East Jerusalem: The Myth of Benign Occupation Disintegrates

In the fall of 2015, Jerusalemwas gripped by a wave of violence,which subsequently spread to the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories, and led observers to wonder whether this might be the start of a third Palestinian intifada. As the moving force at Terrestrial Jerusalem, an Israeli nongovernmental organization exclusively devoted to the geopolitics of the holy city, legal expert Daniel Seidemann argues in this essay that it is the chronic trappings of occupation that have sustained the violence in Jerusalem for more than eighteen months. He points to the myriad ways in which Israeli rule in the occupied Arab part of the city is both dysfunctional and unsustainable and demonstrates that so long as official Israel continues to cling to the fig leaf of Jerusalem’s so-called reunification in 1967, there is no end in sight to the periodic and increasingly acute episodes of violence there.

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IN SEPTEMBER 2015, the world awoke to violence and turmoil in Jerusalem. Although Palestinian East Jerusalem had been in the throes of a popular revolt since July 2014 (unlike any the city had witnessed since its occupation in 1967), hardly anyone had paid any notice—until the clashes spilled over into Israeli West Jerusalem and beyond.


The unprecedented scope and intensity of the current revolt can be verified empirically. According to Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service (officially known as the Israel Security Agency), between 2001 and 2008, a period that encompassed the second intifada, Israel arrested 374 East Jerusalem Palestinians for terror-related offenses. [1] In contrast, Israel has carried out thousands of such arrests since the current revolt began; in September and October of 2015 alone, 797 Palestinians from East Jerusalem were arrested, and in 2015 as a whole, Israel detained more than 950 Palestinian boys under the age of eighteen—more than 1 percent of this entire age group.


The question is, why have Palestinian youths been clashing with Israeli police on a nightly basis for more than a year and a half?


That question is rarely, if ever, asked in official Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, and Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat and his city council, as well as right-wing parties in the Knesset and much of the Israeli opposition are united in their devotion to the mantra that Jerusalem is a united city which Israel returned to its natural state of wholeness in 1967. Thus, official Israel refuses to countenance the notion that there are any legitimate factors at work causing the violence in East Jerusalem. Clinging to that article of faith and impervious to empirical facts, official Israel accepts only one explanation for the violence of the past year: the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are bad, ungrateful people incited to action by equally bad leaders and extremists. Consequently, official Israel can conceive of only one strategy to deal with the rebellion: ever-harsher punishment aimed at breaking the Palestinians’ will and teaching them how good they really have it in so-called united Jerusalem.


Many observers, including journalists and pundits, academics, and officials from across the international community, have offered their own views. Their answers to the question are inadequate, however, centered as they are on provocations by Israeli extremists at the contested site known as the Temple Mount to some and Haram al-Sharif to others; the heinous murders by immolation of the Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir and the Dawabsha family; and the summer 2014 war in Gaza, being the most prominent. Certainly, these events help explain what triggered the current revolt, but they do not explain why that revolt has been sustained for over a year and a half. Focusing exclusively on such triggers leads to the misleading conclusion that once events like these are forgotten or somehow overcome, and assuming no other similar events occur, the status quo ante will be restored. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, chronicles a day in the life of a prisoner in the Siberian gulag. At the end of a day in the Soviet prison camp, which to the reader appears unspeakably harrowing, Denisovich gives thanks to God for such “a good day.” Some understanding of the current dynamic in Palestinian East Jerusalem can be gleaned through the lens of this story. While life under Israeli occupation is in no way comparable to that in the gulag, there is much to be gained by asking a version of Solzhenitsyn’s question: How good, or how bad, is a “good day” in Palestinian East Jerusalem, even in the absence of dramatic events like those that triggered the current round of violence?


The Daily Routines of Occupation, 1967–2014


In the wake of the June 1967 war, Israel imposed its rule over seventy square kilometers of West Bank territory previously ruled by Jordan, an area that came to be known as East Jerusalem. Whereas Israel had imposed citizenship on those Palestinians who remained within its borders following the 1948 war that saw the creation of the state, Israel did not make the 70,000 Palestinians residing in the newly designated East Jerusalem citizens. In essence, Israel annexed the territory, but not its residents—consistent with its goal of expanding its borders while maintaining a strong Jewish majority among its citizens.


It is often argued that East Jerusalem’s Palestinians are entitled to Israeli citizenship, and some suggest that it is something most of them want. Both assertions are factually incorrect. Palestinians may apply for citizenship and 12,025 of them have done so since 1970 (an average of 267 applications per year), of whom 5,055 have been successful. This is the grand total among a population that has grown from 70,000 in 1967 to more than 307,000 today. Clearly, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are not clamoring for Israeli citizenship, nor is Israel agitating to give it to them.


