Category Archives: Occupied East Jerusalem

Sur Baher Home Demolitions illustrate a Vicious Spiral of Oppression in Palestine

Recent events have shone a spotlight not only on how Israel is intensifying its abuse of Palestinians under its rule, but the utterly depraved complicity of western governments in its actions.

The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House two-and-a-half years ago has emboldened Israel as never before, leaving it free to unleash new waves of brutality in the occupied territories.

Western states have not only turned a blind eye to these outrages, but are actively assisting in silencing anyone who dares to speak out.

It is rapidly creating a vicious spiral: the more Israel violates international law, the more the West represses criticism, the more Israel luxuriates in its impunity.

This shameless descent was starkly illustrated last week when hundreds of heavily armed Israeli soldiers, many of them masked, raided a neighbourhood of Sur Baher, on the edges of Jerusalem. Explosives and bulldozers destroyed dozens of homes, leaving many hundreds of Palestinians without a roof over their heads.

During the operation, extreme force was used against residents, as well as international volunteers there in the forlorn hope that their presence would deter violence. Videos showed the soldiers cheering and celebrating as they razed the neighbourhood.

House destructions have long been an ugly staple of Israel’s belligerent occupation, but there were grounds for extra alarm on this occasion.

Traditionally, demolitions occur on the two-thirds of the West Bank placed by the Oslo accords temporarily under Israeli control. That is bad enough: Israel should have handed over what is called “Area C” to the Palestinian Authority 20 years ago. Instead, it has hounded Palestinians off these areas to free them up for illegal Jewish settlement.

But the Sur Baher demolitions took place in “Area A”, land assigned by Oslo to the Palestinians’ government-in-waiting – as a prelude to Palestinian statehood. Israel is supposed to have zero planning or security jurisdiction there.

Palestinians rightly fear that Israel has established a dangerous precedent, further reversing the Oslo Accords, which can one day be used to justify driving many thousands more Palestinians off land under PA control.

Most western governments barely raised their voices. Even the United Nations offered a mealy-mouthed expression of “sadness” at what took place.

A few kilometres north, in Issawiya, another East Jerusalem suburb, Israeli soldiers have been terrorising 20,000 Palestinian residents for weeks. They have set up checkpoints, carried out dozens of random night-time arrests, imposed arbitrary fines and traffic tickets, and shot live ammunition and rubber-coated steel bullets into residential areas.

Ir Amim, an Israeli human rights group, calls Issawiya’s treatment a “perpetual state of collective punishment” – that is, a war crime.

Over in Gaza, not only are the 2 million inhabitants being slowly starved by Israel’s 12-year blockade, but a weekly shooting spree against Palestinians who protest at the fence imprisoning them has become so routine it barely attracts attention any more.

On Friday, Israeli snipers killed one protester and seriously injured 56, including 22 children.

That followed new revelations that Israeli’s policy of shooting unarmed protesters in the upper leg to injure them – another war crime – continued long after it became clear a significant proportion of Palestinians were dying from their wounds.

Belatedly – after more than 200 deaths and the severe disabling of many thousands of Palestinians – snipers have been advised to “ease up” by shooting protesters in the ankle.

B’Tselem, another Israeli rights organisation, called the army’s open-fire regulation a “criminal policy”, one that “consciously chose not to regard those standing on the other side of the fence as humans”.

Rather than end such criminal practices, Israel prefers to conceal them. It has effectively sealed Palestinian areas off to avoid scrutiny.

Omar Shakir, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, is facing imminent deportation, yet more evidence of Israel’s growing crackdown on the human rights community.

A report by the Palestinian Right to Enter campaign last week warned that Israel is systematically denying foreign nationals permits to live and work in the occupied territories, including areas supposedly under PA control.

That affects both foreign-born Palestinians, often those marrying local Palestinians, and internationals. According to recent reports, Israel is actively forcing out academics teaching at the West Bank’s leading university, Bir Zeit, in a severe blow to Palestinian academic freedom.

Palestinian journalists highlighting Israeli crimes are in Israel’s sights too. Last week, Israel stripped one – Mustafa Al Haruf – of his Jerusalem residency, tearing him from his wife and young child. Because it is illegal to leave someone stateless, Israel is now bullying Jordan to accept him.

Another exclusion policy – denying entry to Israel’s fiercest critics, those who back the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement – is facing its first challenge.

Two US congresswomen who support BDS – Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who has family in the West Bank – have announced plans to visit.

Israeli officials have indicated they will exempt them both, apparently fearful of drawing wider attention to Israel’s draconian entry restrictions, which also cover the occupied territories.

Israel is probably being overly cautious. The BDS movement, which alone argues for the imposition of penalties on Israel until it halts its abuse of Palestinians, is being bludgeoned by western governments.

In the US and Europe, strong criticism of Israel, even from Jews – let alone demands for meaningful action – is being conflated with antisemitism. Much of this furore seems intended to ease the path towards silencing Israel’s critics.

