Israel’s efforts to suppress Palestinian activities in Jerusalem

A Palestinian man in Jerusalem stands atop his home that was destroyed by Israel with the pretext that it was built without a permit. (Anne Paq/Activestills)

Israel is currently using provisions in the lengthy documents of the Oslo accords as the legal basis for intensifying efforts to suppress activities in Jerusalem that the state says are linked to the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Oslo accords were interim agreements that were signed by the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and from which the PA was created.

The Israeli government argues broadly that because the Oslo accords leaves the issue of Jerusalem unresolved until final status talks, it is forbidden to function in Jerusalem. Yet, just a month after the first of the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres promised in writing that Israel would not “hamper” — and would instead “preserve” and “encourage” — the activity of “all the Palestinian institutions of East Jerusalem.” Jawad Boulos, a Palestinian lawyer with Israeli citizenship who has represented PA interests in court, said that a subsequent Israeli law on the implementation of the Oslo accords has superseded the Peres letter, and is the basis for the current prohibition.

The latest examples of this crackdown were closure orders delivered last month by armed Israeli police and border police at the opening and closing sessions of this year’s annual Palestine Festival of Literature, which were scheduled to be held in East Jerusalem’s Al-Hakawati Palestinian National Theater.

Festival organizers denied any connection with the Ramallah, West Bank-based PA, which had been involved in intensive US-sponsored peace negotiations with the Israeli government following the Annapolis conference in November 2007. Despite those negotiations — or perhaps because of them — the Israeli government suppression of Palestinian activities in East Jerusalem has intensified over the past two years.

Israeli police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said in a phone interview last week that “Any event in Jerusalem that is organized or financed or backed by the Palestinian Authority” will be shut down. It has been happening with increasing frequency in recent months, and it happens this way: the Israeli Ministry of Internal Security makes the decision and signs shut-down orders which are then enforced by a combination of Israeli national police and border police.

Intensified crackdown

During the Pope’s recent visit to the Holy Land, a Palestinian media center set up temporarily in the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem was ordered closed. Israeli police and border police deployed to deliver a prohibition against holding press conferences by Jerusalem personalities in a public room at the hotel during the last four days of the Pope’s trip.

Additionally, the Israeli crackdown hit hard at the March launch of the Arab League-sponsored year of Jerusalem as capital of Arab culture for 2009 (the event was postponed in January due to the large-scale Israeli military operation in Gaza). Rafiq Husseini, a resident of East Jerusalem and a senior advisor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, heads the committee in charge of organizing the activities. The main event was in Bethlehem, due to the ban on PA activities in Jerusalem. The Israeli national police and border police stopped at least eight related events that were organized in Jerusalem, including the release of balloons into the air, the distribution of T-shirts, a soccer match and a visit of students to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound. The students were waving Palestinian flags and about 20 persons were detained.

Last June, Israeli forces unexpectedly showed up to ban the seventh annual memorial meeting in honor of the late PLO leader in Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini, which was to be held in East Jerusalem’s al-Hakawati theater. Husseini died of a heart attack on 31 May 2001 while on a mission to try to mend Palestinian relations with Kuwait.

“The Israeli police brought with them ‘the brass,’ and they had special forces ready on the side,” according to Adnan Abdelrazek, a former UN official who later worked with Husseini in the Orient House, and who had gone to attend the service. The Orient House is a family property that was reinvented by the late Husseini during the Oslo period as a quasi-representative Palestinian office in Jerusalem, where a number of community services and organizations worked together. The Orient House was closed down by the Israeli authorities, a few months after Husseini’s death, in the midst of the second Palestinian intifada, after a suicide bombing in August 2001.

Abdelrazek said of the police breaking up the memorial, “But they did not even have a court order — which meant they would have had to go to the court and explain why they wanted to prevent the memorial, and we would have had the opportunity to explain why we wanted to hold it. No, in Jerusalem, in this supposedly ‘united Jerusalem,’ the Israeli police relied on the British Military Regulations of 1947,” which limit the right to assembly. During the raid, the sponsor of the memorial and Faisal Husseini’s son, Abdel-Qader Husseini, was briefly detained.

Abdelrazek explained that “The Israelis have zero tolerance for any Palestinian voice, and it’s getting worse and worse. But there is no way the Israelis can prevent people forever from exercising their basic human rights to political expression and free speech.” However, this year there was no effort made to organize a memorial service in East Jerusalem to honor Faisal Husseini on the anniversary of his death.

