The Reality of Israel’s “Open” Jerusalem

Ghettoes, Demolitions and Housing Shortages

No one would have been more surprised than Fawziya Khurd by the recent pronouncement of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, that Israel operates an “open city” policy in Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday that Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem following the 1967 war — what he called the city’s “unification” — meant that all residents, Jews and Palestinians alike, could buy property wherever they chose.

“Our policy is that Jerusalem residents can purchase apartments anywhere in the city,” he said. “There is no ban on Arabs buying apartments in the west of the city, and there is no ban on Jews building or buying in the city’s east.”

Mr Netanyahu was trying to justify recent construction in East Jerusalem by settler organisations in defiance of demands from the US that Israel halt all such work. In particular, US officials are objecting to the recent takeover of property by settlers in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, where Mrs Khurd used to live, as well as the Old City, Silwan and Ras al-Amud.

According to experts, however, the reality is that in both a practical and legal sense Mr Netanyahu’s “open city” is a fiction, extended only to the settlers and not to Mrs Khurd or to the 250,000 other Palestinians of East Jerusalem.

Mrs Khurd, for example, has been forced to live in a tent after settlers ousted her from her East Jerusalem home of five decades in November. She also has no hope of moving back to the house taken from her family in Talbiyeh, now in West Jerusalem, during the 1948 war that established Israel.

In addition, movement restrictions mean that almost all of the nearly four million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza are banned from entering the city or visiting its holy sites.

Inside Jerusalem, as in the West Bank, Israel enforces a strict programme of segregation to disadvantage the Palestinians, said Jeff Halper, of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Israeli Jews have the freedom to live in both parts of the city, with 270,000 in West Jerusalem and a further 200,000 living in East Jerusalem in rapidly expanding settlements heavily subsidised by the state.

Palestinians, meanwhile, are denied the right to live both in West Jerusalem and in many residential areas of East Jerusalem. Even in their tightly controlled neighbourhoods in the city’s east, at least 20,000 of their homes are subject to demolition orders, said Mr Halper.

Daniel Seidemann, a Jerualem lawyer, said that in his 20 years of handling residency rights cases for Palestinians he had never heard of a Palestinian with a Jerusalem ID living in West Jerusalem.

The reason, he pointed out, was that almost all land inside Israel’s 1948 borders, including West Jerusalem, has been registered as “state land” managed by a body known as the Israel Lands Authority.

The authority allows neither Palestinians nor Israelis to buy property on state land. Instead long-term renewable leases are available to Israeli citizens and anyone eligible to immigrate to Israel under the country’s Law of Return — meaning Jews.

The settlements in East Jerusalem — now covering 35 per cent of the eastern city, according to Mr Seidemann — are also built on land declared as “state land”, in violation of international law. Again this means that only Israelis and Jewish foreign nationals are entitled to lease land there.

Because they do not hold Israeli citizenship, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are disqualified from acquiring property either in West Jerusalem or in the settlements of East Jerusalem.

“The extraordinary situation is that a Palestinian who had his land expropriated to build the settlement of Har Homa [on the outskirts of East Jerusalem] cannot lease land there, whereas a Jew from Paris or London who is not even an Israeli citizen can.”

Mr Seidemann also pointed out that the country’s Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that a Palestinian family forced out of what became the Jewish quarter of the Old City in 1967 had no right to return to their property.

The court justified its decision on the grounds that each religious community should have its own quarter. “However, that ruling has not stopped the Israeli government from helping Jewish settlers to encroach on the Muslim and Christian quarters.”

This week, the Israeli media reported, several families from a settler organisation, Ateret Cohanim, had moved into a building in the heart of the Muslim quarter. The property was bought by Ariel Sharon in the 1980s to assert Jewish sovereignty over all of the Old City, although he never moved in.

Mr Halper said that, in addition, Jerusalem’s Palestinians, unlike its Jews, faced municipal policies designed to make life as unbearable as possible. Demolitions of Palestinian property are widespread. Police, for example, have torn down Mrs Khurd’s tent on six occasions since November and she faces a series of fines.

“Even according to Israeli figures, East Jerusalem lacks 25,000 housing units to cope with the Palestinians’ minimal needs,” said Mr Halper. “The land is available, it’s just that Israel wants to induce a severe housing shortage for Palestinians.”

The hope is that they would move to the West Bank, he said.

Mr Seidemann said a handful of Palestinian families — faced with this housing shortage — had managed to rent homes short term from Israeli owners in East Jerusalem’s larger settlements, such as French Hill and Pisgat Zeev. This marginal phenomenon, he said, had been misleadingly trumpeted as proof of the “egalitarian nature” of Israel’s property laws.

