The Geographic and Demographic Struggle in and around Jerusalem: A Struggle for Land and Sovereignty

The Geographic and Demographic Struggle in and around Jerusalem: A Struggle for Land and Sovereignty

Khalil Al Takfaji*

The struggle for the city of Jerusalem can be described as one for the land and sovereignty over it. At the same time, it is a struggle for the symbols, the looks, and the flag raised on its buildings and walls. It is a struggle for the narrative, a disparate attempt to force a reality on the ground by one side, on many levels.

We can say that the overall situation is at an advanced stage of endings. The Israeli settlement policy continues by building settlements, confiscating land, the Judaization of Jerusalem, isolating it from the West Bank by building the apartheid wall, and besieging Palestinian villages and cities, separating the Jordan Valley.

It continues by preventing worshipers from praying in its halls – often using age as a permissive denominator, demolishing Palestinians’ homes in cities and villages under various bogus claims, and evicting Bedouins from the areas they live in, driving them away from their source of living.

Political and economic reports issued every year reveal Israel’s adherence to settlement and the shape of resolution and peace they seek; that of a victorious party and a defeated one, a master and a slave, the strong and the weak, and oppressor and the oppressed. And, in light of such contradicting pairs, they claim to be extending their hands in peace while undermining its foundations in parallel. Today, Israel presents itself to the world as “a victim that disparately needs extraordinary protective measures, despite being a strong, heavily armed occupying country.”

Settlement in Jerusalem

Settlement in Jerusalem continues despite international condemnation of Israel. An analysis by Reuters states that Israel is facing a crisis because of settlements amidst increasing diplomatic criticism. Israel has been continuously receiving strong criticism from the UN and the EU, especially after announcing it will build thousands of housing units on land where the Palestinians are considering establishing their state[1].

When asked about the idea of ceasing to build settlements, former Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said that his “government will not evacuate settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank during his term and that the time of such concessions has passed and will never return.” Furthermore, he rejected the idea to refreeze building settlements, saying that “his government’s recent political experience has proved that such a move is no longer valid, as the settlement issue is a result of, not a reason for, the conflict with the Palestinians 2.

In another statement, he declared his rejection of establishing a Palestinian state and spoke of a form of rule for the Palestinians. He stressed that settlements would continue to be built in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, confirming that as long as he is Prime Minister, he does not want to control the Palestinians, nor make them Israeli citizens, nor does he want them as nationals. Hence, there will be a sort of rule within a disarmed context 2.

On the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s occupation, Netanyahu described Jerusalem as “the heart of the nation. It will never be divided”[2]   On another hand, the head of the Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, said: “If the Jews have a heart, it is Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people and Israel.” The building of settlements continues in Jerusalem, whether by approving plans to expand existing colonies or build new ones; whether within the city of Jerusalem or outside it to construct the Greater Jerusalem, which is taking political, security, geographic, and demographic dimensions to achieve the objectives of the Israeli strategy that Jerusalem is a capital of the state, without a Palestinian partner. Such a policy has not changed and is being followed by Bennet, Netanyahu’s successor, and his government.

The changes to Jerusalem since 2000 are broader and more deep-rooted than imaginable. It is no longer the city it was in the 90s when Israelis and Palestinians began to negotiate their fate for the first time.

This complicated the division of Jerusalem as per the format proposed by President Bill Clinton. The Israeli government forced facts on the ground during the past years and decades until it became commonly said in some circles that the division is not viable anymore, given the fast building of settlements and the shape that this political tone has taken.

At the same time, settlement outposts have expanded within Palestinian neighborhoods, preventing bringing up the idea of division again (for example, Ras al-Amud, Jabal Al-Mukaber, Shaykh El Jarah) to carry out Sharon’s project of 1990 to establish 26 gates around Jerusalem.

Further, the settlement expansion and settlement outposts are increasing the political cost of the division, hence making it unlikely. Also, the changes within the Hebrew state, and the rise of the radical Israeli far-right, have increased religious and historic demands towards the city, in parallel to the beginning of the time and place division of sacred locations. By the time negotiations resume, Israel will have created a reality that is hard to change, and both parties will have to be open to ‘creative solutions that align with this new climate.

The Theory of Breaking Down the Neighborhoods

Israeli authorities are focusing on the security issue to control the space. The first and second uprisings, and the idea of the gates, were deeply studied by security agencies, as the Palestinian geographical connection to the Arab neighbors leads to creating a solid block for Israeli objectives to control and space and residents. Hence, the program to dissect Palestinian neighborhoods were among their critical goals so they can easily control them as part of the ‘flanking’ law, meaning to surround neighbors with colonies, ‘penetrate’ them by establishing settlement outposts within the Arab neighborhoods, and (scattering) by turning the buildings and the geography into dispersed structures within Jewish communities.

They have succeeded in this to a great extent in Beit Sfafa village, southwest of the old town. This theory is being implemented in Shaykh Jarah using the Jewish Property Law from before 1948.

The project aims to connect the previously isolated Jabal Al Masharif area (Scopus) – Israeli lands that fall within the borders of Jordan between 1948-1967 as part of the truce agreement – to western Jerusalem by linking settlement outposts established in Karm Al-Mufti to be owned for the public interest, and Shaykh Jarah to Kubaneyet Um Haroun area that is adjacent to the green line, hence turning Shaykh Jarah into small sites that can be easily controlled.

Within this context, Batn Al Hawa in Silwan came to be by the religious connection (a Jewish Cemetery) in Jabal Al Zaytoun, linked to the Jewish myth and the awaited Messiah, thus establishing the largest settlement outpost in Ras al Amud. They would then enter through the outposts they established in different ways to reach the historic Holy Basin in Dawood’s city and the graves of prophets, thus surrounding the walls of the old town from the south.

Then this area is connected to the Wailing Wall, in this way striking more than one bird with one stone: the first is connecting the historical areas (David’s City) to religious sites (Wailing Wall); the second is dissecting the shredded Arab neighborhoods into small scattered suburbs that are controlled by security, and the third – and most important – is to have total control over the historic basin and enforce a reality before any future peace talks.

Thus, Israeli policy towards the city is the same, whether a leftist (Labor Party) or a right-wing government. They consider Jerusalem to be an eternal capital of the Hebrew state and the head and heart of the Jewish people.

The Palestinian state, whose capital is East Jerusalem, does not exist in the partisan vision.

The 2015 agreement in Jordan between King Abdullah of Jordan, John Kerry (then US Secretary of State), and Benjamin Netanyahu (then Israeli Prime Minister) concluded that the capital of Palestine is Beit Hneina Village to the north of the city. In light of the above, the Israeli government is forcing a reality within the city and is racing against time to lay down its vision of the city by controlling what is underground (i.e., tunnels), what is above ground (i.e., settlements), and in the air by building cable lines, to reach the declared and non-declared objective: that Eastern and Western Jerusalem is a capital of one state, without any Palestinian partners.

* Head of the Maps and GIS Department/Bait Al Sharq, and an expert on maps of Jerusalem

[1] Al Quds Newspaper 7/2/2013.

[2] Netanyahu’s speech dated 27/5/2014.