More than two dozen US states, as well as the Senate, have passed laws – drafted by pro-Israel lobby groups – to limit the rights of the American public to support boycotts of Israel.

Anti-BDS legislation has also been passed by the German and French parliaments.

And last week the US House of Representatives joined them, overwhelmingly passing a resolution condemning the BDS movement. Only 17 legislators demurred.

It was a slap in the face to Ms Omar, who has been promoting a bill designed to uphold the First Amendment rights of boycott supporters.

It seems absurd that these curbs on free speech have emerged just as Israel makes clear it has no interest in peace, will never concede Palestinian statehood and is entrenching a permanent system of apartheid in the occupied territories.

But there should be no surprise. The clampdown is further evidence that western support for Israel is indeed based on shared values – those that treat the Palestinians as lesser beings, whose rights can be trampled at will.

Israel’s Machinery of Dispossession has crushed the Hopes of an Inspirational Family

Israeli police forced out the Siyam family from their home in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem last week, the final chapter in their 25-year legal battle against a powerful settler organisation.

The family’s defeat represented much more than just another eviction. It was intended to land a crushing blow against the hopes of some 20,000 Palestinians living in the shadow of the Old City walls and Al Aqsa mosque.

Dozens of families in the Silwan neighbourhood have endured the same fate as the Siyams, and the Israeli courts have approved the imminent eviction of many hundreds more Palestinians from the area.

But, unlike those families, the Siyams’ predicament briefly caught public attention. That was because one of them, Jawad Siyam, has become a figurehead of Silwan’s resistance efforts.

Mr Siyam, a social worker, has led the fight against Elad, a wealthy settler group that since the early 1990s has been slowly erasing Silwan’s Palestinian identity, in order to remake it as the City of David archeological park.

Mr Siyam has served as a spokesman, drawing attention to Silwan’s plight. He has also helped to organise the community, setting up youth and cultural centres to fortify Silwan’s identity and sense of purpose in the face of Israel’s relentless oppression.

However, the settlers of Elad want Silwan dismembered, not strengthened.

Elad’s mission is to strip away the Palestinian community to reveal crumbling relics beneath, which it claims are proof that King David founded his Israelite kingdom there 3,000 years ago.

The history and archeological rationalisations may be murky, but the political vision is clear. The Palestinians of Silwan are to be forced out like unwelcome squatters.

An Israeli human rights group, Peace Now, refers to plans for the City of David as “the transformation of Silwan into a Disneyland of the messianic extreme right wing”.

It is the most unequal fight imaginable – a story of David and Goliath, in which the giant fools the world into believing he is the underdog.

It has pitted Mr Siyam and other residents against not only the settlers, but the US and Israeli governments, the police and courts, archaeologists, planning authorities, national parks officials and unwitting tourists.

And, adding to their woes, Silwan’s residents are being forced to fight both above and below ground at the same time.

The walls and foundations of dozens of houses are cracking and sinking because the Israeli authorities have licensed Elad to flout normal safety regulations and excavate immediately below the community’s homes. Several families have had to be evacuated.

Late last month Elad flexed its muscles again, this time as it put the finishing touches to its latest touristic project: a tunnel under Silwan that reaches to the foot of Al Aqsa.

On Elad’s behalf, the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, wielded a sledgehammer to smash down a symbolic wall inaugurating the tunnel, which has been renamed the Pilgrimage Road.

Elad claims – though many archaeologists doubt it – that in Roman times the tunnel was a street used by Jews to ascend to a temple on the site where today stands the Islamic holy site of Al Aqsa.

The participation of the two US envoys in the ceremony offered further proof that Washington is tearing up the peacemaking rule book, destroying any hope the Palestinians might once have had of an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Mr Friedman called the City of David complex – at the core of occupied Palestinian Jerusalem – “an essential component of the national heritage of the State of Israel”. Ending the occupation there would be “akin to America returning the Statue of Liberty”.

While Israel, backed by the US, smashes Silwan’s foundations, it is also dominating the sky above it.

Last month Israel’s highest planning body approved a cable car from Israeli territory in West Jerusalem into the centre of Silwan.

It will connect with the City of David and a network of boardwalks, coffee shops and touristic tunnels, such as like the Pilgrimage Road, all run by Elad settlers, to slice apart Silwan.

And to signal how the neighbourhood is being reinvented, the Israeli municipality enforcing the occupation in East Jerusalem recently named several of Silwan’s main streets after famous Jewish rabbis.

Former mayor Nir Barkat has said the goal of all this development is to bring 10 million tourists a year to Silwan, so that they “understand who is really the landlord in this city”.

Few outsiders appear to object. This month, the tourism website TripAdvisor was taken to task by Amnesty International for recommending the City of David as a top attraction in Jerusalem.

And now, Elad has felled the family of Jawad Siyam in a bid to crush the community’s spirits and remaining sense of defiance.

As it has with so many of Silwan’s homeowners, Elad waged a decades-long legal battle against the family to drain them of funds and stamina.

