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Spotlight on the ongoing battle for East Jerusalem

Special to APN from Daniel Seidemann and Lara Friedman.

Three recent news items illuminate how the battle for East Jerusalem is heating up.

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First, the increasingly hollow claims of Israeli authority in East Jerusalem have been highlighted by the recent and well-publicized encounter between Israel and the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad over PA investment in East Jerusalem schools.

Israeli governmental services are meager and inadequate in East Jerusalem, and disappear on the West Bank side of the separation barrier (where some East Jerusalem neighborhoods are located). Neither the Israeli Government nor the Municipality even bothers to pretend to extend services to those Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the wall.  

While this neglect is widespread, it is particularly acute in two areas (on both sides of the barrier).  These are:  (a) schools, where there is a shortfall of at least 1500 classrooms, forcing Palestinian legal residents of East Jerusalem to contend with overcrowded classes, pay for private schooling, or keep their children home; and (b) infrastructure, where there is a shortage of hundreds of miles of roads, sewers and drainage.

It is in this authority vacuum that the current drama unfolded:

  • Enter PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, - ever the state builder - who in recent months has been funding infrastructure projects and the refurbishing of schools in East Jerusalem, principally, but not exclusively on the West Bank side of the barrier. Fayyad announces his intention to attend opening ceremonies for schools and roads in these areas.
  • Enter the Israeli right, which clamors to protect the inviolability of a largely fictitious sovereignty, not by means of providing the missing services but by preventing the PA from doing so.
  • Israeli Minister of Internal Security Aharonovitch, who addresses the authority void by issuing an order forbidding Fayyad from entering an area of East Jerusalem (the Dahiyat Salaam neighborhood of Anata) where no Israeli authorities, save the Border Patrol, ever tread.  And enter Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who announces his support for Aharonovitch's courageous stand.
  • Enter Mayor Barkat, who tries to "solve" all of these problems, at least for PR purposes, by cutting a ribbon in the only new school to be opened in the last year in East Jerusalem, once again oblivious to the realities of the town he purports to run, including the views of the inhabitants of the neighborhood where the new school is located.

In the end, Fayyad, left with no other choice, canceled most of the planned events, except one in the Dahiyat al Barid section of A-Ram - opening a school so close to the semi-fictitious Municipal boundary that no one can say with authority if it was "in Jerusalem" or not. This is an issue deferred, not resolved; the world is likely to see more of this jockeying for position - real and fictitious - as Israeli governance increasingly unravels in East Jerusalem.

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This battle for ownership of East Jerusalem was also on display last week, when on 10/24/10 the Knesset's Ministerial Committee on Legislative Affairs approved amendments to Israel's Basic Law on Jerusalem.  The amendments seek to define Jerusalem as a "National Priority Area" - giving Jerusalem special benefits in a range of areas.  

As noted in the Israeli press, the clear message of this bill is that Jerusalem will never be divided:   

"...even though the bill amendments don't mention construction beyond the Green Line, it is expected that construction priority will also be given to Jewish neighborhoods east of the Green Line. In addition, they will receive government prioritization in the education and employment sectors, which will lead, say the bill's creators, to a change in the area's demographic makeup - an increase in the number of Jews in the area.  Minister Kahlon said that by passing the legislation the Israeli government is sending a 'clear, unequivocal political message that Jerusalem will not be divided.  All those within the Palestinian or international community who expect the current Israeli government to accept any demands regarding Israel's sovereignty over its capital are mistaken and misleading,' he said.  MK Uri Ariel (National Union) noted that he expects the prioritization to 'push Jerusalem into the major league.  It (the bill) will lead to a change in the demographic balance. I hope that if the bill will eventually receive government support in the Knesset, it will be a driving force for Israel's capital,' added the MK."

The Palestinian Authority reportedly condemned the amendment to the Basic Law, stating that "The Cabinet considered that this decision absolutely contradicts the international law and international resolutions that recognizes East Jerusalem as a Palestinian city under occupation," ministers said" and saying that the PA would  "resist this decision with all political and diplomatic means in accordance with international law, and take the necessary actions to defend the Arab character of the Holy City."

The timing and substance of this move is not accidental: it is a clear declaration of intent, to the effect that this Government is dedicated to maintaining the now-fictitious mantra of "the-eternal-undivided-capital-of-Israel-that-will-never-be-redivided."  The amendments are supported by the government and are expected to pass easily.

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Finally, it is generally widely-known that the past two years have witnessed a steady stream of http://www.acri.org.il/eng/story.aspx?id=756 (link has expired) openly racist, exclusionary laws introduced in the Knesset.  These laws are targeting Israeli non-governmental organizations working in the fields of human rights, civil rights, and peace and coexistence, as well as Arab citizens of Israel (most notably with legislation currently under consideration that would legalize discrimination in housing).  

Now this trend has expanded to focus directly on Jerusalem, with a draft law that seeks to bar Palestinian residents of Jerusalem - and, indeed, any Israeli who does not demonstrate "institutional loyalty to the State of Israel" - to act as tour guides in Jerusalem.  

The rationale for the law?  To ensure that visitors to the democratic nation of Israel's "eternal-unified-capital-never-to-be-shared-or-redivided" are only exposed to the "national Israeli viewpoint" of the city.

For the last few years, we have argued that the en bloc transfer of precious religious, archeological and cultural sites to the extreme settler organizations is creating a Jerusalem that "speaks" in only one, exclusionary voice, rather than in the multiple voices which make the city unique. The initiators of this bill are taking our metaphor literally, seeking to legislate this exclusionary vision in the most undemocratic way imaginable.