Rather than being citizens of Israel, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem have the legal status known as permanent residency. This status allows them to live, move freely and work anywhere in Jerusalem and throughout Israel. It also provides them with social welfare benefits and national health care, along with the burdens of taxation. But since they are not citizens, they cannot vote in national elections. As permanent residents, they do have the right to vote in municipal elections, although most of them choose not to: in 2013, a total of 1,101 of the more than 157,000 eligible Palestinian permanent residents voted in the local Jerusalem election.


Such figures speak volumes about the identity of these Palestinians and how they view their own political and legal status under Israeli rule. They underscore the fact that, since 1967, the overwhelming majority of them have made clear they will engage in no act—including voting and seeking citizenship—that could be construed, either implicitly or explicitly, as saying, “We are Israeli.” (Nor does official Israel treat them as such.)


This absence of a shared political community lies at the heart of the fundamental Israeli-Palestinian dynamic in Jerusalem. Relations between the two sides are almost invariably driven by, and derive from, the calculus of national struggle, as opposed to political maneuverings in a shared society. This dynamic plays itself out in a number of key areas.




Under Israeli law, permanent residency is a relative right that may be revoked by Israel at any time and for any number of reasons. Between 1967 and 2014, Israel revoked the permits of 14,416 Palestinians from East Jerusalem—for whom permanent residency turned out not to be permanent at all. The revoked permits affected those individuals who either acquired a foreign citizenship or work permit, resided outside of Israel for a protracted period of time, or whose “center of life” was found to lie outside East Jerusalem, including meters away in the West Bank. Palestinians who engage in political activity deemed hostile by Israel may likewise have their residency permits revoked; for the past nine years, a suit filed by four Hamas leaders challenging the legality of the punitive revocation of their residency rights has been pending before the Israeli High Court. In addition, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who marry Palestinian residents of the West Bank are barred from so-called reuniting with their spouses (in effect meaning that the couple either fail to have a life together or that the West Bank spouse lives illegally in Jerusalem), nor is residency automatically extended to their children.




With one or two possible exceptions, neither Jerusalem’s municipality nor the central government has ever employed a Palestinian from East Jerusalem as a senior or midlevel civil servant, whether as a judge, member of a statutory planning committee, or department head. Although they constitute 37 percent of the population of so-called united Jerusalem, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem receive, at most, 12 percent of the city’s budgetary allocations; additionally, there is a multibillion dollar gap in the level of infrastructure between the Jewish and Palestinian sectors of the city, including roads, water supply, sewage, drainage, parks, and other municipal services; furthermore, there is a shortfall of up to two thousand classrooms in the Palestinian sector. In large part, this reflects the fact that politicians and civil servants rarely allocate resources to people who cannot or will not vote.




The overarching goals of Israeli policies since 1967 have been to assure a robust Israeli majority in Jerusalem and to create facts on the ground that render the city indivisible. These goals have been pursued through accelerated development of the Israeli sector and the imposition of an artificial cap on Palestinian development.


Since 1967, Israel has expropriated 35 percent of all privately-owned Palestinian land in East Jerusalem for the purpose of constructing 55,000 settlement homes with government backing. As a result, today, more than 200,000 Israelis reside in the so-called settlement neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. During this same period, fewer than 600 residential units were built with any kind of government support for the Palestinian sector in East Jerusalem, the last time dating back to the mid-1970s.


At the same time, Israeli planning authorities have made it virtually impossible for Palestinians in East Jerusalem to obtain building permits. Over the past forty-eight years, the Jerusalem municipality has granted fewer than 5000 building permits for Palestinian construction in East Jerusalem despite the fact that the number of Palestinians living there rose by over 400 percent in the period. In order to house this growing population, Palestinians have resorted to building illegally. Today, more than 50 percent of the residential units built in the Palestinian sector since 1967 lack the required permits, making them vulnerable to demolition by the authorities. Since 1999, 1,367 Palestinian homes have been demolished, more than 2.7 percent of all Palestinian residential units in East Jerusalem.