The Siyams’ fate was finally sealed last month when the Israeli courts extended the use of a 70-year-old, draconian piece of legislation, the Absentee Property Law, to Silwan.

The law was crafted specifically to steal the lands and homes of 750,000 Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948 by the new state of Israel.

Ownership of the Siyams’ home is shared between Jawad’s uncles and aunts, some of them classified by Israel as “absentees” because they now live abroad.

As a result, an Israeli official with the title Custodian of Absentee Property claimed ownership of sections of the house belonging to these relatives, and then, in violation of his obligations under international law, sold them on to Elad. Police strong-armed the family out last week.

To add insult to injury, the court also approved Elad seizing money raised via crowdfunding by more than 200 Israeli peace activists, with the aim of helping the Siyams with their legal costs.

Palestinians such as Jawad Siyam exist all over the occupied territories – men and women who have given Palestinians a sense of hope, commitment and steadfastness in the face of Israel’s machinery of dispossession.

When Israel targets Jawad Siyam, crushes his spirits, it sends an unmistakeable message not only to other Palestinians, but to the international community itself, that peace is not on its agenda.

In Bahrain, the Horizon of Peace stretched Further Away from Palestinians

Donald Trump’s supposed “deal of the century”, offering the Palestinians economic bribes in return for political submission, is the endgame of western peace-making, the real goal of which has been failure, not success.

For decades, peace plans have made impossible demands of the Palestinians, forcing them to reject the terms on offer and thereby create a pretext for Israel to seize more of their homeland.

The more they have compromised, the further the diplomatic horizon has moved away – to the point now that the Trump administration expects them to forfeit any hope of statehood or a right to self-determination.

Even Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and architect of the peace plan, cannot really believe the Palestinians will be bought off with their share of the $50 billion inducement he hoped to raise in Bahrain last week.

That was why the Palestinian leadership stayed away.

But Israel’s image managers long ago coined a slogan to obscure a policy of incremental dispossession, masquerading as a peace process: “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

It is worth examining what those landmark “missed opportunities” consisted of.

The first was the United Nations’ Partition Plan of late 1947. In Israel’s telling, it was Palestinian intransigence over dividing the land into separate Jewish and Arab states that triggered war, leading to the creation of a Jewish state on the ruins of most of the Palestinians’ homeland.

But the real story is rather different.

The recently formed UN was effectively under the thumb of the imperial powers of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. All three wanted a Jewish state as a dependent ally in the Arab-dominated Middle East.

Fueled by the dying embers of western colonialism, the Partition Plan offered the largest slice of the Palestinian homeland to a minority population of European Jews, whose recent immigration had been effectively sponsored by the British empire.

As native peoples elsewhere were being offered independence, Palestinians were required to hand over 56 per cent of their land to these new arrivals. There was no chance such terms would be accepted.

However, as Israeli scholars have noted, the Zionist leadership had no intention of abiding by the UN plan either. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding father, called the Jewish state proposed by the UN “tiny”. He warned that it could never accommodate the millions of Jewish immigrants he needed to attract if his new state was not rapidly to become a second Arab state because of higher Palestinian birth rates.

Ben Gurion wanted the Palestinians to reject the plan, so that he could use war as a chance to seize 78 per cent of Palestine and drive out most of the native population.

For decades, Israel was happy to entrench and, after 1967, expand its hold on historic Palestine.

In fact, it was Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who made the biggest, unreciprocated concessions to peace. In 1988, he recognised Israel and, later, in the 1993 Olso accords, he accepted the principle of partition on even more dismal terms than the UN’s – a state on 22 per cent of historic Palestine.

Even so, the Oslo process stood no serious chance of success after Israel refused to make promised withdrawals from the occupied territories. Finally, in 2000 President Bill Clinton called together Arafat and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak to a peace summit at Camp David.

Arafat knew Israel was unwilling to make any meaningful compromises and had to be bullied and cajoled into attending. Clinton promised the Palestinian leader he would not be blamed if the talks failed.

Israel ensured they did. According to his own advisers, Barak “blew up” the negotiations, insisting that Israel hold on to occupied East Jerusalem, including the Al Aqsa mosque, and large areas of the West Bank. Washington blamed Arafat anyway, and refashioned Israel’s intransigence as a “generous offer”.

A short time later, in 2002, Saudi Arabia’s Peace Initiative offered Israel normal relations with the Arab world in return for a minimal Palestinian state. Israel and western leaders hurriedly shunted it into the annals of forgotten history.

After Arafat’s death, secret talks through 2008-09 – revealed in the Palestine Papers leak – showed the Palestinians making unprecedented concessions. They included allowing Israel to annex large tracts of East Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ expected capital.

Negotiator Saeb Erekat was recorded saying he had agreed to “the biggest [Jerusalem] in Jewish history” as well as to only a “symbolic number of [Palestinian] refugees’ return [and a] demilitarised state … What more can I give?”

It was a good question. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s negotiator, responded, “I really appreciate it” when she saw how much the Palestinians were conceding. But still her delegation walked away.

