Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seemed to be making sense in his public argument with the Obama administration when he said that Jews should have a right to build homes in any part of Jerusalem. Unlike the rest of the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, which Israeli considers disputed territories Israeli law considers all of Jerusalem part of the state of Israel. The Israeli Knesset passed a number of laws declaring the unified city of Jerusalem, Israel's capital for ever.
A quick check of the facts, however, will deflate the Israeli argument and will show that Israel's policies towards the holy city will guarantee that the desired peace process continues to elude Palestinians and Israelis.
Jerusalem remains as the single biggest obstacle in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinians consider the eastern sector as the future capital of an independent Palestinian state, while the Israelis insist that the entire city remains as their capital.
Israel's unilateral decision to annex occupied east Jerusalem has not been recognised by any country in the world, including the United States. UN Security Council Resolution 478 states that "all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying power, which have altered or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and, in particular, the recent 'Basic Law' on Jerusalem, are null and void and must be rescinded forthwith".
A deeper look at the status of the city and its people reveals that since 1967 Israel has been carrying out a systemic campaign to 'Judaize' the city and to ethnically cleanse it of as many of its Arab residents as possible.
The 250,000 Palestinian Arabs living in the city are residents, not citizens of Israel. Any long absence from the city can easily be argued as reason to deny Palestinian Jerusalemites reentry. In 2007, I spent a year as a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University only to return to an order denying me social security benefits, a prelude to withdrawing my Jerusalem residency. The Israelis are arguing that the even though I was born and have lived and worked in Jerusalem most of my life, the centre of my life has to continuously be in Jerusalem or I will lose my rights. According to statistics gathered by B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, over 8,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites have lost their residency. In 2006 alone, 1,360 Palestinians from Jerusalem had their residency ID cards revoked.
On the housing issue for Palestinians, Israel has made it near impossible for Arabs to build in Jerusalem creating a catch 22. Palestinians can't get a building licence without a zoning plan and no zoning plans are issued by the controlling Israelis. Some risk it and build a house on their own land. Once a house is built and discovered, demolition orders are issued. Palestinians have to destroy their own homes, or else they will have to pay for the Israeli bulldozers that knock down their homes. Between 2004 and 2008, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions documented orders against 3,753 homes in East Jerusalem. The same committee, whose director Jeff Halper just won the 2009 Kant World Citizen Prize, estimates that 24,145 houses have been demolished in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza since 1967. Since the beginning of this year, house demolitions have greatly increased in East Jerusalem.
Palestinians are also exposed to an unfair tax system (e.g., arnona tax), which requires them to pay the same rates as their Israeli counterparts whose per capita income is approximately eight times higher.
Education is another area that faces continuous discrimination, with the city's Arab schools much inferior to the Israeli ones. According to a report by the Knesset Centre for Research and Information, there was a shortage of 1,354 classrooms in East Jerusalem in the 2005-06 school year. That shortage continues despite a slight improvement since that report was made public.
Linda Breyer, an Israeli lawyer and founder of St. Yves, a Catholic human rights and legal resource centre, has stated that "these policies are derived from a quota drawn up soon after 1967, designed to ensure ongoing Jewish domination of the city; the municipality and the Israeli state are secretly committed to preserving a ratio of 72 per cent Jewish to 28 per cent Arab population". No credible Israeli statement has denied this fact.
Netanyahu's claims that Palestinian Arabs can live in any part of Jerusalem has long been proven to be factually and legally untrue. Mohammad Burqan a Palestinian Moslem who tried to lease his own refurbished home (on the edge of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem's old city) was denied to buy it. The Israeli High Court in 1976 ruled that the Jewish Quarter company that denied leasing him the house was justified because he is not Jewish and that it is best that different ethnic groups live in different quarters. It also ruled that the company was justified in restricting the lease of homes to veterans of the Israeli army (to which Palestinians are restricted) or former members of the Jewish underground or new Jewish immigrants.
The worry by Palestinians is based on recent history. The current standoff between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government remind many of a similar standoff between the US and Israel in the 90s when Bill Clinton was president. At the time Netanyahu insisted on Israel's right to build Har Homa settlement on the Palestinian Jabal Abu Ghneim on the edge of Bethlehem. Today, Har Homa is a thriving settlement with thousands of Jewish Israelis residing in the complex built on expropriated Palestinian land. While the US president seems determined to stop the Israelis from their illegal activities, many are worried that the issue might be pushed aside or resolved as part of a larger agreement.
While international law and continued one-sided Israeli policies are reason enough to demand that Israel stop its settlement activities in East Jerusalem, a much more practical reason exists.
For decades the issue of peace between Israel and Palestinians has run into two major obstacles: the right of return and the status of Jerusalem. While Palestinian negotiators are said to have shown flexibility in the execution of Palestinian refugees' right to return, Israel has totally refused any compromise on its sovereignty in both sectors of Jerusalem. With over 200,000 Jewish settlers living in areas occupied in 1967 the idea of re-dividing Jerusalem is quite difficult and impractical. Palestinian leaders have not publicly called for a redivison of the city.
The best option to deal with Jerusalem was presented by former US president Bill Clinton and has received positive responses from both parties. Without dividing the city, the Clinton parameters call for Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to be under Palestinian sovereignty, and Jewish ones to be under Israeli sovereignty.
By allowing an American Jewish millionaire, Irvin Moscovich, to construct buildings exclusively for Jews in the predominantly Arab neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarah, the Israelis are destroying the tiny sliver of hope of an accepted compromise regarding Jerusalem