Palestine Monitor
2 July 2010

Deleting The East
by Michael Carpenter

Three months ago Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “spat in Obama’s eye” by timing high-level diplomatic visits with the announcement of sweeping development plans in East Jerusalem. Now history repeats itself as Jerusalem announced its intention to implement an even more ambitious master plan, giving Israelis unprecedented residency rights in the prospective Palestinian capital. And once again, Bibi is off to Washington.

Construction began this past weekend on the hotly contested grounds of the Shepherd Hotel. The compound lies in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, east of the green line, just north of the old city. The hotel itself was considered property of the Jordanian authority (having passed from the ownership of the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini) until it was purchased in 1985 by Irving Moskowitz, a wealthy American Jew and a major financier of the Israeli settler movement.

In the wake of dramatic 2008-2009 settlement activity in Sheikh Jarrah—recall that several Palestinian families are now living in tents outside their former homes while protected Israeli settlers sleep inside—plans were floated to construct 20 Jewish housing units on the property of the Shepherd Hotel. The plan was met with international condemnation and was silenced more than once, but it never went away. This past Sunday, construction work began, although site security explained it was just a test of the foundations’ support strength. The new development would see upwards of hundred Israelis wedged into the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem.

“You see, they want all Sheikh Jarrah,” says local resident Muhammad Sabagh. Muhammad has problems of his own, because a legal claim against his house is currently grinding through the Israeli courts. He hopes to be luckier than some of his now-homeless neighbours. “We don’t accept settlers in our neighbourhood,” he says.

East Jerusalem is the erstwhile Palestinian capital in waiting, but for years Israeli officials have pumped up the volume on the propaganda line that, as Netanyahu puts it “(Jerusalem) is an open and undivided city”. By this convenient reasoning, the east-west distinction is irrelevant, and Israelis should be able to build and develop on the occupied Palestinian side as freely as they do in the West. In a statement issued this week, city officials pleaded neutrality, “Just like any other municipality in Israel, Jerusalem Municipality hands out building permits in the entire city based on their compliance with professional criteria only, and without checking religion, race, or sex, which is against the law.”

This statement, however, includes a massive lie of omission, because it implies that Palestinians have equal building rights. While the city may not discriminate on “religion, race, or sex, which is against the law,” they do discriminate on the basis of citizenship. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem have been deemed “permanent residents” by the Israeli authorities but specifically excluded from citizenship. This distinction is crucial because only citizens can legally obtain building rights from the Israeli Land Administration (ILA), which has jurisdiction over most of the city’s residential landscape—both East and West Jerusalem.

As a report issued by an Israeli non-profit organization, Ir Amim, concluded:

“Of all the land designated for housing development in West Jerusalem and in the Israeli neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem (35,000 dunams), at least 79% (27,642 dunams) is ILA land, and therefore theoretically off limits to the city’s Palestinian residents.”

This means that outside of Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, Palestinians have the official legal basis for building or owning in just 20% of the city by virtue of their non-citizen status. And within that sliver of the city, along with their own already inhabited neighbourhoods, the difficulty of obtaining legal permits is notoriously difficult, both financially and bureaucratically.

It has been ignored that Israel holds East Jerusalem by occupation, taken by force in the war of 1967. Like the rest of the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem was never meant to be a part of any Israeli state. By the Geneva Convention, the transfer of civilian population into occupied territory is a war crime. East Jerusalem belongs to the Palestinians.

Despite this inconvenient truth, the city’s right-wing Municipality are well on their way to making their latest attempt at ethnic cleansing legal. If there are no objections within 60 days, the new document will be enshrined in law and the “open and undivided” rhetoric will form the legal framework for unlimited Israeli expansion in occupied East Jerusalem.

Under the new arrangement, projects like the Shepherd Hotel compound in Sheikh Jarrah would require no special authorisation. There would be no difference between East and West Jerusalem.

The master plan also highlights the municipality‘s cynicism in using green spaces as a justification for demolishing Arab homes. Now it has been made transparent these “green areas” are fair game, rendering many previous points of contention irrelevant. The City of David project was initially marketed as a heritage site with a few residency buildings. It now seems that it will be a glorified settlement with “1,000 new housing units”. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to work out who these homes are intended for. So while Israel softened the Silwan bulldozing announcement with promises that Israeli settlers would not move into the cleared neighbourhood, the lie has been revealed.

Under the false banner that Jerusalem is “open and undivided,” the heightened policies of ethnic cleansing in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan will become standard practise, undermining the long term prospects for trust and progress. And what hope of Obama and the U.S.A stepping in at this crucial, sensitive time to reign in its rogue state, to reign in its rogue municipality and avert catastrophe? What are the chances of Bibi getting a stern dressing down in the oval office? Sadly negligible, because as far as Israel is concerned, there is no such thing as going too far.