Just last week, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to resume indirect “peace” negotiations. Even before these talks began, the thought of George Mitchell (U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East) shuttling messages between Ramallah and Jerusalem was a distant image in the rearview mirror of Vice President Joe Biden’s car, as he traveled to Ben Gurion airport to leave Israel. The talks, which would have proved meaningless (I will explain why shortly), are over before they even began. The Israeli government’s façade has been exposed (again). This time, their true intentions are so clear that even the mainstream media and the United States can see them.
Before getting to the 1,600 homes which Israel announced on Tuesday would be built in East Jerusalem, and the plan for an additional 50,000 homes which was reported yesterday, we have to look back a few months at what has been happening in Jerusalem. The events of this week must be viewed within a greater context. A wide scale effort of judaization of Jerusalem has escalated over the last few months. Israel announced a “freeze” on settlement construction in the West Bank, but the true nature of this “freeze” illustrates their intentions for Jerusalem. The “freeze” does not prohibit building in Jerusalem, because Israel wants to be able to continue the uninhibited construction of Jewish homes in Palestinian parts of the city. Along with the exclusion of Jerusalem, the “freeze” has done little to stop settlement expansion even in the West Bank. Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff wrote today in Haaretz: “Three and a half months in, the settlement freeze is turning out to be more of a slowing down.”
Strengthening Israel’s control over Jerusalem is evident in other tactics as well. For years Israel has evicted Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem and according to B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, 449 Palestinian homes have been demolished in East Jerusalem alone between 2004 and 2009. Over 1,600 people have been left homeless, many of whom are now refugees twice, the first time being in 1948.
Over the past few months, the evictions and efforts to demolish homes in East Jerusalem have picked up steam. As The Economist reported, this is part of Nir Barkat’s (the mayor of Jerusalem) “plan to turn Palestinian districts into Jewish biblical heritage parks.” Israel justifies the evictions and demolitions because the Palestinian homes are often built without permits. It is incredibly difficult, however, for Palestinians to receive building permits in Jerusalem, so they are often left with no choice. B’Tselem reported that “The Jerusalem Municipality enforces the building laws on Palestinians much more stringently than on the Jewish population, even though the number of violations is much higher in the Jewish neighborhoods.”
Another justification for these evictions is based on Jewish ownership claims dating back to pre-1948. Today, relatives of these old owners are claiming rights to the homes. These actions have been upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court. Organizations, in fact, exist in Jerusalem whose mission is to find Palestinian homes that might have once been owned by Jews, then contact any distant relative of this onetime Jewish owner, and encourage them to claim rights to the house. Palestinian families are then handed eviction notices. According to this logic, which is driven by pre-1948 ownership, what happens to the 750,000 (according to the UN) Palestinians who once owned homes but lost them in 1948? Isabel Kershner wrote in New York Times that by “reclaiming properties owned by Jews before 1948 in these areas” Israel “invites counterclaims from Palestinian refugees who lost property in what is now Israel and undermines Israel’s rejection of their demand for a right of return.”
The escalation of Israel’s efforts in Jerusalem, specifically in the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods, has not gone unnoticed. For months, Palestinians and international activists, along with a small following of left-wing Israelis, have held weekly protests against the evictions and house demolitions. Two aspects, however, of these demonstrations are troubling. The first is a lack of Israeli presence. If so many Israelis supposedly say they want peace, where are they during these protests? Why are they not raising their voices? While I thank the Israeli’s who do speak up and attend the demonstrations, their numbers are much too small.
The second disturbing aspect is Israel’s reaction. This includes not only Israel’s response to the demonstrations in Jerusalem, but also to the rise in popular protests which are occurring throughout the West Bank. Israel’s ambitions appear clear: to stop any form of popular non-violent resistance. A Haaretz editorial recently wrote: “Nonviolent protests in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah against the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes…have been met with a violent and disproportionate police response. The IDF has responded with insufferable harshness to protests against the separation fence in the Palestinian villages of Bil’in and Na’alin.” Furthermore, a handful of Palestinian non-violent leaders have been arrested over the last few months, including some who I have met personally numerous times, and I can assure you they have not been involved in violent activities.
Why, then, do Israel’s announcements that they plan to build thousands of homes in East Jerusalem come as no surprise? Because they are in line with the long-term plan for Jerusalem, to transform the physical and demographic realities of the city and make it fundamentally Jewish and Israeli. Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz how Israel’s announcements “rip the disguise off the revelers in the great ongoing peace-process masquerade in which nobody means anything or believes in anything.”
Maybe it will take the events of this week for the U.S. to see Israel’s true intentions. Why this week? Because Israel’s announcements came at the same time that the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to resume indirect negotiations and while Joe Biden was in the region, with one of his goals being to provide a boost to these talks. Maybe it will take Israel slapping Joe Biden and the U.S. in the face for them to realize. Realize that the events of the last few days come as no surprise. Realize that even if indirect negotiations had resumed, they would have led nowhere. The evictions, the house demolitions, the violent crackdown on non-violent demonstrations, and the judaization of Jerusalem illustrate Israel’s true intentions.
Taken as a whole, these actions send a message to the whole world that there is no partner for peace in Israel today. The Israelis who do attend these weekly demonstrations in Bil’in and Sheikh Jarrah are to be applauded and they are taking concrete actions for change, but unfortunately they are only a few protestors in the street, and not members of the Israeli government. As Gideon Levy wrote: “If people don’t flood the streets now – when democracy sustains blow after blow on a daily basis and there are no longer sufficient resources to properly defend it, and when the right wing controls the political map and settlers amass more and more power – then there is no genuine left wing.”
Will Israel’s construction plans in Jerusalem actually wake up the U.S.? Will they lead to any change? Probably not. Why would they? Even with these current events, The Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi traveled to New York this week for a fundraising dinner. He raised $20 million in one night for the IDF. The Obama Administration has not come close to giving any sign that it will threaten to stop a single penny of the $3 billion the U.S. gives Israel each year of security aid. The current developments, then, do not leave me with much hope that things will change. Instead, they are an illustration of what has become the norm in Jerusalem, and taken within the context of other recent events, these past few months represent a continuation of Israeli tactics used against the Palestinians.