Opinion

Jerusalem’s Palestinians Hold the Key to Israel's Future

The real power of the Palestinians lies in the fact that Israel doesn’t know what to do with them

A checkpoint in Issawiya neighborhood in the old city of Jerusalem on October 16, 2015.
\ Muammar Awad / Anadolu Agency/

“Imbala” is an Arabic word that means something like “nevertheless.” That’s also the name of a new cultural center being established by a group of left-wing Jerusalem activists. The founders asked me to give a lecture in the spirit of the new place. After some thought I chose to talk about the Palestinian victories over the occupation in Jerusalem.

Ostensibly, this would seem to be an oxymoron, because no one can deny that the Palestinians in general and the Palestinians in Jerusalem have been defeated and occupied for 50 years now. They are not the masters of their own destiny. They lack rights and suffer systematic discrimination, violence at the hands of the authorities, severe poverty and an absence of leadership.

Nevertheless, I argue that it is the Palestinians of Jerusalem who have shown more determination and steadfastness in the face of the occupation than any other Palestinian group, and it is they who have the power to influence the future of both peoples.

The first victory of the Palestinians in Jerusalem is a demographic one. If there is a single constant factor in the 50 years since 1967, it’s the Palestinians’ sumud, their steadfastness, regarding Jerusalem. It doesn’t matter what happens, the Palestinians won’t leave the city. Even if it means living in harsh, overcrowded conditions. For example, despite enormous efforts by successive governments of Israel to maintain the Jewish majority – efforts that have included extensive land expropriation and the construction of huge Jewish neighborhoods on that land – the Jewish majority in Jerusalem has shrunk from 75 percent in 1967 to 60 percent today.

Even the flourishing settlement project, led by Elad and Ateret Cohanim within the Palestinian neighborhoods in the city, looks a bit different when seen through demographic eyes. The settlements in Silwan, the Old City and other places are ceaselessly expanding at the expense of Palestinian families — and causing them to suffer. But the number of settlers in the Palestinian neighborhoods is minuscule. After 30 years of concentrated efforts, investment of hundreds of millions of shekels and symbiotic cooperation with the government, settlers account for only one percent of the population in those neighborhoods.

Nor have the settlers been able to change the public space in any significant way. Thanks to them there are more Israeli flags, Border Police and security cameras, but the “Judaization” of East Jerusalem neighborhoods is no closer to fruition today than it was at the beginning of the project. In 1990 there were 8,700 Palestinians in Silwan and zero Jews. Today there are 500 settlers and more than 20,000 Palestinians. And that is considered the settlers’ greatest success. So it’s hard to claim that the settlers are about to change the face of Silwan or any other Palestinian neighborhood.

But demographics is not the only Palestinian victory in the city. The Palestinians in Jerusalem have also proven again and again that they don’t accept the Israeli dictates. That’s what happened with the education system, when the Israeli syllabus failed to penetrate, and that’s the way it is with the total boycott of the municipal elections. While this boycott did compromise the services the Palestinian neighborhoods receive, it emphasizes that East Jerusalem is an occupied city. In the realm of planning and construction, discrimination against Palestinians has led to widespread construction without permits. And yet, despite house demolitions, all of the city’s mayors have had to realize that tens of thousands of homes cannot be destroyed and in the end most will have to be granted permits.

The Palestinians in the city have also proven that Israel does not have a free hand in and around the Temple Mount. Every time Israel has tried to make changes in the status quo on the Temple Mount, it has come up against popular opposition, which sometimes turns Jerusalem’s streets violent. This opposition is bolstered by protests from Jordan and other countries, and ends with Israel backing down. That’s what happened last summer with the metal detectors at the Temple Mount gates. The Palestinian Jerusalemites have proven that they are faithfully fulfilling their role as guardians of Al Aqsa, and after a week of protest, most of it non-violent, Israel backed down and dismantled the metal detectors. The victory was a source of enormous local patriotism among Palestinians in the city.

But the real power of the Palestinians lies in the fact that Israel doesn’t know what to do with them. Israel has been able to make a few brilliant moves to split up the Palestinian people into a number of groups – refugees in the diaspora, the Arabs of Israel, residents of the West Bank (who are also divided into Areas A, B and C), residents of the Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem. Each group has had a tailor-made “suit” sewn for it that ensures Israeli control and division among the Palestinians. In the West Bank Israel uses the Palestinian Authority to weaken opposition to the occupation. The Gaza Strip is well sealed behind high fences, and as for the Arabs of Israel, efforts are being made to assimilate them into Israeli society and widen the differences between them and the rest of the Palestinians. It seems that Israel has turned the policy of divide and conquer into an art form, and Israel has the power to offer each Palestinian group a large basket of carrots and sticks. To Gaza it can offer a few more hours of electricity, to the Arabs of the West Bank more work permits, and to the Arabs of Israel another college or funding for road construction. Nothing need be said about the sticks.

But of all the groups, the 320,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites present a challenge for which Israel has no answer. On the one hand, in recent years the Jerusalem municipality, the Education Ministry and other ministries have been trying to “embrace” the residents of East Jerusalem and “Israelize” them, like their brethren in the center and north of the country. On the other hand, the Interior Ministry, no doubt on orders from above, is making sure that Palestinians in Jerusalem do not receive citizenship, the right to vote for the Knesset, and to truly become part of Israeli society. To decision-makers in Israel, the granting of citizenship en masse would be a horrific prospect – hundreds of thousands more Palestinians with the right to vote is bad news for the right wing. What’s worse, it means an end to any diplomatic solution as Israel marches toward one state for two peoples, with the only thing left to choose, the type of regime: a brutish apartheid one that will maintain the Zionist character of the state, or a democracy in which the Zionist nature of the country will be lost.

Thus, of all the Palestinian groups, the only ones that hold any keys to their future and ours are the Palestinian Jerusalemites. They hear despair from the diplomatic process in PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ words, and understand that the dream of a Palestinian state whose capital is Jerusalem is fading away. But in contrast to the other groups, they have the power to move from a struggle over sovereignty to a struggle for equality and civil rights. In fact, this struggle is already happening on the ground, and more than Hamas’ Qassam rockets or rocks thrown in West Bank villages, this can be the arena of struggle where the future of Israel and Palestine is decided.