According to the Israeli media, Mr Netanyahu’s remark may have been intended to throw mud in the eyes of the US Administration as it steps up pressure on Israel to halt settlement building in East Jerusalem.

Mr Seidemann said: “The [US] State Department understands these issues better than Mr Netanyahu. There is zero possibility that his comments will be treated as credible by any of their negotiators.”

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. mebosa ritchie said on July 23rd, 2009 at 8:21am #

    nothing to negotiate on jerusalem
    it is the eternal,undivided capital of israel,the jewish state.
    as before,non jews including muslims,christians,hindus,atheists are welcome to live in peace in the city or any other part of israel
    even you jonathan,a non jew,is free to live in nazareth in the jewish state of israel

  2. Mac said on July 23rd, 2009 at 9:55am #

    What a load of crap. Bibi said Arabs can buy in West Jerusalem, which they do all the time, the same as the rest of Israel. He is saying it’s an open city because Arab and Jew alike are welcome to attend the holy sites and live in peace, unlike the situation under the Jordanian occupation which saw the Jewish majority of the city ethnically cleansed. Of course he’s talking about Israeli Arabs. Of course he’s not talking about Syrian Arabs, or Jordanian Arabs, or Saudia Arabian Arabs. Why on earth would we expect that of Israel, of all places?? Open city doesn’t mean welcome a hostile entity, those who are openly in favor of terrorism and militancy against Israeli citizens.

  3. opeluboy said on July 23rd, 2009 at 2:24pm #

    Good thing Israel is now paying for propaganda trolls to rebut articles like this. There is not enough humor here.

  4. B99 said on July 23rd, 2009 at 3:34pm #

    PreScript – a MONEY LAUNDERING SCANDAL is breaking in NJ right now. How much you wanna bet it involves Israel?

    Jews and Palestinians have lived in relative peace in Jerusalem for centuries (with Jews only becoming a majority in the 19th century). Zionist behavior and practice is what made life difficult for Jerusalem’s Jews. For non-Jews today, life in that city is difficult. Jews spit on Palestinians and on Christian clerics, knock-down the elderly, take over the homes of Palestinians when they are out; Israeli soldiers routinely fire their guns up the streets of Arab East Jerusalem, Israel closes off the Temple Mount as it pleases – mainly to show the Arabs who is boss. Basically, no one would choose to live with Israeli Jews if they could help it – its an exceedingly unattractive and dangerous culture. They’ll be some respite when Jerusalem is again split.

    Of course, contrary to Mac’s fabrications, non-Jews – that would mean Palestinian citizens of Israel – are NOT permitted to buy land on 93% of Israel which is ‘legally’ held in perpetuity for Jews only. Imagine if 93% (or any percentage) of land in the US was held for whites only? In any case, the question is not about Syrian or Saudi Arabs – it’s about Palestinian citizens of Israel and those under occupation in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.

  5. Ismail Zayid said on July 24th, 2009 at 4:10pm #

    Netanyahu says:“There is no ban on Arabs buying apartments in the west of the city….” That of course is not true. Furthermore, perhaps Netanyahu should remember that the majority of the property and land in West Jerusalem is legally owned by Palestinians, many of whom still live in East Jerusalem or the West Bank. Why are they not allowed to return to their homes in what he calls the united city of Jerusalem?!

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain said on July 24th, 2009 at 4:14pm #

    Ah ‘Mac’, a new golem spreading Zionazi untruth (a tautology, surely?), with that practised arrogance, that bare-faced effrontery that comes so easily to the Supreme Creatures of the Universe. As B99 points out, the truth is the opposite, but when did the facts ever impede the Zionist discourse?

  7. bozh said on July 24th, 2009 at 4:26pm #

    once one identifies one’s faith [or a connection with an ancestor with that faith] with nationality/ethnicity, then that person will, without fail, persecute [if s/he can] most and probably all nonbelongers to that faith/ethnicity.
    to people with mosheic faith [later renamed “judaism”], whether isralites or benjamino-judeo-canaanitic people, their religion or some connection to that religion comes much ahead in value than their humanity or ethnic beloning.
    this violates natural order of evaluation. In short, condemnation/persecution is more valuable than actualities; meaning to say that to them a conclusion is ALL, and FACT is nothing.
    and madoff, dwek, rosenbaum [the one selling organs] and the fourty rabbies show this clearly. tnx

  8. mary said on July 24th, 2009 at 10:59pm #

    This is the silken tongued Israeli ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, speaking on Radio 4 yesterday about the ‘settlements’ in East Jerusalem. I am sure that if I was up on a charge of murder which I had committed and he was my defence counsel, I would get off.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain said on July 26th, 2009 at 1:47am #

    mary, only if you were a Jew and the victim was a ‘two-legged animal’.