Attorney Boulos worked with Husseini in the Orient House. He said in a recent interview that “the way [that] Israel is responding to all Palestinian initiatives in East Jerusalem, in a crazy way — to cultural events, international cultural events, music events — trying to prove they are the masters of the place, this will hurt Israel in the end.”

Boulos said that the multiple detentions and summons for questioning given to Palestinian activists is another strategy used by the Israeli police and the Ministry of Internal Security to prevent Palestinian events from taking place in Jerusalem. Boulos pointed to the multiple detentions of Hatem Abdel Qader, an East Jerusalem activist who has been an adviser to appointed PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, himself a resident of East Jerusalem. Abdel Qader was recently sworn in as Palestinian Authority Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, with a full portfolio. Boulos said that “There were no orders for his arrest. The police say only that they want to have a conversation with Abdel Qader and the others they detain, or summon for interrogation. The Palestinians are held from one to five hours, and that’s how the activities are disrupted.”

It’s not only the cultural sphere that is affected by these strengthened measures. After the Orient House was ordered closed, the East Jerusalem-based Arab Chamber of Commerce was forced to relocate to al-Ram. Since mid-February, al-Ram has been completely sealed off behind Israel’s wall. Businesspersons who are members of the Chamber of Commerce complain that there is no convenient location nearby where they can legally hold a meeting. This is despite an explicit stipulation in the US-brokered Road Map that the Israeli government is supposed to “reopen the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce and other closed Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem based on a commitment that these institutions operate strictly in accordance with prior agreements between the parties.”

Redefining Jerusalem

East Jerusalem was not part of Israel when the state was declared on 14 May 1948, but was under Jordanian control until Israel captured it and the rest of the West Bank in the June 1967 war. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the war, and successive Israeli governments have since worked relentlessly to isolate Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. Moreover, each Israeli administration has made it clear that they regard all of Jerusalem as theirs — meaning the “Greater Jerusalem” municipality that Israel unilaterally designated after the 1967 war by absorbing parts of the West Bank, running north to the Atarot/Qalandiya airport at the doorstep of Ramallah, and south to the entry of Bethlehem.

However, Israeli officials are proposing to undo the “Greater Jerusalem” package, and reverse the process in specific areas by detaching Palestinian-populated neighborhoods in the northern and southern parts of “Greater Jerusalem” and turning them over to the PA’s jurisdiction. The expansion of Jewish settlements in and around Jerusalem and the route of the wall that Israel has been constructing on Palestinian territory since 2002 appear to conform to this plan.

Palestinian officials, for their part, have spoken of a Jerusalem without barriers or checkpoints that would serve simultaneously as the capital of two states. However, as things stand now, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have no real political representation, which has a direct negative impact on their daily lives. They bitterly complain about being forgotten and abandoned by all sides. They are taxed as much as or sometimes more than the Israeli Jewish residents of West Jerusalem, yet they receive a disproportionately smaller share of municipal services, including but not limited to the obvious problems of inadequate garbage collection. There is also a significant lack of primary school classrooms for Palestinian residents.

Making matters worse, in the November 2008 municipal elections, ballot boxes were not set up in East Jerusalem areas that have been isolated on the other side of Israel’s wall. This provoked further anxiety among Palestinians who live in constant fear of losing their Jerusalem residency. Also at stake is Palestinians’ access to family, friends, work, schools, shops, libraries, parks, health care, as well as places of religious worship. In recent months, orders for the eviction or demolition of Palestinian homes have rapidly increased, while building permits for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are both extremely costly and nearly impossible to obtain.

Suggestions have been made that this could be provisionally corrected if Palestinians would organize to elect representatives who would work for their interests on the Jerusalem municipal council. Palestinian East Jerusalemites became permanent residents in Israel in 1967, and they are eligible to vote in the Jerusalem municipal elections. However, only a fraction of the potential Palestinian voters in East Jerusalem have done so. The overwhelming majority has conformed with a decades-long decision to boycott the elections in protest of the continuing occupation.

Meanwhile, under the terms of the Oslo accords, East Jerusalem Palestinians were also given the right to vote in PA elections. In practice however Israeli-imposed movement restrictions and other difficulties mean that only a minority cast a ballot in PA elections.

Hypothetically, East Jerusalem Palestinians have the right to vote in elections in two different jurisdictions. But they are in a unique situation, deprived of any effective governmental representation. They are prevented from exercising self-governance, and they are not permitted representation from the PA whose president and parliament they vote to elect. At the same time, the Israeli prohibition of Palestinian activities in Jerusalem is constricting the ability of Palestinian residents to express, develop and practice their own culture freely.

Marian Houk is a journalist currently working in Jerusalem with experience at the United Nations and in the region. Her blog is