I briefly attended the very impressive conference of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America in New York, Dec. 6. The one session I observed was on the conflict in neighborhoods of East Jerusalem where militant religious and nationalist Jews are moving in and pushing Palestinians out. For about a year now, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dovish Israeli Jews have been demonstrating against this in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, every Friday afternoon.
Jerusalem is estimated to have a population of about 730,000, with 290,000 being Palestinian Arabs who live in East Jerusalem, along with 200,000 Israeli Jews who mostly live in Jewish neighborhoods built in East Jerusalem after the 1967 conquest. The struggle in Sheikh Jarrah and one or two other areas adjoining the Old City is of Jews displacing Palestinians in their neighborhoods. There is now a Walls of Jerusalem National Park in the area Jews call the City of David (I’m not disputing the historicity of this name, but only describing the nationalist nature of this conflict).
Some Jews are claiming a right of return to pre-1948 homes, in areas where Jews were expelled during the 1948 war; this complicates the larger political issue. If Jews exercise their “right of return” to 1948 properties, how do they expect the great masses of Palestinians who have official international status as refugees not to claim the same right in what is now sovereign Israel? These Jewish incursions into Arab areas also undermine the physical reality that would make for a negotiated two-state solution in which Jerusalem is divided between the two states along rational demographic lines.
The Arabs of East Jerusalem are permanent residents of Israel with the right to vote in municipal elections. But they have refused Israeli citizenship and have also refused to exercise the franchise in Jerusalem out of a political conviction that this would endorse the status quo of Israeli control over all of East Jerusalem. This is understandable, but possibly a self-defeating stand, as Jerusalem’s Jewish electorate is largely religious (especially Haredi) and right-wing in comparison with its other major cities, Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Ostensibly because there is no municipal zoning plan, Arab residents are not given permits to build adequate housing to meet their natural growth needs. Therefore, 23,000 Arab houses are considered illegal and 6,000 are under demolition order, with an average of 200 demolished annually. When demolitions are carried out by the municipal authority (as opposed to national government auspices), they are done without warning, often rousting families from their beds in the middle of the night, sometimes in the cold, strewing their furniture and other belongings on the street. In other words, they are done heartlessly.
One panelist described her work with the Israeli Reform Action Center (IRAC), addressing the inequities in mental health and education services for Arab inhabitants of East Jerusalem. For example, since East Jerusalem Arabs are legally entitled to medical benefits in the same way as are Israeli citizens, IRAC has fought for this, particularly in the realm of mental health, where all of East Jerusalem is covered by one pathetically staffed mental health clinic.
One or more panelists also indicated that the nationalist settlers are being used by politically-connected business interests to secure sites for profits in real estate and the construction of new high-rise buildings.
Good online sources for information on this issue include the Wadi Hilweh Information Center-Silwan (so far, I’ve read the Tablet article by Columbia U. Professor Todd Gitlin, which is linked there) and the Ir Amim website.