Trump’s own doomed plan follows in the footsteps of such “peace-making”.

In a New York Times commentary last week Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, candidly encapsulated the thrust of this decades-long diplomatic approach. He called on the Palestinians to “surrender”, adding: “Surrender is the recognition that in a contest, staying the course will prove costlier than submission.”

The peace process was always leading to this moment. Trump has simply cut through the evasions and equivocations of the past to reveal where the West’s priorities truly lie.

It is hard to believe that Trump or Kushner ever believed the Palestinians would accept a promise of “money for quiet” in place of a state based on “land for peace”.

Once more, the West is trying to foist on the Palestinians an inequitable peace deal. The one certainty is that they will reject it – it is the only issue on which the Fatah and Hamas leaderships are united – again ensuring the Palestinians can be painted as the obstacle to progress.

The Palestinians may have refused this time to stumble into the trap, but they will find themselves the fall guys, whatever happens.

When Trump’s plan crashes, as it will, Washington will have the chance to exploit a supposed Palestinian rejection as justification for approving annexation by Israel of yet more tranches of occupied territory.

The Palestinians will be left with a shattered homeland. No self-determination, no viable state, no independent economy, just a series of aid-dependent ghettos. And decades of western diplomacy will finally have arrived at its preordained destination.

• First published in The National

The Day After: What if Israel Annexes the West Bank?

Calls for the annexation of the Occupied West Bank are gaining momentum in both Tel Aviv and Washington. But Israel and its American allies should be careful what they wish for. Annexing the Occupied Palestinian Territories will only reinforce the current rethink of the Palestinian strategy, as opposed to solving Israel’s self-induced problems.

Encouraged by the Donald Trump administration’s decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israeli government officials feel that the time for annexing the entirety of the West Bank is now.

In fact, “there is no better time than now” was the exact phrase used by former Israeli Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, as she promoted annexation at a recent New York conference.

Certainly, it is election season in Israel again, as Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, failed to form a government following the last elections in April. So much saber-rattling happens during such political campaigns, as candidates talk tough in the name of ‘security’, fighting terrorism, and so on.

But Shaked’s comments cannot be dismissed as fleeting election kerfuffle. They represent so much more, if understood within the larger political context.

Indeed, since Trump’s advent to the White House, Israel has never – and I mean, never – had it so easy. It is as if the right wing government’s most radical agenda became a wish list for Israel’s allies in Washington. This list includes the US recognition of Israel’s illegal annexation of Occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem, of the Occupied Syrian Golan Heights, and the dismissal of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return altogether.

But that is not all. Statements made by influential US officials indicate initial interest in the outright annexation of the Occupied West Bank or, at least, large parts of it. The latest of such calls was made by US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.

“Israel has the right to retain some  … of the West Bank,” Friedman said in an interview, cited in the New York Times on June 8.

Friedman is deeply involved in the so-called ‘Deal of the Century’, a political gambit championed mostly by Trump’s top advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The apparent idea behind this ‘deal’ is to dismiss the core demands of the Palestinians, while reassuring Israel regarding its quest for demographic majority and ‘security’ concerns.

Other US officials behind Washington’s efforts on behalf of Israel include US Special Envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, and former US Ambassador to the UN, Nicki Haley. In a recent interview with the Israeli right wing newspaper, Israel Hayom, Haley said that the Israeli government “should not be worried” regarding the yet-to-be fully revealed details of the ‘Deal of the Century.’

Knowing Haley’s love-affair with – and brazen defense of – Israel at the United Nations, it should not be too difficult to fathom the subtle and obvious meaning of her words.

This is why Shaked’s call for the annexation of the West Bank cannot be dismissed as typical election season talk.

But can Israel annex the West Bank?

Practically speaking, yes, it can. True, it would be a flagrant violation of international law, but such a notion has never irked Israel, nor stopped it from annexing Palestinian or Arab territories. For example, it occupied East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in 1980 and 1981 respectively.

Moreover, the political mood in Israel is increasingly receptive to such a step. A poll conducted by the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, last March revealed that 42% of Israelis back West Bank annexation. This number is expected to rise in the following months as Israel continues to move to the right.

It is also important to note that several steps have already been taken in that direction, including the Israeli Knesset’s (parliament) decision to apply the same civil laws to illegal Jewish settlers in the West Bank as to those living in Israel.

But that is where Israel faces its greatest dilemma.

According to a joint poll conducted by Tel Aviv University and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in August 2018, over 50% of Palestinians realize that a so-called two-state solution is no longer tenable. Moreover, a growing number of Palestinians also believe that co-existence in a single state, where Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs (Muslims and Christians, alike) live side by side, is the only possible formula for a better future.

The dichotomy for Israeli officials, who are keen on maintaining Jewish demographic majority and the marginalization of Palestinian rights, is that they no longer have good options.

First, they understand that the indefinite occupation of Palestinian territories cannot be sustained. Ongoing Palestinian resistance at home, and the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement abroad is challenging Israel’s very political legitimacy across the world.

