Knesset Toughens Conditions for Separating Palestinian Neighborhoods From Jerusalem

In a late night debate, lawmakers pass an updated bill that makes it harder to divide Jerusalem without Knesset approval

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Buildings in the Kfar Aqab neighborhood of Jerusalem, November 7, 2017
Buildings in the Kfar Aqab neighborhood of Jerusalem, November 7, 2017Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Knesset approved an amended bill early Tuesday morning that makes it harder to divide Jerusalem.

The sponsors of the bill, which passed by a margin of 64 to 52, changed the main clause under political pressure to require the prime minister to obtain Knesset approval for any move to separate out Palestinian neighborhoods. Such a vote would require a simple majority and not an absolute majority of 61 votes.

The bill, sponsored by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin, is aimed at paving the way for approving a future move that would reduce Jerusalem’s jurisdiction and establish a separate municipal entity under Israeli authority in which no Israeli citizens would live, only Palestinians with residency status.

The text was amended overnight during a meeting held by Bennett and Elkin with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, MK Bezalel Smotrich and right-wing activist David Be'eri. Lobbied by Likud and Habayit Hayehudi members, the group wanted to require 80 MKs to approve any change to Jerusalem's municipal borders. However, that position was too controversial, according to a source familiar with the matter. Normally, only Basic Laws require 80 votes to be amended.

"We will keep the municipal defense of Jerusalem, but not at the level of a Basic Law but rather at a level that requires a regular majority to change it," MK Nissan Slomiansky told the plenary to explain the change. MK Bennett told the MKs: "This law is not theoretical. We deal in very practical laws."

The law "strengthens the defensive wall against those from the left who are liable to try in future to hurt Israeli sovereignty in united Jerusalem," said Elkin, the Jerusalem Affairs minister.

The bill was originally supposed to break the taboo on public debate over Jerusalem's borders. The bill affects the Shoafat refugee camp and adjacent neighborhoods, Kafr Aqab, Al-Walaja and parts of the Al-Sawahra neighborhood. Nearly 150,000 people are estimated to live in these areas, comprising half to two-thirds of East Jerusalem Palestinians holding Israeli ID cards and enjoying residency status. The Jerusalem municipality has stopped supplying services to these neighborhoods since they were cut off by the separation fence. The security situation in these areas is shaky, and they suffer from failing infrastructure, massive illegal and unsupervised construction as well as from flourishing organized crime.

Elkin told Haaretz in October that the law was necessary because of the anarchy in and negligence of these neighborhoods, as well as the fear of the growing Palestinian population within Jerusalem. Although the new authority would be Israeli, Elkin acknowledged that the division would likely make it easier to cede the neighborhoods to Palestinian authority down the line.

“The new Jerusalem law is a racist law; it’s a law meant to cleanse Jerusalem of its Arab residents,” said MK Esawi Freige (Meretz). “After the Israeli government chose to erect a wall within Jerusalem, now it is seeking to remove 100,000 of its residents from the city.”

The bill requires a supermajority of 80 MKs to approve any diplomatic agreement involving the transfer of areas of Jerusalem to another country. This clause complicates the process of approving any such agreement but does not make it impossible, as a majority of 61 MKs can strike this clause by amending the law.

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