On February 12, the Arab League is holding a conference on Jerusalem to demonstrate Arab support for the occupied city. The Palestinian Authority (PA) seems to have high hopes for it. President Mahmoud Abbas spoke about the suffering of the Palestinian people of Jerusalem, their rights and their steadfastness.
Ahead of the event, Fadi al-Hidmi, the PA’s minister of Jerusalem affairs, declared that this conference would be “different” from previous ones and that it would produce interventions that would be felt on the ground. The event would put the occupied city at the top of the “Arab agenda”, he maintained.
But for many of us Jerusalemites, this new Arab League initiative is invoking more scepticism than anything else. The last time Jerusalem was included in the title of an Arab League get-together – the so-called Jerusalem Summit of 2018 – not much changed for us on the ground. The summit issued a strongly worded communique, rejecting United States recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the transfer of its embassy to the occupied city. Just two years later, however, several Arab nations signed normalisation deals with that same Israel, sponsored by that same US.
These so-called “Abraham Accords” irrevocably hurt the Palestinian cause – and by extension Jerusalem. With the firm support of the US and the confidence of normalisation with Arab states, successive Israeli governments have accelerated the Judaisation of the occupied city over the past five years. Some of the most brutal tools of the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem have been the forced evictions and house demolitions perpetrated against Palestinian residents in violation of international law. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are close to 1,000 Palestinians facing the imminent threat of eviction under various legal pretences. Their homes will be either taken over by Israeli settlers or demolished.
In January alone, 39 Palestinian homes and other civilian buildings were bulldozed by the Israeli authorities, dispossessing some 50 people. The argument the Israeli government most often gives for these criminal acts is that Palestinian buildings do not have permits issued by the Israeli state. According to the UN, a third of Palestinian homes do not have such permits, which puts some 100,000 residents at risk of being forcibly displaced at any given moment.
Needless to say, the Jerusalem municipality rarely issues permits to Palestinians, but it readily does so for Israeli Jews and Jewish settlers. Since 1967, more than 55,000 housing units were built for Jews in occupied East Jerusalem. Last year, the local authorities approved the construction of a new illegal settlement of 1,400 housing units between two Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, Beit Safafa and Sur Baher, cutting them off from each other. This is one of many examples of how Israel is purposefully breaking up Palestinian territorial contiguity and eliminating any possibility of carrying out the so-called two-state solution, which the Arab League continues to call for. The Israeli state has also accelerated the expansion of infrastructure servicing illegal Jewish settlements in Jerusalem at the expense of the Palestinians.
Take, for example, the so-called American Road, a highway project that is set to link illegal settlements in south, east and north of occupied East Jerusalem. It will cut through several Palestinian neighbourhoods, such as Jabal Al-Mukabber, and lead to the demolition of dozens of Palestinian houses. While ramping up the forced displacement of Palestinians from occupied Jerusalem, Israel is also doing everything to make life unliveable for those who remain. As an occupying power, the Israeli state has the obligation under both international humanitarian law and human rights law to ensure the welfare of the population, but it is not doing that. Although Palestinians pay taxes to the Israeli state, just like Israelis, they do not get the same level of services. Basic infrastructure and utilities in Palestinian neighbourhoods are neglected, as the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem allocates less than 10 percent of its budget to Palestinian residents, who represent more than 37 percent of the population of the city.
In 2001, the Israeli Supreme Court found that Israeli authorities were violating their legal obligations to provide proper access to education to Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Unsurprisingly, the problem only got worse over the following two decades, and today there is a deficit of 3,517 classrooms in Palestinian schools due to Israel’s systematic negligence. Palestinians, of course, have no legal means to hold the Israeli authorities accountable for violations. They are not allowed to vote in Israeli general elections and choose who to represent them. At the same time, the Israeli government is trying to bar them from participating in Palestinian politics. In 2021, when Palestinian legislative elections were supposed to be held, Israel made it clear it would not allow Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to vote. Palestinian political parties are also unable to operate freely in Jerusalem. Any event that is suspected of links to the PA is raided and shut down. In early January, for example, the Israeli police raided a meeting of a parents’ committee in the neighbourhood of Issawiya, where parents had gathered to discuss the shortage of teachers. Israeli officers informed them they were closing the meeting because it was a “terror summit”.
Worse still, the Israeli government has also made it clear that it is in no way committed to the status quo of the holy sites in Jerusalem. Recently, the Jordanian ambassador was violently expelled from Al-Aqsa compound by Israeli police who decided he cannot visit. This is despite the fact that Jordan holds the rights to administer that same compound and other holy sites in Jerusalem under an internationally recognised agreement. Under the rules of the Jordan-run Jerusalem Waqf Department, non-Muslims are allowed to visit Al-Aqsa only during certain visitation hours and only if they respect the holy place. But in the past few years, we have seen more and more Jewish worshippers allowed by the Israeli police to pray in Al-Aqsa, in violation of these rules. Meanwhile, Palestinian Muslims from outside Jerusalem are regularly barred from visiting their holy place and praying. It should also come as no surprise that while dispossessing the Palestinians of their homes, proper services, and even access to their holy places, Israel is also ramping up the economic oppression of the Palestinian people in Jerusalem.
Palestinian Jerusalemites suffer from high poverty rates and economic insecurity, which is only getting worse. In East Jerusalem, an estimated 77 percent of Palestinians live under the poverty line, compared to 23 percent of Jewish residents of West Jerusalem. Palestinian businesses in Jerusalem are being suffocated, as Israel deepens our isolation from the rest of Palestine. A system of walls and military checkpoints deny access to Jerusalem to visitors and shoppers from nearby Jerusalemite towns like Abu Dis, Al-Ram, and Hizma, as well as from the West Bank and Gaza. This isolation has been detrimental to the local economy. In addition, Palestinian business owners face exorbitant taxes without any support from the Israeli state or the PA. This has led to the closure of at least 250 Palestinian-owned shops in recent years, according to local media.
Indeed, Jerusalem does need assistance, including financial support. The PA is hoping that the conference in Cairo will help raise much-needed funds to support the educational and healthcare sectors and give the local economy a much-needed boost of foreign investment. But any such support – if it indeed materialises – would only bring limited, temporary relief to Jerusalemites. Our city suffers from occupation and apartheid. We need action on the political front and we need it immediately. Strongly-worded condemnation and communiques will not do. Indeed, we Jerusalemites are known for our “sumoud” (steadfastness) and it should be celebrated at international forums like the Arab League. But under the oppression of a merciless occupier, we are getting near the limits of our resilience.