(U.S. Embassy Jerusalem)

How the US Green Lit an Israeli Movement to Change the Demographics of East Jerusalem

It was with a gleaming smile that America’s  first daughter Ivanka Trump cut the ribbon on a shiny new US embassy in east Jerusalem last spring.

As the US acknowledged the ancient and sorely divided city as Israel’s capital, Gaza erupted. Israeli Forces opened fire on protesters who stormed the barrier, killing a 14-year-old boy and a man in a wheelchair along with 56 others. As Trump ate canapés, Palestinians were being tear-gassed and shot in the bloodiest conflict since 2014.

Just over a year later, the situation has progressed in an equally jarring manner. While US President Donald Trump is spearheading a largely discredited ‘deal of the century’ for peace in the region, measures to eliminate the presence of Palestinians in East Jerusalem are underway. Civil society groups say that since the opening of the embassy last year, measures to change Jerusalem’s demography have gained pace, culminating recently in an unprecedented demolition within a Palestinian neighbourhood.

Home demolitions and displacement in the occupied Palestinian territories are commonplace – around 15% of land in east Jerusalem is zoned for residential use by Palestinians, while Palestinian residents account for 40% of the city’s population. As a result, Palestinians suffer housing shortages and have no choice but to build homes without permits, which inevitably get marked for the bulldozer.

Individual incidents are so frequent they rarely receive global attention. A demolition that occurred on 22 July in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sur Baher was different, however, due to the scale and scope of the action. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers were deployed to oversee the levelling of 10 buildings leading to the displacement of four families, while dozens more lost properties from the damage caused to the multi-storey buildings. Despite being located in Area B, where Palestinian residential development is permitted, the demolitions were sanctioned by the Israeli High Court, upholding a military order to prevent building within a security buffer zone set around the separation barrier that runs between the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Amit Gilutz a spokesperson for human rights organisation B’Tselem said, however, that beyond this exceptional case, there has been an uptick in demolitions in the last year.

According to data collected by the Israel-based NGO, between January and mid-August 2019 112 home demolitions were carried out, while in the entire year of 2018 there were 57 demolitions in East Jerusalem.

Other tactics being used to displace Palestinians include eviction notices and harassment campaigns. Gilutz points to a recent incident in Isawiyah, a Palestinian village annexed to Jerusalem after the six-day war in 1967, which resulted in the shooting of 21-year-old Mohammed Obeid at close range by police officers at the end of June.

Silwan, another of the city’s Palestinian neighbourhoods, has also been under the gun recently, with frequent evictions after which Israeli settlers take over vacated homes, living in and among the residents, creating a unique situation that has only been so far seen in the volatile city of Hebron. Then there’s Wadi Yasul, an entire Palestinian neighbourhood that is earmarked for demolition and will leave 500 people without a home.

“The Israeli government, the settler lobbies – they recognise the green light coming from the Trump administration,” says Gilutz, referring to a collection of policies towards Israel that include the US embassy move. Trump also recently cut funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency in Palestine and the Near East (UNRWA) – the refugee agency that provides relief and services, including schooling, to millions of Palestinians; and recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights, which Israel illegally annexed in 1981.

In June, the International Crisis Group (ICG) also reported that Israel had been advancing new policies that would entrench its de facto annexation of parts of occupied East Jerusalem.

Such measures would include cataloguing all East Jerusalem’s lands in the Israel Land Registry and inducing schools in the area to adopt the Israeli curriculum. In particular, however, plans were afoot to redraw the Israel-demarcated boundaries to remove Palestinian populated areas from East Jerusalem that lie east of the separation barrier, turning them into separate Israeli regional councils, a move that Palestinians fear is a precursor to the revocation of their residency. Palestinians in East Jerusalem are currently only entitled to residency, a status that is more easily stripped than citizenship.

While these policies are being put forward as part of a million-dollar five-year plan for improvement and crime prevention by the local authority, ICG says the plans are geared toward preventing a Jewish minority in East Jerusalem as the Palestinian population grows and Israelis move out from the city. It also points to the US administration’s recent policy decisions on Israel.

“These moves lent encouragement to Israel’s leading political and rabbinic advocates of annexation, who argue that steps once deemed impossible (because of international opposition) have now become possible,” reads the report. It also states that Israel’s government authorised its five-year plan one day after the inauguration of the US embassy in east Jerusalem, “seeking maximal symbolic gains and international backing”.

Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, co-director of non profit Jahalin Solidarity, says it’s also about Greater Jerusalem, which goes all the way down to Jericho and the Dead Sea, and includes the Ma’ale Adumim settlement bloc and the controversial E1 development plan earmarked for Israeli settlers.

The highway they are building now, explains Godfrey-Goldstein, referring to plans to open a major new road known as the American Highway in November 2019, will go through the Palestinian neighbourhoods Sur Baher, Silwan, Ras al-Amoud, the Mount of Olives and connect directly to the E1 bloc.

While the highway project aims to connect Israeli settlements in and around the city to West Jerusalem, one section that cuts through these Palestinian neighbourhoods will require the confiscation of more than 1,230,000 square metres of privately-owned Palestinian land and the demolition of several homes.

“By moving the embassy, that green-lit the development of Greater Jerusalem,” says Godfrey-Goldstein.

The wider implications of excision policies, however, stressed ICG in its report, was that they could set a dangerous precedent in terms of a model of how Israel could annex large parts of the West Bank and place Palestinian residents into separate Israeli administrative units with residency but not citizenship. It would also, ICG says, “deepen poverty, chaos and militancy in the most forsaken corners of the city.”

“Our occupation policies create conditions in which terror thrives,” says Godfrey-Goldstein, stressing that forcible displacement, or the coercive environment that is pushing that forcible displacement – the de facto annexation of Palestinian land, much of it privately owned – is bound to create tension and violence, “And how do Palestinian parents teach their children not to hate us?”

While Israel’s policy of manufacturing demographics in East Jerusalem has been decades in the making, the embassy move was one of the US policy decisions that gave Israel the reassurance to pick up pace for an overarching plan – one to ensure a Jewish majority in east Jerusalem and allow Israel to exert its sovereignty over the city.

Sophia Akram is a freelance journalist and researcher with a special interest in displacement and identity. She has written for Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye and The New Arab, among others.

Published 21st August 2019

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