Settlements in Focus: Top 6 Bogus Excuses for East Jerusalem Settlement Expansion

Volume 6; Issue 3
By Lara Friedman, Americans for Peace Now and Daniel Seidemann, Terrestrial Jerusalem
You've heard them from Netanyahu, from Barak, from pundits, and from friends and family.  Here we take on directly the bogus excuses offered to justify East Jerusalem settlement expansion.

Bogus Excuse #1 - "Everybody knows these areas will always remain part of Israel."

The Truth:  There is nothing objective or neutral, or even constant, about what "everybody knows" in East Jerusalem.
In 1993, when the peace process was taking off, the settlement of Ramat Shlomo -- which recently caused such a headache for Vice President Biden -- didn't exist. If in 1993 you had asked what areas "everybody knows" would stay part of Israel under any future agreement, the area that is today Ramat Shlomo -- territorially distinct from any other settlement and contiguous with the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat -- would not have been mentioned.  
The same can be said of the massive settlement of Har Homa. Here, again, the argument is that "everybody knows" this area will forever be part of Israel. But again, this is an area that at the outset of the peace process was empty land -- devoid of Israelis, belonging mainly to Palestinians, and contiguous entirely with Palestinian areas -- that anybody drawing a logical border would have placed on the Palestinian side.  
The real question, then, is what do people mean when they say that "everybody knows?"  If they mean that everybody understands what will be Israeli and what will be Palestinian in Jerusalem, this could be good news: it could mean that an agreement is possible, at least on Jerusalem, tomorrow.   
But that's not what they mean - because for people using this argument, there is no place in Jerusalem that "everybody knows" will be Palestinian.  What they mean is that East Jerusalem can be divided into two categories: areas that "everybody knows" Israel will keep and where it can therefore act with impunity, and areas that Israel hopes it can keep, by dint of changing enough facts on the ground that such areas move into the first category. It is an approach that can be summed up as: "what's mine is mine, and everything else will hopefully be mine, too."
Those who embrace such an approach are acting under the premise that the status of Jerusalem and its borders will be determined by Israeli deeds rather than by negotiations.  It is an approach that appears to be being implemented on the ground today in the area surrounding the Old City in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods like Ras al Amud and Jabel Mukabbir.  It is also appears to be targeting, for the first time, areas like Shuafat and Beit Hanina.  In all these area, Israeli policies - construction, demolitions, displacement, changes in the public domain - appear aimed at transforming them into places that Israel can also claim that "everyone knows," will always be Israel.
Continuing such an approach sends a dangerous message that Israel is not serious about negotiations.  Tolerating such an approach will destroy US credibility as a steward of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Bogus Excuse #2 - "Arabs can build and live anywhere in Jerusalem, so Jews must be allowed to build and live anywhere, too."

The Truth:  Most of West Jerusalem is off-limits to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem in terms of their ability to purchase property.  This is because most of West Jerusalem, like most of Israel, is "State Land" (in all, 93% of land in Israel is "state land").  Under Israeli law, to qualify to purchase property that is "state land" the purchaser must either be a citizen of Israel (Palestinian Jerusalemites are legal residents of the city, not citizens of Israel) or legally entitled to citizenship under the law of return (i.e. Jewish).  
This means an Israeli or a Jew from anywhere in the world can purchase such property in West Jerusalem, but not a Palestinian resident of the city.  (Technically, by the way, these are actually not purchases but long-term leases.)
With respect to private land in West Jerusalem, there are no legal limitations on purchases by Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.  Similarly, there are no legal limitations on Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem renting in West Jerusalem. However, so few Palestinians actually reside in West Jerusalem, either through purchase or rental of property, that experts on the issue could not come up with a single example.  The reasons for this are social, cultural, and economic - that is, Palestinians do not have lives that are focused in West Jerusalem.  There is also discrimination - that is, there is anecdotal evidence that Israelis prefer not to rent or sell to Palestinians.  (This is distinct from Arab citizens of Israel, who by virtue of their citizenship have the right to buy property that is "State Land" and a small number of whom do live in West Jerusalem).
In addition, it should be emphasized that the ban on purchase of property on "State Land" by Palestinian residents of Jerusalem extends to East Jerusalem.  Not only are Palestinian Jerusalemites barred from purchasing property in most of West Jerusalem, but they are also barred from purchasing property in the 35% of East Jerusalem that Israel has expropriated as "State Land" since 1967, and on which Israel's East Jerusalem settlements have been built.  This means that in more than 1/3 of East Jerusalem, Israelis and Jews from anywhere in the world have a right to buy property, but not Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, including the very residents whose land was expropriated to build these settlements.
A small number of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have rented apartments in some East Jerusalem settlements (principally French Hill, Pisgat Zeev, and Neve Yaacov - all settlements that are so far "east" that they are increasingly less attractive to Israelis).  This does not appear to reflect any political agenda to move to these areas, but rather is a byproduct of the severe housing shortage that exists in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.  And it should be noted that these are short-term rentals from their Israeli owners (as opposed to formal leases by the titular land owner, the government of Israel, to Palestinians).

