“Israeli policies in Jerusalem are targeting not only the private sphere, through demolitions and evictions, but the connection of Palestinians to their city. They are threatening not only their physical presence, but also the symbolic presence of the public sphere. The goal is to abolish the status of Jerusalem as a unified and cultural center of all Palestinians.”
That is how Haneen Zoabi, a former Palestinian parliamentarian in the Knesset, explains what has been happening in the city for decades.
Jerusalem has always been the epicenter of the Palestinian issue. The limits on prayer at al-Aqsa and the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah seem to be part of the same Israeli attempt to keep the Palestinian population down. What is happening?
We are confronted with a careful plan that Israel knows it can implement because it is faced with a favorable international environment. A plan composed of a number of different strategies: the confiscation of land in order to minimize the physical presence of Palestinians; the recognition, for the Palestinians of the city, not of citizenship but of a right of residence, a sort of conditional residence permit, as if they were foreigners and not natives; the demolition of houses; and the shutting down of the public sphere. Accordingly, since 1967, Israel has driven out tens of thousands of Palestinians. And today the situation is as follows: 86% of East Jerusalem is destined for the use of the state of Israel and the Jewish settlers, while 350,000 Palestinians have only 14% of the land at their disposal. A limited use in any case, since Israel does not grant building permits.
Added to this is the restriction of public spaces. It is not only about al-Aqsa and the evictions, but about the shutting down of Palestinian public spaces. After the Second Intifada, Israel’s control of the public sphere through the closure of cultural centers, public parks and institutions means weakening the manifestation of national identity. In this sense, al-Aqsa doesn’t just have a religious meaning, but also a secular one: with all the institutions and cultural centers closed by Israel, it is the only place where one can express one’s identity and connection with the land.
Has the presence of increasingly radical right-wing governments accelerated the process of colonial expansion in the Occupied Territories and the forced displacement of Palestinians?
In recent years, we have seen a change: an increase in settler violence, supported by the state. Freedom of movement for settlers, impunity in attacks on Palestinians, occupation of their homes and of areas between Palestinian neighborhoods. Because this is the aim of the Israeli state: to take control of the spaces between neighborhoods in order to deny geographical continuity to Palestinians. Moreover, Israel has realized that it is faced with the perfect moment to complete what it started in 1967: that is, the definite Israelification of the city. Sheikh Jarrah is a symbol of this: a neighborhood of refugees who are now experiencing their second forced relocation.
It is not simply the continuation of old policies. Today we are in a new phase of what began in 1948 with the expulsion of 67,000 Palestinians from West Jerusalem, and in 1967 with another 30,000 expulsions from East Jerusalem. Today we have the finalization of a work already underway because the moment is considered propitious. It is no coincidence that there has been an escalation in the demolition of houses in recent years: in 2020 alone, three times as many were destroyed as the average from 2004 to 2019. According to the UN, 6,000 houses have been demolished in the last 10 years. In Sheikh Jarrah there are 28,000 Palestinians living in houses on which demolition orders are pending.
However, this silent transfer is no longer as silent as in the past. Today Israel feels confident enough to do it at a fast pace and with the assistance of violence from the settlers. This is happening under the eyes of the international community and in the face of its silence.
On Saturday, we witnessed another march, of Palestinian citizens of Israel who literally walked into the city after the roadblock. What does Jerusalem represent, culturally and politically, for the rest of the Palestinians?
It is the symbol of the struggle for Palestine. Freedom in Jerusalem would mark freedom for Palestine, because this is where the state and settlers are investing the most to eliminate the Palestinian presence. It is a microcosm of what is happening in the rest of Palestine, and at the same time it symbolizes the political importance of the struggle for self-determination. Here, there is no Palestinian National Authority, and thus we have the confrontation between the Palestinian people and the occupation in its purest form.
In connection to that, just 10 days ago, the PNA postponed the Palestinian elections, citing Jerusalem as a justification.
Jerusalem was just an excuse. It is true that in the West Bank and Gaza they were happy to go to vote, but in fact this could only be a legitimization of the Oslo Agreements and of the PNA itself, which by its statute represents only a portion of the Palestinian people. Moreover, voting is not a free choice if it takes place under occupation and colonization.