As reported by MEMO two weeks ago, Kamal Khatib, the Deputy Head of the Islamic Movement in Israel, warned in an online statement on 6 June that an Emirati businessman close to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Bin Zayed, is trying to buy Palestinian houses and properties in the old city of Jerusalem, especially those which are close to Al-Aqsa Mosque. It is alleged that he is doing this through a businessman from Jerusalem who's affiliated with exiled former Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan.
According to Khatib, the businessman offered $5 million to a local Palestinian to buy his house adjacent to Al-Aqsa. The house owner, apparently, declined, even when the initial offer was raised to $20m. Khatib warned that such efforts are similar to those in 2014, when "Mohammed Bin Zayed's regime" bought houses in Silwan and Wadi Hilwa in occupied East Jerusalem in order to sell them to Israeli settler organisations.
At the end of his online statement, Khatib advised all of the landowners in Jerusalem that they should "never deal with any attempt to sell houses or real estate to anybody and under any cover." He repeated his claims in an interview with Al-Jazeera on the same day as his Facebook post.
Two days later and on the same social media site, Dahlan denied the allegations and responded harshly against Khatib and Al-Jazeera. He basically claimed that lies and fabrications are nothing new to Khatib and Al-Jazeera, and those who run and finance the television station.
"The lies and the fabrications of Khatib and Al-Jazeera regarding Jerusalem are intended to distract and confuse people about whoever tries to give a helping hand to our beloved and holy city," Dahlan said. "The likes of Al-Khatib are the ones that intensify the isolation of Jerusalem and its people in the face of the colonising occupier." He then threatened to sue both Khatib and Al-Jazeera for libel.
This is not the first time that the Islamic Movement official has accused the UAE of buying properties in East Jerusalem on behalf of the Israeli occupiers, particularly those buildings that are closest to Al-Aqsa Mosque.
In 2014, during East Jerusalem's largest influx of Jewish settlers in two decades, 35 apartments and houses in Silwan, which is a densely populated Palestinian neighbourhood on the outskirts of the Old City of Jerusalem, ended up in settlers' hands. At the time, Kamal Khatib and Raed Salah (the leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel) accused the UAE of playing a major intermediary role in the sale of the properties to settlers' groups. I spoke exclusively to Khatib about this.
"In 2014, when the month Ramadan coincided with the start of the vicious Israeli offensive against Gaza, Emirati businessmen bought, through intermediaries and realtors, homes from Jerusalemites in Silwan and Wadi Hilweh," he said. "The claim [at the time] was that they would be used to host Indonesian visitors and others in order to encourage more Muslims to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque."
Only a few weeks later, Khatib pointed out, representatives of an Israeli Jewish organisation called Ateret Cohanim, accompanied by police officers, demanded that the owners of the houses should vacate them because the settlers were the new owners. "They presented the sales documents, which were said to be for Emirati businessmen."
A source from East Jerusalem who monitored the sales in 2014 — and has asked to remain anonymous — told me that, "The Palestinians who sold their houses in 2014 were told by Palestinian brokers that the Emirati sellers want to rebuild and renovate the holy city and merely want to support the Jerusalemites and their steadfastness against the settlers and the Israeli government, only to find later that their houses were sold to settler organisations."
At the time, the settlers' takeover in Silwan sparked outrage and drew international condemnation, especially from Washington. In 2016, Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar published an investigative report under the headline "Al-Aqsa Mosque is besieged by Emirati money". It provided details of other attempts by the UAE to buy houses in the Old City of Jerusalem through Palestinian intermediaries.
Those accusations are rejected by proponents of the UAE who claim that the purchase of properties in Jerusalem is intended to protect the city and support the Jerusalemites who can no longer handle life there. Furthermore, they insist, buying such properties is merely a way to ensure that they stay in Arab and Muslim hands.
However, some remain sceptical about this, not least because of the recent, overt development of positive relations between Israel and countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Their relationship is not only experiencing unprecedented warmth, but they have also started to cooperate with each other on what are perceived as common interests and common threats, mainly though not exclusively related to Iran.
Indeed, Gulf countries led by the UAE have been leading the effort to normalise the Arab world's links with Israel. This is at the expense of the Palestinians and their rights, given that Arab countries have previously conditioned normalisation with Israel on the implementation of the two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Within that context, therefore, the Palestinians are losing what is arguably their only leverage for negotiations with Israel.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are supporting and co-sponsoring the so-called "deal of the century" which doesn't recognise East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine; considers the whole of Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel; and proposes that the Palestinians should relocate their capital to Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem. Hence, some believe that the allegations about the UAE buying houses in East Jerusalem on behalf of Israel fit very closely with the overall position of the UAE and the context of its links with the occupying state.
According to political analyst and researcher Muhammed Shehada, the UAE and Saudi Arabia want their cooperation with Israel to step up from its limited, behind-the-scenes nature, and reach its full potential with cooperation on many levels.
"However, they cannot do this until some kind of diplomatic agreement is reached in the Israel-Palestine issue so that they'll sell it to their own citizens in order to mitigate their anger over the relations with Israel," he explained to me. "The UAE's actions of buying houses in the Old City of Jerusalem could either be to pave the way for the 'deal of the century' and make the Palestinians more accepting of the fact that East Jerusalem is not going to be the capital for their state, or — and this is more likely — the whole thing could be merely a quid pro quo with Israel as part of the UAE's overall cooperation with the Zionist state."
The Status of East Jerusalem
The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their long sought-after state, whereas Israel vows that "undivided" Jerusalem is its own "eternal" capital. The international community, however, doesn't recognise Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem and considers settlements there to be illegal under international law. However, last December Washington broke with decades of US and international policy when it recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital and followed that by moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May.
Ever since Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 Six Day War, it has worked to establish and expand a Jewish presence and ownership in the city. It treats the Palestinian residents of the city as unwanted immigrants and has imposed a repressive system designed to stifle their daily lives in order to drive them out of the city.
Using such tactics as house demolitions and withdrawal of residency permits, Israel has changed the demographic makeup of East Jerusalem from being nearly 100 per cent Palestinian in 1967 to a 63 per cent Jewish majority in the city today. The change has accelerated over the past 10 years; in 2008, Jews made up less than half of the population.
Homeowners in East Jerusalem generally refuse under any circumstances to sell properties to Israeli settlers. The vast majority of the properties sold to Jewish institutions have been made by fraudulent or deceptive means, sometimes using intermediaries or straw men to fool Palestinians into thinking that their homes will still be in safe hands. Occasionally, imposters who pose as the homeowners have been used.
The buying of properties in East Jerusalem by Jewish groups is the most sensitive and explosive issue to the Palestinians, not only because of the religious sensitivity of the area, but also because it touches on the future of the city that is supposed to be the capital of Palestine. Hard-line Jewish organisations have always wanted a contiguous presence in East Jerusalem in order to thwart any attempt to share the city under a peace deal with the Palestinians.
"The overall role of the UAE in helping Israel is not yet clear in all its details," Kamal Khatib explained to me, "and the story of buying real estate and delivering it to the settlers is only a manifestation of that role." What's more, he asked, how are we supposed to believe that the UAE is supporting the Palestinian cause when it sent a sports delegation to participate in the anniversary of Israel's creation, which is also the anniversary of the Nakba of the Palestinian people? "Doesn't this prove that the UAE is closer to Israel than it is to the Palestinians?"
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.