When Benjamin Netanyahu launched his election campaign this week he taunted the world community and cocked a snook at international law with a defiant pledge to build more settlements in occupied Jerusalem. The move was universally condemned. Recognising that this was more than electoral demagogy, though, no one was prepared to risk the consequences of any response more substantial. For better or worse, Jerusalem's future is now set to determine the course of international relations.
Israel's surge of settlement activity in Jerusalem seeks, above all, to perpetuate its self-proclaimed "basic law" on Jerusalem. Passed in July 1980, this legal construct envisaged an "integral and united Jerusalem" as the capital of Israel. Since then, the occupied city has become the seat of the Israeli president, the Knesset (parliament), the cabinet and the Supreme Court. The move was, however, censured by the UN Security Council, which affirmed its opposition to the acquisition of territory by force. More importantly, it determined that all Israeli measures taken in the Holy City of Jerusalem, in particular its "basic law", are null and void.
In an attempt to gain legitimacy for their actions, successive Israeli governments have attempted to alter the demographic balance in the city. Jerusalem's current Mayor, Nir Barkat, has made this objective his life-long ambition. Today, he is much closer to achieving it. At the end of 2011, there were about 293,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem, according to the Israeli Central Bureau for Statistics; there are around 200,000 Israelis residing in illegal settlements in the city.
Barkat enjoys the full backing of the Israeli political establishment. Like Netanyahu, he is also seeking re-election in 2013. For every housing unit built on his watch, he gains political capital. However, in the grand scheme of things, they have no real value if they do not stem Palestinian growth. Thus, 35 per cent of land in East Jerusalem has been confiscated for Israeli settlement use; only 13 per cent of East Jerusalem is zoned for Palestinian construction. The prospects for any further building have been quashed by the denial of permits, almost exclusively to Palestinians. In addition, at least 93,100 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are currently at risk of displacement. An end of the year report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories (OCHA) confirmed that at least 33 per cent of all Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem lack Israeli-issued building permits. The mere fact that a permit for a 120 sq metre flat costs $40,000 is enough to prohibit any Palestinian construction.
With the notorious exceptions of Burma and Syria, nowhere else in the world are civilians driven maliciously from their homes. Perhaps the only difference is that whereas in Burma government thugs and paramilitaries burn houses, in Jerusalem the Israeli government thugs use bulldozers. Nonetheless, the consequences are the same. Since 1967, the Israeli authorities have demolished some 2,000 houses in East Jerusalem alone. In 2012, a total of 581 homes were demolished, displacing 1,049 men, women and children. Several hundred more are at risk of forced expulsion, particularly in the Old City, Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah.
The growth of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories and Jerusalem in particular has been a long-standing problem for Israelis. It threatens to ruin their expansionist designs. They are now racing against time to complete the ring of settlements around Jerusalem and incorporate them into the self-styled "Greater Jerusalem", so off-setting the population short-fall. By offering cheap housing apartments to attract young couples, Netanyahu's government hopes to realise its objectives of having a majority of Jews in the city.
Meanwhile, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have no secure legal residency status. Between 1967 and mid-2010, around 14,000 Palestinians had their Jerusalem residency revoked by the Israeli authorities. The Christian community has not been spared the ravages of Israel's blatant ethnic cleansing. In 1948 there were 175,000 Christians in Jerusalem; by 1967 the number had shrunk to an estimated 25,000; today there are just 10,000 Christians there, or 4 per cent of the total Arab population. This pattern contrasts markedly with the West Bank where the numbers of Christians in Bethlehem, Bait Sahoor, Bayt Jala and Ramallah have not witnessed a corresponding decrease.
If indeed ever it was the case, Israel is no longer constrained by any sense of shame or guilt; it has become immune to verbal criticism. Nor does it mind the unique distinction of being labelled an occupying power or pariah state. As long as its obedient allies are content to do no more than issue statements of condemnation, it will carry on implementing its illegal and inhuman polices with impunity.
The malevolence towards Palestinians in Jerusalem has nothing to do with Israel's strength. It is a consequence of the collective failure by the world community to uphold the rule of law and universal human rights. Can things get any worse? After this week's inflammatory pledge to build more settlements in Jerusalem, 2013 promises to be another year of instability and unrest. Amid all the expectant turmoil, however, one fact will remain unchanged. As long as there is a Palestinian presence in Jerusalem, it will not be conquered, by Israel or anyone else. Netanyahu and his cronies know this very well; hence the ethnic cleansing.