Second, they must also be aware of the fact that, from an Israeli Jewish leaders’ point of view, annexing the West Bank, along with millions of Palestinians, will multiply the very ‘demographic threat’ that they have been dreading for many years.

Third, the ethnic cleansing of whole Palestinian communities – the so-called ‘transfer’ option – as Israel has done upon its founding in 1948, and again, in 1967, is no longer possible. Neither will Arab countries open their borders for Israel’s convenient genocides, nor will Palestinians leave, however high the price. The fact that Gazans remained put, despite years of siege and brutal wars, is a case in point.

Political grandstanding aside, Israeli leaders understand that they are no longer in the driver’s seat and, despite their military and political advantage over Palestinians, it is becoming clear that firepower and Washington’s blind support are no longer enough to determine the future of the Palestinian people.

It is also clear that the Palestinian people are not, and never were, passive actors in their own fate. If Israel maintains its 52-year old Occupation, Palestinians will continue to resist. That resistance will not be weakened, or quelled, by any decision to annex the West Bank, in part or in full, the same way that Palestinian resistance in Jerusalem did not cease since its illegal annexation by Tel Aviv four decades ago.

Finally, the illegal annexation of the West Bank can only contribute to the irreversible awareness among Palestinians that their fight for freedom, human rights, justice and equality can be better served through a civil rights struggle within the borders of one single democratic state.

In her blind arrogance, Shaked and her right wing ilk are only accelerating the demise of Israel as an ethnic, racist state, while opening up the stage for better possibilities than perpetual violence and apartheid.

Jerusalem’s Old City: How Palestine’s Past is Being Slowly Erased

Israel has controlled East Jerusalem and the walled Old City since the 1967 war in which it also occupied the adjacent West Bank. It has effectively treated them as annexed territory ever since.

To consolidate its grip on the Old City, Israel has demolished homes and expelled Palestinian residents, empowered Jewish settlers, and imposed sweeping restrictions that make it virtually impossible for most Palestinians to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

The final status of the Old City has been the subject of various proposals ever since the United Nations’ 1947 partition plan, which proposed that it should fall under a special international regime, separate from the division of historic Palestine into Arab and Jewish states because of its shared importance to Muslims, Jews and Christians.

The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, including the Old City, as the capital of a future state, while Israeli leaders have claimed Jerusalem as the state’s “eternal capital” since 1949.

The Old City has huge historic, economic, religious and now national symbolism for both Palestinians and Israelis, particularly because of the Al-Aqsa compound, known as Haram al-Sharif to Muslims and Temple Mount to Jews. This is the most explosive issue in an already incendiary conflict.

Trump endorsement

But US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in May 2018 appeared to pre-empt negotiations determining Jerusalem’s status by implying US recognition of exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the city.

Washington’s endorsement for such a move in any proposed peace plan – including Trump’s infamous “deal of the century” – would not, however, mark the first time it has suggested that the Palestinian claim to the Old City should be brought to the negotiating table.

At talks in 2000 between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, hosted by US President Bill Clinton at his Camp David residence, US mediators proposed dividing sovereignty over the Old City.

According to the US proposal, Israel would take the Jewish and Armenian quarters, with the Palestinians getting the Muslim and Christian quarters.

Israel, however, demanded exclusive sovereignty over East Jerusalem, with the Palestinians having merely administrative authority over the Old City’s Muslim and Christian Quarters.

Seven years later, at Annapolis, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert evaded the sovereignty issue by proposing instead a temporary international trusteeship administered by Israel, a Palestinian state, the US, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

More than half a century of Israeli occupation has left its physical and political mark on the Old City. Along with East Jerusalem, the Old City is ruled over by a Jerusalem municipality run by Israeli officials.

After occupying the Old City in 1967, Israel quickly sought to secure control of the area immediately next to the Western Wall, demolishing dozens of homes in a Moroccan neighbourhood and expelling many hundreds of Palestinian inhabitants to create a large prayer plaza.

The Jewish Quarter was also re-established, though Israel converted many former homes into synagogues and seminaries for religious Jews.

Shrinking Palestinian population

Palestinians have been unnerved by the number of physical changes around Al-Aqsa and the neighbouring Muslim Quarter that appear to be designed to strengthen Israel’s control not only over the Western Wall but the mosque compound too.

This has included extending tunnels under homes in the Muslim Quarter to make more of the Western Wall accessible. Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to open a Western Wall tunnel exit in 1996 led to clashes that killed dozens of Palestinians and 15 Israel soldiers.

Israel has denied the Old City a master plan, making it all but impossible for Palestinians to expand their homes to cope with population growth.

In fact, rather than growing over the past decade, the Palestinian population has shrunk by 2,000, now down to 32,000 residents. Most have left for other areas of Jerualem or the West Bank.

