I am a Palestinian who was born and lived in East Jerusalem for 27 years before I emigrated to the U.S. in 1978. Since then, I have visited my former hometown several times, and each time I am more appalled at how ghettoized and impoverished it is becoming under Israel's occupation. Early this month, a United Nations Commission on Trade and Commerce (UNCTAD) report confirmed with careful research and analysis my observations and those of anyone who is familiar with East Jerusalem over the past 46 years of Israeli occupation.
Before the 1967 War, East Jerusalem was a prosperous, cosmopolitan town of about 65,000 people with a predominant majority of Palestinian Arabs -- both Muslims and Christians, and several ethnic minorities, many of them associated with the city's beautiful churches and Christian missions. Today, East Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhoods are tightly hemmed in by a ring of sprawling Jewish settlements built on land taken from the Palestinians. Israel established and continues to expand these settlements in violation of international law, with the intention of restricting the natural growth of the Palestinian neighborhoods and severing the city from the rest of the occupied West Bank. As part of this process, the resources Israel allocates to the physical infrastructure and the municipal services of the highly subsidized Jewish settlements are far greater than those allocated to the largely neglected and increasingly dilapidated Palestinian areas of the city.
While the UNCTAD report does not use terms like "ghettoization" or "impoverishment," these are indeed the conditions emanating from Israel's policies towards the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. According to the report:
• The economy of East Jerusalem accounted for 15 percent of the economy of the Palestinian occupied territories prior to the signing of the now defunct Israeli-Palestinian 1993 Peace Accords, but this share has now shrunk to an estimated 7 percent.
• "Poverty among Palestinians in East Jerusalem has been rising steadily over the past decade, whereby 77 per cent of 'non-Jewish' households in Jerusalem were under the Israeli poverty line in 2010, compared to 25.4 per cent of Jewish families who lived below the poverty line in the same year."
• Israel has isolated East Jerusalem Palestinians from the remainder of the occupied Palestinian territories, but it has intentionally failed to integrate them into the Israeli economy, thereby leaving them in a "developmental" and a "legal, demographic, and political limbo."
UNCTAD is not alone in describing a willful Israeli policy that is damaging to the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. In a 2009 report, the U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom noted that "many of the national and municipal policies in Jerusalem were designed to limit or diminish the non-Jewish population of Jerusalem." Five years earlier, a British parliamentary report observed that "it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a deliberate Israeli strategy of putting the lives of ordinary Palestinians under stress as part of a strategy to bring the population under heel." Since then, the situation has only worsened. The fact is that Israel's political establishment is obsessed with the idea of an overwhelming Jewish majority in Jerusalem. For the city's Palestinians, the implementation of this idea has meant continued dispossession and denial of their human rights.
Neoconservatives who admire Israeli policies frequently contrast an allegedly intolerant Islam with an Israel that belongs to an enlightened "Judeo-Christian civilization." In fact, however, Israel's oppressive policies towards the Palestinians of Jerusalem contrast sharply with those of Muslim rulers from the city's past. Abba Eban, a former Israeli foreign minister and distinguished Jewish historian, attested to this fact in reference to the Muslim conquest of Palestine in the seventh century:
The rejuvenation of the [Jewish] Palestine community under Muslem rule was... swift. Oppressed and numerically decimated by the [former] Byzantine sovereigns, the [Jewish] community in Palestine now rose to such heights that it seemed ready to regain its authority over world Jewry.... The community in Jerusalem continued in existence [under Muslim rule] until 1099, when it was mercilessly destroyed by the invading Crusaders.
Jerusalem is a powerful symbol in so many ways for millions of people all over the world. It is also, in a very real way, the "canary in the coal mine" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Israel cannot tolerate the idea of Palestinians living in Jerusalem with equal rights, there will be no peace deal in the land considered holy by the three Abrahamic religions.