Palestinian property rights in East Jerusalem are challenged by Israel’s Absentee Property Law, according to which property owned by a person who has been in “enemy territory” at any time since 1947 is absentee property that, automatically, belongs to the State of Israel. Under the terms of the 1950 law, enemy territory includes the West Bank (the occupied territory was in the hands of Jordan, then an enemy state). [2] Right-wing settler organizations have used this and other laws to great effect to take over properties in Silwan and the Old City of Jerusalem. When the government attempted to apply the law more systematically in East Jerusalem, legal challenges ensued. [3] Recently, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled (among other things) that while the Absentee Property Law applies to East Jerusalem, it should be applied only “in extremely rare situations” with respect to properties the owners of which reside in the West Bank—and only then with the approval of the Attorney General. [4]


Palestinian property rights in East Jerusalem are also challenged by Israeli legislation passed in 1970 that allows Israelis who owned property in East Jerusalem prior to 1948 to recover that property from its current occupants or tenants. This legislation was the vehicle by which settlement enclaves were established in Ras al-Amud and Shaykh Jarrah, as well as in parts of Silwan and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Importantly, Palestinians who owned property in West Jerusalem or elsewhere in Israel prior to the 1948 war enjoy no similar right of recovery.




Israeli courts have full jurisdiction over the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. In routine legal matters, Palestinians may expect a reasonably fair legal process, bearing in mind that they will never appear before a Palestinian judge (of whom there are no more than a handful who are also citizens of Israel). However, in situations of crisis and national struggle, courts act far more as organs of the state than as mechanisms for the administration of justice. Consequently, when sensitive, conflict related issues come before the Israeli courts—settlements, demolitions, expropriations, and so on—the courts tend to either rule in favor of the government (and settlers) or to go to great lengths to avoid ruling at all.




There are few, if any, Palestinians on the Jerusalem police force as neither do East Jerusalem Palestinians seek to join the force nor does Israel recruit them (other than as informants). In routine circumstances, Israeli police largely ignore East Jerusalem for purposes other than so-called counterterror or crimes that spill over into Israeli West Jerusalem (usually, drug-related offenses). In areas surrounding the settlement enclaves, Israeli police and government-financed private security firms generally do the bidding of the settlers.


In nonroutine circumstances, like those of the past year, Palestinians in East Jerusalem are subject to aggressive law enforcement tactics and collective punishment. In the past, policies of collective punishment were used sporadically; since September 2015 they have become routine.


The homes of family members of individuals deemed to be terrorists are routinely sealed or demolished—even when the alleged perpetrator/assailant is dead and the family has in no way been implicated in the crime. Entire neighborhoods are sealed off to vehicular traffic for days, and Israeli authorities implement an openly declared punitive policy of what they call enhanced enforcement, including aggressive use of citations for building infractions, business license infractions, parking and minor traffic violations.




In East Jerusalem, Palestinian political activity deemed to display a real or purported so-called national character is routinely barred or broken up by order of the Israeli police. This includes theater and literary events, as well as other cultural manifestations including art, dance, and music despite the fact that Israel clearly undertook to refrain from hampering the activities of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem. This undertaking was made in a side letter to the Oslo Accords, dated 11 October 1993, from then-foreign minister Shimon Peres to his Norwegian counterpart, Johan Jorgen Holst. Furthermore, under legislation subsequently enacted by Israel in connection with the accords, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was prohibited from carrying out any activities in East Jerusalem and the Israeli government was authorized to prevent any activities by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In 2001, Israel shut down several Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, including Orient House, which housed the PLO office during the 1980s; despite subsequent commitments (including under the U.S.-sponsored Road Map of 2003), Israel has not permitted them to reopen.


Under the Oslo Accords, East Jerusalem’s Palestinians have the right to participate in PA elections. However, during the 2005 Palestinian parliamentary elections, only 6,200 out of 100,000 eligible voters cast a ballot. This refusal to vote reflected three factors: unfounded fear of Israeli retribution for voting; a well-founded recognition that in the absence of any PA presence in Jerusalem, such elections were meaningless to Palestinian Jerusalemites; and the perhaps understandable and widespread disdain they felt for the Palestinian national leadership in Ramallah which, in their eyes, had ignored and abandoned them.




Palestinian political society in East Jerusalem is highly fragmented, and Palestinian history indicates that this atomization of political life and crisis of leadership has historically been the norm, even in the absence of Israeli occupation. However, Israeli policies since 1967 have worked to ensure that things stay that way with the city’s Palestinians divided, powerless, and leaderless.


East Jerusalem has long enjoyed a vibrant civil society. In the past, such as in the early months of the second intifada, official Israel quietly reached out to leaders such as the late Faisal Husseini. However, in the years since Husseini’s death in 2001, Israel has crushed all Palestinian political activity in East Jerusalem, and no significant political leadership has emerged other than at the neighborhood level. As a result, were they to decide to engage East Jerusalem’s Palestinian leadership to look for ways to quell the current turmoil, the Israeli authorities would find no interlocutor.