The lack of vacant space in the Muslim and Christian Quarters has prevented Israel from building Jewish settlements there, as it has done elsewhere in East Jerusalem. It has therefore assisted settler organisations in taking over existing Palestinian homes.

There are now about 1,000 Jewish settlers living in the Muslim and Christian Quarters, according to Ir Amim, an Israeli organisation campaigning for equal rights in Jerusalem. These settlers constitute a quarter of the Jews living in the Old City.

Ateret Cohanim, a settler group, has been at the forefront of these incremental takeovers of Palestinian homes, threatening blackmail, using Palestinian collaborators as middlemen to make purchases, and seeking evictions in the Israeli courts.

Currently, 20 Palestinian families in the Old City face evictions, according to Ir Amim.

Settlers have also been taking over properties in the Christian Quarter owned by the Greek Orthodox church, apparently using each new Patriarch’s dependence on Israel’s approval of his appointment as leverage to force through the sales.

‘Death to the Arabs’

Every Jerusalem Day, an Israeli holiday celebrating the capture of Jerusalem in 1967, settlers march in force through the Muslim Quarter, chanting “Death to the Arabs” and intimidating local residents.

A rally by Palestinians inside the Al-Aqsa compound this year was broken up by Israeli security forces who entered the site firing rubber bullets and stun grenades. Settlers were able to march through the site.

Aviv Tartasky, of Ir Amim, notes that the expansion of Jews living in the Muslim and Christian Quarters brings more aggressive and invasive policing operations that make life harder for Palestinians, further pressuring them to leave.

Over the years, Israel has made it even harder for Palestinians to access the Old City.

Despite Al-Aqsa’s central place in Islamic worship, almost none of the two million Palestinians from Gaza have been able to reach Jerusalem since the mid-1990s, when the coastal enclave was sealed off by Israel with a fence.

Israel’s wall and checkpoints have separated Palestinians in the West Bank from Jerusalem, leaving most struggling to reach the Old City too.

And while Palestinians within Jerusalem have traditionally accessed the Old City via the northern Damascus Gate, Israel has made the gate less appealing by increasing the presence of armed police there, providing them with a guard tower, and conducting regular security checks on Palestinian youths.

Banned from al-Aqsa

After 1967, Israel and Jordan agreed on a so-called “status quo” for Al-Aqsa: the Waqf, a Jordanian-led Islamic trust, would administer the compound while Israel would be responsible for security outside. In addition, only Muslims would be allowed to pray at the site.

In practice, Israel’s interpretation of that agreement has strengthened its hand by allowing it to control who has access to the compound. Sweeping restrictions mean only older Palestinians, and a few who receive permits, are now allowed to access Al-Aqsa for Friday prayers.

Israel has regularly operated inside the compound too. It shuttered a prayer room, Bab al-Rahmeh, in 2003 after it was renovated by a popular Palestinian religious leader in Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah. Despite holding Israeli citizenship, Salah has been banned from entering the Al-Aqsa compound for more than a decade.

Israel blocked Waqf-led efforts to reopen Bab al-Rahmeh in February, leading to clashes with Israeli security forces and a temporary bar on Waqf leaders entering Al-Aqsa.

In 2015, Israel also banned volunteer male and female civil guards, the Mourabitoun, from the compound after confrontations with Jewish visitors to the site. But Israel had to climb down in 2017 after it installed surveillance cameras and tried to force Palestinian worshippers to pass through metal detectors.

Meanwhile, Israelis have been staking ever stronger claims to control of the compound. In 2000, Ariel Sharon, then opposition leader, marched into the site backed by hundreds of armed guards, triggering the Second Intifada.

And since the ban on the Mourabitoun, Israeli police have failed to enforce rules banning Jews from praying in the compound, according to watchdog groups.

Israeli politicians, including government ministers, have become increasingly sympathetic to settler demands to divide the site to allow for Jewish prayer.

Even more hardline groups wishing to destroy Al-Aqsa and build a new Jewish temple in its place have become more mainstream in Israeli society in recent years.

In the two years from 2016 to 2018, the number of Jews reported entering the compound more than doubled, from 14,000 to 30,000.

Christians squeezed out

Christian residents suffer similar problems to Muslims, including planning restrictions and efforts by settlers to take over properties.

But Christians also face specific pressures. As a very small community, they have been severely isolated by Israel’s policy cutting off Jerusalem from West Bank Christians in Bethlehem and the Ramallah area.

Israel’s denial of the right of Jerusalemites to live with a West Bank spouse in the city, or register their children, has hit the Christian community particularly hard, forcing many to move into the West Bank.

Also, a dramatic downturn in tourism for many years after the eruption of the Second Intifada in 2000 left many Christian families in the Old City in financial trouble because they depend on income from souvenir shops and work as tour guides.

A move last year by Israel to tax Church property in Jerusalem was reversed after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was shuttered in protest.

But it was seen by Christians as a further sign that their community is under assault and that Israel views them as an obstacle to its efforts to “Judaise” the Old City, said Yousef Daher, of the Jerusalem Interchurch Centre, located in the Old City.