Bogus Excuse #3 - "The planning and approval process is so convoluted that there is no way the government of Israel could keep track of, let alone stop, East Jerusalem settlement plans - even if it wanted to do so."

The Truth:   The planning and approval process for East Jerusalem settlements is indeed long and convoluted, but that does not mean it is impenetrable or impossible to oversee.
Indeed, notwithstanding the flow charts that Netanyahu has gleefully shown to officials in Washington, the fact is that  outside parties with no access to internal government information have still been able to track and predict - in advance - virtually every plan that has come up, not only since Netanyahu came to office but in the years before that.
The planning/approval process has clear and well-known "bottlenecks" - hurdles through which plans must pass and at which they can be stopped.  By monitoring activity in 5 of these "bottlenecks" (the Local Committee and its Licensing Subcommittee; the Jerusalem Municipality and Ministry of Interior websites; and the Regional Committee and its Objections Subcommittee) there should be zero surprises.
While Netanyahu may be justified in arguing that the process is so complex that it calls for legislative reform, it is patently false to use this argument in an effort to absolve himself of responsibility for knowing about planning and construction activities in East Jerusalem.  If motivated outside groups can track these by simply monitoring what is on the public record, the government of Israel can certainly be expected to do no less, and indeed should be expected to do far more.

Bogus Excuse #4 - "The land was not being used by anyone until Israel built on it."

The Truth:  This argument rests on the idea that it is permissible to confiscate someone else's property - not for public domain but for commercial development - based solely on the argument that the owner doesn't really need it or isn't using it.  Given that Netanyahu is fond of asserting that it would be inconceivable that in Washington, DC or New York there would be areas that Jews are not permitted to build, simply because they are Jews, it is worth pointing out that it is likewise inconceivable that in Washington, DC or New York land developers would be permitted to seize someone else's property based on such bizarre logic.
Moreover, this argument rests on the false assumption that Palestinian non-use of property is voluntary.  It should be recalled that shortly after the 1967 war, Israel expanded Jerusalem municipal boundaries to include not only Jordanian East Jerusalem but much of its West Bank hinterland.  Shortly thereafter, Israel expropriated almost all the open land in East Jerusalem - including the area that is today Ramat Shlomo - placing it off-limits for Palestinian development.  
It is thus misleading to imply that East Jerusalem's Palestinians - whose population since 1967 has grown at a much higher rate than Israel's Jewish population - didn't need or weren't interested in developing their land, when the fact is that Israel barred them from ever doing so.
Moreover, it is a fact that there is massive overcrowding in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Yet, while the government of Israel has planned and built more than 50,000 units for Israelis in East Jerusalem settlements since 1967, fewer than 600 residential units have been built for Palestinians in East Jerusalem with any kind of government support, the last of which was more than 35 years ago.  
Similarly, while the government of Israel has been generous is approving planning and permits for private Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, including in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods, it is well-documented that since 1967 East Jerusalem's Palestinian residents have had a difficult and sometimes impossible time getting permits to build on their own, privately-owned land, and the government of Israel has refused to approve new neighborhood plans that would allow for any systematic expansion.

Bogus Excuse #5 -"East Jerusalem settlements have never bothered Palestinians and don't impact their lives negatively in any way."

The Truth:  East Jerusalem settlements are a bone in the throat of Palestinian East Jerusalem.  They are built on land that under normal circumstances would have been the natural sites for Palestinian neighborhoods.  They cut off access to the West Bank and between Palestinian neighborhoods.  The infrastructure to serve them is built at the further expense of Palestinian land and generally designed to suit the needs of the settlers, while infrastructure for East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods resembles that of third-world villages.

Bogus Excuse #6 - "Jerusalem settlements are not an obstacle to peace."

The Truth:  Jerusalem is the epicenter of the bitter national conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It is the place where the conflict is at its peak and also the place where the conflict will come to an end.  There can be no Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and no two-state solution without an agreement - agreeable to both sides - on the future status of Jerusalem.  Furthermore, any notion that Palestinian aspirations regarding Jerusalem can be satisfied by permitting them to call some outlying area in the West Bank "Jerusalem" and making that the Palestinian capital must be recognized as pure fantasy.  
Should current settlement trends in East Jerusalem continue, with the rhetoric being backed up by deeds, the day will come sooner rather than later when the two-state solution will be irrevocably lost.  This will be because the demography and geography of Jerusalem have become so Balkanized that no reasonable, viable solution in Jerusalem will be possible.  And if there is no solution in Jerusalem, there is no two-state, conflict-ending resolution.  In short, we are hanging on by our fingernails to the two-state solution itself.  And contrary to those who would argue otherwise, there is no other solution. The loss of the two-state solution does not create alternative solutions.
But that's not all.  We are also hanging on with our fingernails to the nature of the conflict.  For now it is still a bitter, nasty national-political conflict that is at times fueled by religious extremism.  As such, it is manageable and ultimately resolvable by statesmanship and diplomacy.  However, what is transpiring in and around the Old City - both in terms of settlements and government-backed plans that are turning the public domain over to extremist, exclusionary settlers and colluding with them in turning the area into an evangelical theme park - threatens to transform this resolvable national-political conflict into an intractable religious conflict.  That is what is at stake.