Laura Wharton
Laura Wharton
Jerusalem City Councilor, adjunct lecturer in political science
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This is why East Jerusalem is near boiling point

Right-wing extremists have become increasingly brazen in their efforts to drive out the local Palestinian population and settle Jews in their stead
File: Israeli security forces on horseback disperse Palestinian demonstrators during protests against Israel at the flashpoint Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, on May 18, 2021 (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)
File: Israeli security forces on horseback disperse Palestinian demonstrators during protests against Israel at the flashpoint Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, on May 18, 2021 (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

Jerusalem is a beautiful, vibrant, growing city of international importance. So why are East Jerusalemites so full of rage?

One can’t talk about the problems of Jerusalem without noting that 38% of the city’s residents, those living in the eastern neighborhoods, are Palestinians without citizenship. They are not Israelis and of course, Palestine is not yet a recognized state. Palestinians can’t vote in Israeli national elections, and if authorities chose to, can have their “permanent resident” status revoked. After the outbreak of the Six-Day War, Israel engulfed what had been Jordanian Jerusalem together with more than 25 villages surrounding it and all came under Israeli control. To this day, great gaps exist in the infrastructure, standards of living, and services provided to the various neighborhoods; only city tax collection is evenly administered.

But these are not new problems, just festering ones. What is new are the increasingly brazen and egregious activities of right-wing extremists, often messianic in their outlook, who aim to drive out the local Palestinian population and settle Jews in their stead.

Where they can, these extremists have sought tracts of land that were once owned by Jews and have paid for documentation of ownership. Israeli law is unjust in this matter: although Arabs with title to property in west, Israeli Jerusalem are unable to reclaim their homes, Jews with title to property in East Jerusalem may do so. Normally, statutes of limitation and clear dating limitations would make such prejudice impossible; however, Israel rejects the rights of anyone who was not present in West Jerusalem in 1948 when the state was declared. On the other hand, in the case of East Jerusalem, there is no limiting date: a Jewish family that bought land in 1930 can lay claim to its land today, even if under Jordanian rule it was taken over by eminent domain.

Worse is the story in neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah, where not individuals but joint teams of the UN and Jordan made official arrangements in the 1950s to provide homes on land abandoned by Jewish families in 1948 to help Palestinian refugees who had fled from Israel proper, as a form of compensation. The Jewish families were in turn compensated by Israel. Yet now, 70 years later, people with a racist agenda are demanding a second uprooting of the Palestinians and a second compensation for the Jewish families — although the original Jewish families from 1930s are not party to these plans and in some cases even publicly object.

The moves by well-funded ultra-rightists, whose financial backing is usually anonymous and via tax shelters from abroad, are a stain on Israel and an affront to international law. In addition, they threaten relations with Jordan and other neighbors who participated in the processes of helping the refugees from 1948. Today, tens of families, encompassing hundreds of Palestinian residents, are in immediate danger of being evicted and left homeless.

Another grave problem is that of housing demolitions. Due to increased pressure from the radical right, there has been growth in the number of demolition orders given out in East Jerusalem. Over the more than 50 years of Israeli control over East Jerusalem, almost no neighborhood building plans were prepared. As a result, it has been virtually impossible to legally build. While tens of whole new neighborhoods were built for Israelis, often on Palestinian land taken over by the government, and despite the growth in the Palestinian population, no new neighborhoods have been built for Palestinians.

Today, tens of thousands of buildings lack official papers and tens of homes are under immediate threat of being demolished, which will leave residents homeless, with no alternative for shelter and no compensation. In most cases there is no justifiable impetus for these decisions: there are no approved alternate plans, no obstruction to public buildings or services, and no complaints from neighbors. Although in recent years the pace of planning has increased, so has that of demolitions.

The third and perhaps most pernicious form of intervention by the ultra-right groups is the building within Palestinian neighborhoods. Although there are few existing building plans that can enable legal construction, right-wing Jewish groups build without objections. Or worse, as in the case of Beit Yonatan, a 7-story building constructed in an area in which only 2-story buildings are permitted: settlers inhabit this place despite a court order to demolish it.

Recently, settlers moved into a densely populated neighborhood of Ras Al Amoud, receiving police escort to take over a building meant to be demolished, but to which they added before moving in. That is, Palestinian owners were told the building would be destroyed, but the right-wing activists moved in with official support and private guards.

Worse still, nearby in the same neighborhood, settlers built a compound for 100 families and city and government funds have now gone to building a mikveh (ritual bath), youth center (for Jews), and other facilities at public expense, on public land that might have been used to build kindergartens and schools for the local population, as the Supreme Court has determined should be done to cover a chronic lack of public services for the Palestinian population.

Some people are surprised at the worrisome outbreak of tensions, sometimes in the form of violence. Given the situation in East Jerusalem, combined with growing police violence at any show of protest, it is surprising the situation is not graver — and one may expect it will be getting worse if the government does not act swiftly to tackle the deep-seated and well-founded resentment.

About the Author
Dr Laura Wharton is a member of Jerusalem's City Council as a representative of Meretz and an adjunct lecturer in the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Born in the U.S., she immigrated to Israel after receiving a B.A. in the government department of Harvard University and then served a full term in the Israel Defense Forces. She subsequently completed an M.A. and a Ph.D. at Hebrew University. For research that later served as the basis for her book "Is the Party Over? How Israel Lost Its Social Agenda" (Yad Levi Eshkol, 2019) she was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize in Memory of Levi Eshkol. She is a mother of two and has been living in Jerusalem for more than two decades.
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