Daher noted that rather than growing, as would be expected, Jerusalem’s wider Christian population has declined from 12,000 in 1967 to a total of 9,000 today.

Although there are no official figures, he estimated that no more than 2,400 Christians remained in the Old City. He added that Palestinian Christians find it easier to leave the region because of their connections to overseas churches and the fact that they often have relatives abroad.

Shopping mall and a cable car

Israeli access to the Old City, traditionally via the Jaffa Gate on the western side between the Christian and Armenian quarters, has been facilitated by the new luxury Mamilla shopping mall, which effectively serves as a bridge from West Jerusalem’s city centre.

Israel is now seeking to turn Dung Gate, on the south-eastern side and leading into the Jewish Quarter, into the main entrance. The difficulty is that Dung Gate abuts the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan.

Ir Amim notes that Dung Gate is seen by Israel as an important gateway for the settlers as they intensify their takeover of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, part of efforts to encircle the Al-Aqsa compound.

Israel is therefore building a cable car that will carry visitors from West Jerusalem over Silwan directly to a settler-run compound. From there, visitors will be able to enter above ground through Dung Gate or underground through tunnels running below the Old City walls to surface at the foot of the Western Wall.

Palestinians and Israeli activists are concerned that the purpose is to direct Jewish and foreign visitors away from the Muslim and Christian quarters, both to conceal the Palestinian presence in the Old City and to starve Palestinian shopkeepers of the traditional trade from those passing through Damascus and Jaffa gates.

• First published in Middle East Eye

Jerusalem Cable Car Project Passes Over Objections from Many Quarters

East Jerusalem has received new impetus from the rise of the Israeli far right and Washington’s decision to move its embassy to the city. But if completed, critics say, the long-running proposal would contribute to erasing the visibility of Palestinians in the city they hope to make their capital.

Planning for the $55 million tourism project continues despite unifying archaeologists, architects, Palestinians, and a tiny community of Jews against it – in a sign of Israel’s ever-growing confidence in making unilateral moves in occupied parts of Jerusalem.

Critics say the cable car will help hide the local Palestinian population from the roughly 3 million tourists who visit Jerusalem each year, turning the city into a “Disneyland” focused on promoting Israeli interests.

“The advantage for Israel is that visitors can be prevented from having any dealings with Palestinians,” said Aviv Tartasky, a researcher with Ir Amim, an Israeli organisation that campaigns for equal rights in Jerusalem.

“The local population will be largely erased from the experience of visiting Jerusalem. Tourists will pass over Palestinian residents, via the cable car, and then pass under them via tunnels.”

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism dismissed the criticism. In a statement to The National, the ministry said the cable car project was “a significant milestone in the promotion of Jerusalem and the strengthening of its status as a world tourism capital”.

Settler-run tours

The cable car, the largest project of its type undertaken by Israel, could be completed as early as in two years, its destination the slopes in occupied East Jerusalem just below the Old City, next to Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Some 72 cabins have the capacity to ferry up to 3,000 visitors an hour above mainly Palestinian homes.

Tourists will be channelled from the cable car into a visitor centre run by Jewish settlers in the heart of the crowded Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. They will be led by settler-approved guides underground, through tunnels under Palestinian homes to the foot of the Western Wall.

Blueprints show that visitors will be able to shop in the tunnels, bypassing local Palestinian traders in the Old City market who have long depended on tourism. Israeli officials accelerated the project by bypassing routine planning procedures, even though urban planning specialists warn that it will damage the Jerusalem skyline and archaeological sites revealing the origins of modern civilisation.

Equally important, critics say, the Benjamin Netanyahu government and settler groups view the cable car as helping block any possibility of a Palestinian state emerging with East Jerusalem as its capital. They have been emboldened by President Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to transfer the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“It should set off alarm bells that a huge state project like this is being intertwined with a private settler organisation, physically forcing visitors to go through its visitor centre, channelling them into its attractions and activities,” Mr Tartasky said.

He said the cable car was one of the ways Israel was connecting disparate settler compounds in the Palestinian neighbourhoods of occupied Jerusalem.

“It will physically strengthen these settler areas, and mean their organisations have an even greater influence on Israeli authorities.”

Encircling Al-Aqsa

The project has been forcefully promoted by the Israeli tourism ministry, headed by Yariv Levin, an ally of Mr Netanyahu, and Jerusalem’s mayor, Moshe Lion. Tenders will be issued as soon as the National Planning Council approves the project, which is expected to be a formality.

In violation of international law, Israel has treated East Jerusalem as annexed territory since it occupied the city in 1967. More than 200,000 Jewish settlers have moved there over subsequent decades

Hanna Swaid, a Palestinian planning specialist and former member of the Israeli parliament, said the cable car was illegal because international law allows major changes in occupied territory only out of military necessity or for the benefit of the population under occupation.

“Even in its own planning justifications, the Israeli authorities are clear the cable car is designed only for the benefit of tourists, Israeli developers and the settler groups overseeing it, not the local Palestinian population. In fact, it will serve to actively harm Palestinians in Jerusalem,” Mr Swaid said.