Characteristics of Israeli Occupation, 1967–2014


Israeli policy toward the Palestinians of East Jerusalem has been described as ethnic cleansing, in effect an aggressive and systematic attempt to rid Jerusalem of its Palestinian residents. This characterization distorts what is really going on—and the real threats are dire enough.


The Palestinian population of East Jerusalem has, in fact, more than quadrupled in size since 1967 and it is not without rights under Israeli law. As a rule, although Palestinians from East Jerusalem are not systematically targeted for seizure of property, detention, or expulsion, Israeli policies toward them are in no way compatible with even the most elastic interpretation of democratic rule. Indeed, under Israel’s own Basic Law, the rights of the individuals are “inalienable,” and not to be curtailed except “. . . for a proper purpose, and to an extent no greater than is required.” [5]


However, in practice these principles do not extend to the Palestinians of East Jerusalem, whose rights derive from Israeli magnanimity, and are entirely “alienable,” ever relative, and vulnerable. As long as they follow the unwritten rules of Israeli occupation, and as long as their property, person, or rights do not fall into the crosshairs of the Israeli authorities or settlers, East Jerusalem’s Palestinians are generally left alone. However, if they should challenge the rules of occupation or be so unfortunate as to have their property coveted by settlers or the security authorities, rights that are inalienable to Israeli Jerusalemites—and automatically granted to a Jew from anywhere in the world upon immigrating to Israel and moving to Jerusalem—are at grave risk. Thus, certain categories of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, typically those who run afoul of the authorities or Israel’s bureaucracy, see their rights come under attack. Likewise, a number of neighborhoods and their residents are actively targeted by the government and by settlers and these are clearly communities at risk. The dangers they confront cannot be overestimated.


There are those, too, who describe Israeli policy as a form of apartheid: a discriminatory and racist regime in which East Jerusalem’s Palestinians have no rights. This characterization, too, obscures more than it reveals about what is really going on—and, here again, the real threats are dire enough.


The Palestinians of East Jerusalem are recognized as legal residents of Israel, with rights to health care (the one genuinely egalitarian service in Jerusalem), social welfare benefits, and freedom of movement throughout Jerusalem and Israel. At the same time, however, they are denied political rights and the ancillary civil rights that accompany them: the right to political speech, to organize and, above all, to vote in national elections.


Even in the absence of malice, the nature of this rule has a pervasive and insidious impact on the daily lives of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. For example, if an Israeli accidentally ruins his national identity card by leaving it in his pocket when he washes his jeans, he goes to the Ministry of Interior and gets a new one in a matter of minutes. If, on the other hand, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem should do the same thing, having the document reissued is no small matter. The ministry will require her to spend months, or even years, trying to prove that she is entitled to residency in the city at all. Likewise, when an Israeli student goes abroad to study medicine, she can find gainful employment on her return; when a Palestinian does so, he may not be allowed back to the city of his birth.


Similarly, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are virtually powerless in shaping their communal lives. Given the dangers of having their property designated as absentee, Palestinians rarely carry out real estate transactions and, when they do, they do not take the risk of registering them with the Israeli authorities. Coupled with a planning regime driven exclusively by the calculus of national conflict, the result is that there is no real estate market or responsible urban planning for the 307,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem.


In short, Israeli policies in East Jerusalem are neither ethnic cleansing nor apartheid. What they are is a reflection of a reality in which both Israelis and Palestinians live in Jerusalem while in the eyes of Israeli officials there is only one “public,” and that public does not include the Palestinians. This is a system under which the most Palestinians can hope for is to get by. It is as though Israel is saying to these East Jerusalemites: You are a barely tolerated minority and you reside in Jerusalem not by right but by virtue of Israeli magnanimity. We do grant you some rights and we won’t withdraw them, unless we decide that we want to, and then we will. The limited rights you do enjoy hang by a thread and are always subservient to the Israeli national interest. You can acquiesce to this situation, or risk losing even those limited rights.


The Absence of a Status Quo Ante


As noted earlier, acute events—like provocations by Israeli extremists at Haram al-Sharif, the murders of Palestinians, and the Gaza wars—go some way toward explaining the timing of eruptions of violence in East Jerusalem. However, the chronic trappings of occupation, described above, sustain the violence—and these derive from the inherent dysfunctionality and unsustainability of Israeli rule there. The grievances of the Palestinian collectivity in East Jerusalem cannot be contained by Israeli security policies that seek to break the will of the population through ever tougher punishment, nor will building more schools or laying more sewage lines assuage the growing population.


