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A dangerous sea-change in Israeli policy toward Jerusalem

During the first 4 decades or so of Israeli rule in East Jerusalem, the city's Palestinian residents were subjected to neglect and discrimination. Most un-built land in East Jerusalem was expropriated and turned into settlements.  They found it nearly impossible to get building permits for the remaining land.  When they built without permits, they faced fines and demolitions.  They encountered overt inequities in municipal services and even efforts to revoke their residency rights.  

But while the situation wasn't pretty, there were always lines Israel did not cross - lines that Israel is crossing today, apparently utterly unconcerned by the consequences.

One example is Sheikh Jarrah, where forty-three years after Jerusalem's "unification," the government of Israel has decided that now is the time for a new, heavy-handed and morally indifferent policy implementing a Jewish "right of return" to East Jerusalem, at the expense of the city's Palestinian residents.  In Sheikh Jarrah today, Palestinians - themselves refugees from inside the Green Line - are being thrown out of their homes on the grounds that the property belonged to Jews before 1948.  Right-wing Jewish settlers had over the years managed to acquire a number of properties in this Palestinian neighborhood, through a combination of legal and legally questionable means, but had come nowhere near achieving any sort of critical mass.  Today that is changing. 

Another example is the Shepherds Hotel, which will soon be the site of the first Israeli settlement construction in Sheikh Jarrah since 1967.  Yes, you heard right.  Until now Israel has not built or permitted anyone to build Jewish housing in Sheikh Jarrah - settlers have taken over existing properties, but no new construction for settlements has taken place.  Now this policy has changed. 

Then there is the project to expand the Beit Orot settlement on the Mount of Olives - a settlement established in the 1990s in a pre-existing building.  The expansion of the settlement - approved in 2009 - will be the first Israeli settlement construction on the Mount of Olives since 1967.  Yes, you heard right again.  For 43 years - no settlement construction on the Mount of Olives.  Now, that is changing.

Or we can look at the new Ras al Amud settlement project.  For years settlers have targeted Ras al Amud, a densely-populated Palestinian neighborhood located adjacent to the cemetery on the Mount of Olives.  In the 1990s they succeeded in acquiring several Palestinian properties and transformed them into a large settlement compound.  But that was it - since then the settler presence in Ras al Amud has been unable to grow.  But today it is about to experience a huge growth spurt.  

How?  Simple: the government of Israel is allowing the settlers to take over a building, that until two years ago was home to the headquarters of the Israeli border police, and transform it into a huge new settlement.  First the government let the settlers build the border police a new headquarters in the middle of E-1 - the site of what Israel hopes will someday be a huge settlement linking Maale Adumim to Jerusalem.  Then it let them take over the building.  So today the settler presence in Ras al Amud is set to triple almost overnight.

And of course there is Silwan, which abuts the Old City.  Jewish settlers have long targeted this densely-populated Palestinian neighborhood in a sort of house-to-house combat, with the Israeli government doing little to stop them. But, with the exception of a period during the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, when elements in the Israeli government actively colluded, illegally, with the settlers - a phenomenon that ended with the devastating report by the Klugman Commission - the government did not support them, either.  The Israeli government policy - national and municipal - was to leave Silwan alone, and this limited the success of the settlers in gaining a foothold in the area.  But no longer.  

Starting in 2005, the Israeli cabinet, led by then Prime Minister Sharon, adopted a new policy aimed at changing the status quo in the area around the Old City.   A policy that places all the public domain - open areas, archeological sites, historical sites, touristic facilities, nature preserves - in the hands of the settlers.   A policy that today is being supported and magnified by the mayor of Jerusalem who has decided that 43 years after Israel took over East Jerusalem, now is the time for the city to start "redeveloping" Silwan - code for changing the status quo and turning this Palestinian neighborhood into a settler-run Jewish-Israeli religious/archeological theme park.

And finally, there is the ancient Mamilla cemetery, the most important Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem, located in West Jerusalem.  Since 1948, Israel has not treated Mamilla kindly.  The cemetery, which Israel turned into a park, has long been in ruins.  Graves are unmarked or in disrepair.  Vandalism is rampant.  Edges of the cemetery have been nibbled away at by Israeli development, in particular a parking lot built in the 1960s.  But all that said, from 1948 until recent years, Israel mostly left the site alone.  

No longer.  A few years ago Israel approved the construction of the bizarrely-named "Museum of Tolerance" on the site - a disgraceful project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.  Indifferent to the controversy and to the irony of building a Jewish museum dedicated to "tolerance" atop a Muslim cemetery, the city and the Wiesenthal Center have rushed to create a fait accompli on the ground, digging up graves and disposing of human remains in a manner that is today the subject of controversy and investigations inside Israel.    

All of this points to a sea-change in Jerusalem.  Since 1948, Israeli policy toward the Palestinian community in West Jerusalem, and its historical remnants in East Jerusalem, was characterized by neglect and discrimination.  Today, that policy is increasingly characterized by outright hostility and contempt - assaults on the integrity of the Palestinian community of East Jerusalem and on its history and dignity.  They are recognized, rightly, by Palestinians as a form of aggression.  It should be no wonder to anyone that East Jerusalem is today is teetering on the brink of a conflagration.