Arab Studies Society’s land and settlement expert, Khalil Tufakji
At a time when Israel is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its occupation of Jerusalem and annexation of its eastern sector, hailing this anniversary as the “unification of Jerusalem”, it seems the Palestinian dream of establishing an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital has become much more difficult to attain.
This is what “Hosted by MIFTAH’ guest, land and settlements expert Khalil Tufakji tells us. Tufakji believes Jerusalem has been completely isolated from its geographic and demographic surroundings by various Israeli policies over the past 50 years. Israel, he says, has adopted a clear methodology of judiazation, Israelization and silent expulsion, otherwise known as ethnic cleansing, of Palestinian Jerusalemites .This is through stripping them of their basic right to residency or through land confiscation, settlement expansion and building the separation wall. These measures, Tufakji contends, have resulted in a demographic imbalance, adding that we must be vigilant not to fall into Israel’s trap of turning the struggle for Jerusalem into a religious one.
**50 years after the occupation of the West Bank including East Jerusalem, how do you see things on the ground from a demographic and geographic perspective?
Throughout its 50 years of occupation, Israeli authorities have been able to establish two states in one. After building the separation wall and tunnels, travel from one city to the next and from one town to a neighboring town is through the tunnels. It is as if they – the Israelis– created a state for the Palestinians below ground and a state for the Jews above it, which is geographically contiguous and connected, unlike that of the Palestinians. They have also succeeded in isolating Jerusalem from the West Bank and Israelizing and Judaizing the city almost completely. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have no remaining land on which to build their state and realize their dream of independence, mostly because of settlement expansion and the hundreds of thousands of settlers Israel brings to live in them. It has reached a point where the settlers are competing with the Palestinians in number, or in some cases have already surpassed them like in Area C.
**In Jerusalem in particular, is the Palestinians’ dream of a state still a possibility? Are there any possible negotiations that could seal this city’s fate in the Palestinians’ favor?
Up until 2001 there was still the possibility of establishing a state with Jerusalem as its capital. However, since then, Israel has established settlement enclaves within Palestinian neighborhoods, be it in Sheikh Jarrah, the Mount of Olives, Jabal Mukkaber, Ras Al Amoud or Silwan. Hence, the process of separation in these areas has become extremely difficult. Moreover, Israel has exploited the issue of religion in Jerusalem by saying that it is the capital of the Jewish people, linking it to a religious and historical legend. Evidence of this is that the last Israeli government meeting was held inside the tunnels beneath the Old City and below the Aqsa Mosque Compound. The meeting conveyed a number of Israeli messages, most significantly that “Our history below the ground is expansive.” Or in the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “Our history here was before any other people.” Another message was directed at the Arab and Islamic worlds, which is that anything below ground or above it, including the sky above, is Jewish, citing the suspended cable car being built in the city. That is to say, Israel is the sovereign power which decides who can enter Jerusalem and who cannot. Yet another message was to UNESCO, which previously passed a resolution maintaining that the Aqsa Mosque is an Islamic site.
Since 1967 an integral plan has been put into place. Israel has been able to implement its plans over the past 50 years on the ground with ease, without any mentionable reactions at the international, Palestinian or Arab level. It has taken control of 87% of the area of Jerusalem and established 15 settlement there in which 210,000 settlers live. Imagine, not one Israeli lived in this area immediately after the 1967 occupation. In 1973, a strategy was formulated which stipulated that the percentage of Palestinians in Jerusalem should not exceed 22%. Nonetheless, Palestinian growth continued, reaching 40% according to the latest Israeli statistics. This was when they decided to build the separation wall, claiming it was for security purposes but really, it was for political reasons. In the end, Israel admitted that the wall had isolated 140,000 Jerusalemites outside of Jerusalem’s boundaries.
**What was Israel’s strategy which enabled it to tighten its control over Jerusalem?
The Israelis have operated according to a strategy that entails several projects, most significantly the 2020 and 2050 project. Last June, a trial run was made for the new train track linking Jaffa to Jerusalem in addition to a series of projects that will be implemented as part of Israel’s future plans. This includes a huge airport in the Nabi Mousa area east of Jerusalem and the annexation of all settlement blocs around Jerusalem, the area of these blocs which amounts to 10% of the West Bank. To achieve this, Israel allocated annual funds reaching NIS7 billion to Judaize Jerusalem. This is besides the enormous amounts of money wealthy Jews living in the United States and Europe pump into Jerusalem, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, handed over to Jewish settlement groups active in the Old City, the suburbs and surrounding neighborhoods.
In these 50 years they have succeeded in several areas; they have almost complete control over the health sector. Al Maqassed Hospital used to be one of the standout hospitals in Jerusalem but today it is in danger of closing and suffers from a debilitating financial crisis. As for education, we are witnessing an Israeli assault on Jerusalem schools and an attempt to impose Israeli curriculum by taking advantage of its control over 65% of all schools. For the remaining schools, Israel tries to impose its authority and domination over them through its financial support.
In terms of settlements, over the past 50 years, Israeli authorities have been able to build 58,000 settlement units, with even bigger plans to build just as many through either new construction or expansion of existing settlements.
**In the 50 years since Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem, we see Israel trying to turn the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into a religious one. Will it succeed?
Israel has an entire plan where it comes to the conflict over Jerusalem. Its attempts to turn this into a religious conflict have never stopped. But we should not confine these attempts to only the Aqsa Mosque. We must be careful of this; Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims must not fall into this trap. Al Aqsa Mosque and holy sites in general are part of the overall Jerusalem context, which throughout history has been a city of coexistence and peace among all of its inhabitants irrespective of their faiths or beliefs. But what is happening today is that Israel is trying to highlight the conflict over the Aqsa Mosque so as to pave the way for the construction of the temple, all while reinforcing its measures meant to shift the demographic balance in favor of nationalist, religious and more extreme groups, even at the expense of secular Jews. Statistics show an increase of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem while secular Jews move to other Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv.
The Israeli slogan “Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people everywhere” is the slogan several Israeli parties have embraced, namely the right-wing which is power. They condition negotiations with the Palestinians on them accepting this premise, going even further by pushing the world, the United States in particular, to accept it as well.
What the Palestinian leadership must make clear is that the struggle over Jerusalem in particular and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in general, is not a religious one. We must be very careful not to fall in this trap and stop reducing the issue of Jerusalem to the Aqsa Mosque only. Even the way the Palestinian media deals with the settlers breaking into the Aqsa is wrong. They use the words “courtyard”. Any courtyards or plazas are public spaces and therefore anyone in the world is allowed to enter. This is what Israeli authorities are trying to market, so they can impose their presence there as part of the overall battle over Jerusalem, a battle which targets the Palestinians’ very existence and civilization in the city.