The fuel for the current revolt is occupation itself. That being the case, one might assume that this round of violence will eventually subside, and the situation will return to the tense but generally stable status quo ante that has characterized much of Israel’s occupation in East Jerusalem since 1967. This assumption would likely be wrong.


Today, it seems clear that since July 2014 a number of new elements have been added to the mix, fundamentally altering the political and psychological landscape. If, at the outset, increasing disgruntlement over occupation fed this revolt, subsequent events have given rise to rage that will not soon subside, even if the violence ebbs. Three examples suffice to illustrate this phenomenon.


On 6 October 2015, Israeli authorities sealed one home and demolished others belonging to families of the Palestinians held responsible for the murder of Jews at a synagogue in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof on 18 November 2014. While Israelis may have questioned whether this would be an effective deterrent to other possible perpetrators, the international community condemned the act as collective punishment. For Palestinians, a single question hovered like a pall over East Jerusalem: When would Israel demolish the homes of the terrorists who murdered Mohammed Abu Khdeir? The widespread conclusion, which has been bolstered by the past year of conflict, was that for official Israel, Israeli blood is blood; Palestinian blood is water.


The day after the Har Nof attack, Barkat publicly urged residents of the city to carry weapons at all times. Many Israelis as well as the international community at large questioned the wisdom of such a call. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem, who do not enjoy the right to bear arms, heard a dog whistle: in essence, Barkat was calling to arms the 63 percent of the city’s residents that are Israeli against the 37 percent that are Palestinian, whom the mayor was now openly treating, collectively, as an enemy.


Less than a year later, on 25 October 2015, Netanyahu floated a trial balloon, indicating that he was contemplating revoking the Jerusalem residency permits of some 80,000 Palestinians living within the city’s municipal boundaries but to the east of the separation barrier (including Kafr ‘Aqab and the Shu‘fat refugee camp, for instance). This was followed by a similar proposals, one by Labor opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, and another initiated by former cabinet minister Haim Ramon and a number of former generals, all widely perceived as so-called moderates, to reroute the barrier in such a way as to leave “only” 100,000 Palestinians on the Israeli side. East Jerusalem Palestinians understood these proposals to convey the following message: In 1967, we made you part of Jerusalem. Now, we can just as easily cut you off from your own city. Your livelihoods, health care, connections to family, places of worship, and the city of your birth are of no concern to us.


There is a common denominator to all three of the examples given. If in the past East Jerusalem’s Palestinians were frustrated at being treated as an alien, potentially hostile minority whose rights were subservient to those of Israelis, today they are outraged by their perception—bolstered both by statements and policies—that for official Israel, Palestinian lives and welfare simply do not matter.


If the popular revolt raging since July 2014 had destroyed the myth of a united Jerusalem for all those not blinded by ideology, the Israeli response to that revolt has shattered the myth of benign occupation.


Thousands of Palestinian youths have been taking to the streets for over a year and a half because they know that under foreseeable circumstances, they have no future. The fact that for the first time since 1967 there is not even the pretense of a solution on the political horizon just confirms to them that there is no prospect of change. A young generation that believes they are living lives that don’t matter, with a futureless future and without any hope of change, does not augur well for a stable Jerusalem.


Be that as it may, past experience indicates that the revolt will run its course and the explosion of violence eventually abate. However, occupation will not go into remission, the existing rage won’t disappear, although it may become dormant, and the lessons of the last year and half will not be forgotten. As a result, the lulls between each round of violence will become shorter and each successive round more violent. Escalation will remain the norm until Israel ends its occupation of East Jerusalem.


Daniel Seidemann is a Jerusalem-based Israeli attorney, and an expert on geopolitical Jerusalem.


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1 See“Involvement of East Jerusalem Residents in Terrorist Activity,” Israeli Security Agency, http://


2 SeeAbsentees against Their Will: Property Expropriation in East Jerusalem under the Absentee Property Law, Ir Amim, July 2010, http://www.iramim.org.il/sites/default/files/Absenteesagainsttheirwill.pdf.

3 LizzieDearden,“Israel Can Now Legally Seize Palestinian Homes in Jerusalem under ‘Absentees’ Property Law,” Independent, 17 April 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middleeast/israel-can-now-legall....

4 See Israeli Supreme Court, Civil Appeal 2250/06, Custodian of Absentees’ Property et al. v. Daqaq Nuha et al. (2015).

5 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, Section 8 (adopted on 17 March 1992).

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