“It will parachute tourists to Jewish sites like the Western Wall, and marginalise Muslim and Christian sites,” he added.

Palestinians are concerned that the cable car will serve to tighten Israel’s control over access to the Al Aqsa mosque compound, the highly sensitive holy site in the Old City. For decades Israeli authorities have moved to weaken the control of Islamic religious authorities, the Waqf, on Al Aqsa, contributing to repeated clashes at the site.

Jews believe the mosque is built over the ruins of a major Jewish temple. The Western Wall, which supports the mosque compound, was originally a retaining wall of the long-lost temple.

“The cable car looks suspiciously like another means for encircling Al Aqsa, for laying siege to it,” Mr Swaid said.

Tunnels under Palestinians

According to official plans, dozens of cabins will run hourly along a 1.5-kilometre route from West Jerusalem, inside Israel’s recognised borders, to the occupied Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, just outside the Old City walls and in the shadow of Al Aqsa.

Tourists will disembark in Silwan into a large visitor centre, the Kedem compound, to be run by a settler organisation called Elad that has close ties with the Israeli government.

The Kedem centre is the latest venture in the City of David complex, an archaeological site that the settlers of Elad have been using for more than two decades as a base to seize control of the Palestinian neighbourhood.

Visitors will be taken on tours to explore Jerusalem, moving through ancient sewage tunnels that run under Palestinian homes and reach to walls of Al Aqsa.

Additional plans will eventually see the cable car alight at other sites in East Jerusalem. Among them are the Mount of Olives, which includes an ancient Jewish cemetery; the Church of Gethsemane, at the reputed site where Judas betrayed Jesus; and the Pool of Siloam, a bathing area referred to in the Old and New Testaments.

Yonatan Mizrahi, the director of Emek Shaveh, a group of Israeli archaeologists opposed to the misuse of archaeology and tourism by Israel, said: “The purpose is to offer tourists a one-dimensional narrative about Jerusalem and its history. They should see all layers of the city’s rich history. Instead they will hear only the parts that relate to Jewish history.”

Mr Mizrahi has been among those leading the criticism of the project. “No other historic city in the world has built a cable car – and for very good reason,” he said.

Jerusalem ‘not Disneyland’

In March about 30 international architects – some of whom have worked on projects in Jerusalem – wrote to Mr Netanyahu urging him not to pursue what they called short-term interests.

“The project is being promoted by powerful interest groups who put tourism and political agendas above responsibility for safeguarding Jerusalem’s cultural treasures,” the letter said.

The letter followed a statement by 70 Israeli archaeologists, architects and public figures against the cable car in November, when the project was speeded up. They said: “Jerusalem is not Disneyland, and its landscape and heritage are not for sale.”

A French firm, Safege, which worked on the initial feasibility study, pulled out in 2015, reportedly under pressure from the French government over concerns that the project violated international law.

In an apparent bid to ensure the project would go through, the previous Netanyahu government changed planning laws to remove the cable car from local and regional oversight. It also ensured the public could not submit objections.

Instead the scheme is being treated as a “national infrastructure” project, similar to a new railway line or gas pipeline. The National Planning Council offered a curtailed period for organisations to lodge reservations that ended on March 31.

Mr Swaid, who is the director of the Arab Centre for Alternative Planning, drew up a list of reservations on behalf of the Supreme Religious Council of Muslims in Israel.

Other critical comments were submitted by lawyers for the Silwan neighbourhood, the archaeologists of Emek Shaveh, the planning group Bimkom, a Palestinian merchant association in the Old City, and a tour guides group.

The Karaites, a small Jewish sect whose ancient cemetery lies in the path of the cable car, in the Biblical Hinnom Valley, said the project showed “contemptuous disregard for the dignity of the deceased and the Karaite community in general”.

Benjamin Kedar, a former chairman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, lodged a protest too.

Loss of all privacy

One of the Silwan homes in the path of the cable car belongs to the Karameh family. The cabins may pass only four metres above the flat roof where toddlers play and the family of 20 hang their washing. Support columns for the cable car may end up being driven into the family’s garden, one of the few green spots in Silwan.

“Nowhere in Israel do cable cars travel over houses, let alone a few metres above,” said Mr Mizrahi. “It seems clear why in this case. Because the houses belong to Palestinians.”

Samer Karameh, a 24-year-old lorry driver, said everyone in Silwan was opposed to the cable car, as it would be helping settler groups like Elad trying to take over their neighbourhood. But he was shocked to learn that it would pass so close to his house.

“We’ll lose all privacy. We won’t be able to open the windows without being seen by thousands of strangers. And it can’t be safe to have these cars travelling just over the heads of our children,” Mr Karameh said.

“We know we won’t be the beneficiaries,” he added. “The authorities won’t give us a permit to build anything here, so all the business will go to the settlers.”

• A version of this article first appeared in The National