The foolhardy moves by Israel have only served to alienate even governments that have otherwise backed the Zionist project. The United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, criticised the construction activity in Jerusalem and in the occupied territories. She explicitly stated that the demolition of the Shepherd Hotel undermines peace efforts to achieve the two-state solution.

European Union (E.U.) envoys in West Asia have asked the European Commission to recognise East Jerusalem officially as the future capital of a Palestinian state. The E.U. Foreign Affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, condemned the demolition of Shepherd Hotel, describing it as a Palestinian symbol, while noting that the Israeli settlements were illegal under international law. The E.U., like the rest of the international community, does not recognise the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem.

The Obama administration summoned the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. after the latest incident and demanded that the construction projects in East Jerusalem be halted. This intervention only evoked a hawkish response from Netanyahu, who reiterated that there would be no limits on Jewish construction activity in a united Jerusalem.

The Geneva Convention prohibits any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons except when made absolutely necessary by military operations. But both the U.S. and the E.U. are yet to take strong steps to back up their rhetoric. It should not be forgotten that Hillary Clinton has strong ties with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the influential Jewish lobby in the U.S. As for Barack Obama, he had in fact said that Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel during his campaign in the Democratic primaries for the presidency.

A company owned by an American businessman, Irving Moskowitz, who has strong connections with right-wing Jewish groups, is financing the construction of many Jewish homes in East Jerusalem, including in the space created by the demolition of Shepherd Hotel.

President Dwight Eisenhower had threatened sanctions against Israel after the 1956 Suez war when it refused to withdraw from the Sinai peninsula. George H.W. Bush also threatened to do the same when Israel refused to stop settlement construction. In both instances, Israel had no option but to comply. Obama, on the other hand, despite the promises made in his Cairo speech, has climbed down from his insistence on a settlement freeze.

The heads of 25 European missions based in Jerusalem and Ramallah warned in early January that the continued expansion of settlements, restrictive zoning and planning (and) ongoing demolitions and evictions have not only serious humanitarian consequences, they undermine the Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem. The E.U. officials recommended specific actions to remedy the situation. These included refusing visas to Israeli settlers in Palestinian areas of Jerusalem and ensuring E.U. presence in the event of demolitions of Palestinian property or eviction of Palestinian families. The E.U. policy document's conclusion that Israel was systematically undermining the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem is one of the most categorical statements that have come out of Brussels. However, it has been silent on the issue of Palestinian statehood.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator in the peace talks, had called the demolition of Shepherd Hotel part of the Israeli plan to pre-empt any solution on Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority's (P.A.) Attorney-General, Ahmad al-Ruwaidi, had warned in November 2010 that Israel was about to implement its plans to rebuild old Jerusalem. He said that Israel planned to surround the remaining Arab population in the old city with new settlements, bridges and new synagogues in order to turn the ancient city into the capital and spiritual centre of Israel and Jewish people. At present, Palestinians comprise around one-third of the city's population but are confined to 7 per cent of the land. According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem lives in mostly inadequate housing. Recent governments in Israel have tried to limit the Palestinian population in the city even further by refusing to grant permission for residential construction or expansion.

Public services for Palestinians are severely restricted. There is an acute lack of good roads, sewerage facilities and water connections. Only 8 per cent of municipal spending is allocated to Palestinian areas though 40 per cent of the taxes are levied on them. The ICAHD also notes that Jewish settlements on Jerusalem's outskirts also dissect the continuity between the northern and southern West Bank, jeopardising the feasibility of a future Palestinian state.

The idea is to achieve demographic Jewish contiguity. There are reports that Israeli authorities even have plans to demolish parts of the Great Wall of Jerusalem built by Suleiman the Magnificent in A.D. 1542. According to credible reports, Israel is also planning excavations under Al Aqsa Mosque in a bid to bolster its Jewish antecedents. Many Palestinians and also archaeological and architectural experts fear that Haram al-Sharif, the third most important place for pilgrimage for Muslims, could either be damaged or face collapse if more excavations are permitted. A right-wing fringe group of Jews wants the Temple Mount to be built on Al Aqsa site. The Rabbinical Council of Judea and Samaria has issued statements demanding that the site be declared out of bounds for Palestinians.

Israel's Jerusalem plan 2020, titled Demography, Geopolitics, and the Future of Israel's Capital: Jerusalem's Proposed Master Plan, was prepared by the Jerusalem Centre of Public Affairs without consulting the Palestinians. This is not surprising as the main goal of the plan seems to be to marginalise further those Palestinians whose families have been resident in Jerusalem for generations and fulfil the writ of Israel's first Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, that Jews should settle in Jerusalem at any cost.

Khalil Tofakji, the head of the Arab Studies Society in occupied East Jerusalem's mapping department, told Al Ahram, the Egyptian newspaper, that between now and 2020 Israel would complete its Judaism plan for East Jerusalem.

The Palestinian activist and Member of Parliament Mustafa Barghouti said that Israel had allocated $1.5 billion in 2010 for the implementation of the master plan on expropriated Palestinian land. He said what Israel was doing to Jerusalem was what it had done to other Palestinian-majority cities such as Haifa, Acre and Jaffa in the past. The importance of Jerusalem transcends that of these cities as it is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims besides being a symbol of Jewish revivalism. It still is a multi-religious and multicultural city, but if the Israeli government has its way, this fact will soon be a memory. From creeping annexation, Israel now seems to be accelerating its programme to gobble up all of Jerusalem and thus give a final body blow to the peace process.

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