While Israel’s military offensive against Gaza may have taken the spotlight off the expulsion of Palestinian families from Jerusalem, its bid to engineer demographic changes in the occupied city and control the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa have serious implications for the struggle to liberate occupied Palestine. The trigger of the current crises was the eviction of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah, a predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, just over a mile to the north of the Old City, on the road to Mount Al-Masharif. This spiralled into protests before Israeli police attacked worshippers inside Al-Aqsa Mosque on the auspicious Night of Al-Qadr on 10 May.At the end of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel took control of East Jerusalem, it agreed to maintain the status quo at Al-Aqsa, which includes the Dome of Rock and Qibli Mosques, leaving their custodianship to the Jordanian Ministry of Religious Endowments. Jews were allowed to have access to Al-Buraq Wall (“the Wailing Wall”) on the western side of Al-Aqsa. Over the years, however, Israel has not only expelled Palestinian Muslims from the city but is making access to Al-Aqsa Mosque increasingly difficult for them.
The population of illegal Israeli settlers in Jerusalem is growing at a faster rate than the population of Israel. According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, the total population of Jerusalem was 882,700 in 2016, with 536,600 Jews, 319,800 Muslims, 15,800 Christians and 10,300 unclassified.
Until the early 20th century, Muslims were a majority in the city. According to Ottoman-era taxation registers, recorded by authors Amnon Cohen and Bernard Lewis in their book Population and Revenue in the Towns of Palestine in the Sixteenth Century, the Jewish population in 1553 was 1,958; there were also 12,154 Muslims and 1,956 Christians in a total population of 16,068.
Michal Oren-Nordheim and Ruth Kark record in their book Jerusalem and Its Environs: Quarters, Neighbourhoods, Villages that in 1832 the city had 4,000 Jews, 13,000 Muslims and 3,560 Christians. According to Jordanian research and statistics, the number of Jews in Jerusalem reached 10,000 in 1918 while Muslims numbered around 30,000.
A census conducted by the British five years after the 1917 Balfour Declaration revealed a different story, though. The number of Jews had swelled to 33,971 in 1922, while Muslims remained at 13,413; the number of Christians was 14,669. The total population of the city was recorded at 62,578.
Researchers Manashe Harrel and Ori Stendel recorded the Jewish population of Jerusalem in 1944 at 97,000, Muslims 30,600 and Christians 29,400. Soon after the 1967 war, they said, the Jewish population was 195,700, Muslims 54,963 and Christians 12,646. The total population of the city at the time of the war was 263,307.
Over the years, Israel has enacted discriminatory laws to drive Muslims from the city. Hence, if a Muslim woman marries outside Jerusalem, she loses the right to live and own property therein even if it was where she was born. This law goes against all the tenets of gender equality and justice. A Palestinian who leaves the city to work or study can find that s/he is banned from returning to their home.
I visited Jerusalem a few years ago. During my stay, a two-storey house belonging to a Palestinian family in the Old City was occupied by Jewish settlers while they were out of the city to attend a relative’s wedding. When they returned after a week, they found their belongings on the road and a Jewish family living in the house. They were told that the authorities had allotted the property to a Jewish family as they found it “abandoned and locked”. This was not an isolated incident.
A similar story has been repeated in Sheikh Jarrah, a comparatively prosperous Palestinian neighbourhood known for its Arab and Moroccan restaurants. The locality named after a 12th-century physician whose tomb it contains also houses an Ottoman palace, which has now been turned into a hotel. In 1956, Jordan, which was the ruling authority in East Jerusalem at the time, moved 28 Palestinian families which were displaced by Jewish militias in 1948 into new homes built by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). They were granted ownership of the properties within three years in return for renouncing their refugee status. However, in 1972 settler groups claimed that the land was Jewish-owned. They were given legal backing in Israel to charge the Palestinian families rent. Since 2002, dozens of Palestinians have been evicted from the neighbourhood, and since the beginning of last year, the Israeli courts have ordered the eviction of thirteen more families.The combined political, social and economic tools used by the Israeli occupation authorities to Judaise Jerusalem and create a demographic balance in favour of Jews is one of the most formidable challenges to the security of the area. One example of this Judaisation was Israel’s recent decision not to allow the indigenous Palestinians living in Jerusalem to participate in the legislative election scheduled for 22 May. The Palestinian Authority duly “postponed” the election.
Writing in Jerusalem Quarterly, the head of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in Ramallah, Luay Shabbaneh, said that the PA has been barred from providing services in the city over the years. Meanwhile, the public services provided by Israel are not distributed equally among the city’s residents. “These disparities place residents under continuous pressure to leave the city and escape the prohibitions against construction and the high costs of obtaining a building permit that varies between $25,000-30,000, a high cost for Palestinians,” she said.
According to a study conducted by Meir Margalit, a former Jerusalem councillor, the cost of a building licence for a 200 square metre apartment in Palestinian areas is nearly $100,000, an exorbitant sum for anyone, not least Palestinians with limited earning potential due to the occupation. The fee excludes additional charges for connecting the property to the sewage network or engaging lawyers, for example. It is intended to force the Palestinian population to move out of the city “voluntarily” because life is being made too difficult.
Aside from engineering demographic change, the Israeli occupation authorities are also making access to the Noble Sanctuary of Al Aqsa increasingly hard for Palestinians, denying them the right to practice their religion freely. This was evident when Israel prevented a visit by Jordanian Crown Prince Hassan Bin Abdullah recently, even though he is the mosque’s official custodian.
While tourists are allowed to visit Al-Aqsa, Israel doesn’t allow Palestinians who live just a few miles away in the occupied West Bank to visit the holy site. The residents of Bethlehem, a Palestinian city just 10 kilometres south of Jerusalem, from where they can see the domes of the mosques in Al-Aqsa, cannot travel there. A teacher at a UN-run school in Bethlehem told me that he had visited the city fourteen years ago but can now only gaze at the domes from a distance and gasp at the fortune of his countrymen who are able to pray there. Jewish settlers, meanwhile, are escorted into Al-Aqsa by Israeli security forces and perform Talmudic rituals in the sanctuary.
This religious apartheid is compounded by the settler-only roads from which Palestinians are banned when travelling across the West Bank. The infrastructure of apartheid includes hundreds of fixed and flying military checkpoints and, of course, the infamous Apartheid Wall, which impede Palestinians as they seek to go about their legitimate business, studies and family visits. They are even blocked from having ease of access to hospitals and other healthcare provision.
To the crime of apartheid, therefore, we must add ethnic cleansing to the list of war crimes and crimes against humanity that must surely be levelled at Israel and its leaders. For this the people of occupied Palestine need strong leadership, of a kind seen over the past few weeks; a younger, more dynamic leadership that is genuine about wanting to liberate the land. If we have learnt anything at all from history, it is that collaborating with oppressors is both morally and legally wrong. It has to end so that the land of Palestine can be free once more.