The Jerusalem-Palestinians: Identity and Identification


The 300,000 Arabs of Jerusalem, 37% of the city’s population, are in a unique position. Though entitled to all the benefits of living in Israel, they do not have a say in the governing of their city or in their own future and are subject to a myriad of administrative, technical, and legal issues. For five decades, Israel has managed to avoid dealing seriously with this integral part of Jerusalem’s population. It seems that the time finally has come to address this complex and complicated aspect of Jerusalem. An interview with Amnon Ramon of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research.

In the five decades since 1967, Israel has managed to solidify its rule in eastern Jerusalem. Large Jewish neighborhoods were built in the vast area added to the city in the east and the separation wall constructed in 2005 has disconnected the Palestinian population of Jerusalem from its social, economic, and cultural hinterland. Most Palestinian institutions and organizations have left the city and the competition and division that characterizes the Palestinian political system has completely curtailed the ability of any Palestinian entity to operate in Jerusalem. The Palestinian public in Jerusalem is torn between its national identity and the advantages of the Israeli social security, health, and educational systems. The Palestinian aspiration that eastern Jerusalem become the capital of the Palestinian state, which at the beginning of the 1990s seemed within reach, is accepted today as impossible. In many respects, these are all Israeli accomplishments.

This does not mean that the struggle for Jerusalem is over. Palestinian resistance activities in Jerusalem continue by varied means, violent and otherwise. Palestinians in Jerusalem see themselves as living under foreign rule that discriminates against them so resistance activities are perceived as legitimate. The Palestinian population of Jerusalem perceives itself as part of the Palestinian people and the Arab-Islamic nation and, as such, is committed to the prevailing national and religious perceptions. However, in the last 17 years, following Israel’s success in quelling the two intifadas, a unique Jerusalem-Palestinian identity has emerged, widening the gap between the Arabs of Jerusalem and the Arabs of the West Bank.

This special Jerusalem-Palestinian identity has its roots in the expansion of Jerusalem’s borders in 1967 and the annexation of additional territories to Israel. In hindsight, it seems that the policymakers of 1967 forgot that the additional territories also included a population that had to be given some kind of legal status.

In 1967, two population censuses were conducted throughout the new areas of Jerusalem. All the people listed in the censuses received Israeli permanent resident status that entitled them to an Israeli identity card, social benefits, freedom of movement within Israel, and more. However, not all the residents of the new territories were included in the census for varied reasons, some because their place of residence was not reached, others because they were not home on the day of the census. On the other hand, residents of villages that were not part of Jerusalem were included in the census.

Permanent resident status, as stated above, entitles the holder to all the social, health, and educational benefits of Israel (the most significant of which are social security benefits for children and old age). The holder can vote for the local council – i.e. for the municipal council and mayor of Jerusalem – and can take up residence and employment throughout Israel. But in order to be able to vote for the Knesset, to be elected to public office, to become a member of a political party, or to receive a passport – Israeli citizenship is required. Residency status has another major drawback, it lapses if the holder leaves Israel for more than seven years and can be rescinded by the minister of the interior for a variety of reasons.

Following the census, the new permanent residents were allowed to apply for Israeli citizenship which, in 1967, was readily bestowed. This process stalled very quickly. The population of eastern Jerusalem held Jordanian citizenship and passports. The Jordanians, and later the Palestinian authorities, looked upon attempts to request Israeli citizenship (which required relinquishing Jordanian citizenship) as treason and collaboration with Israel. Over the decades, what was considered a basic right of the new permanent residents in 1967 became a complicated process that evolved into proving residence in Israel with the aid of tax documents and local telephone, water, and electricity bills, obtaining police and security clearance, and finally, once all of these are procured, swearing an oath of allegiance to Israel.

The residency status bestowed on the population of eastern Jerusalem was not bestowed under the laws regarding the unification of Jerusalem, but under the 1952 Entry into Israel Law. The residency status granted under this law has been contested a few times in the courts by Palestinians who argued that the population of eastern Jerusalem did not enter Israel, but that Israel entered eastern Jerusalem. For people who have lived their whole lives in Jerusalem, the residency status poses a problem in issues such as family unification, marriage, and the status of children, among others. These very convoluted differences have turned the Arab population of eastern Jerusalem into a unique group – Jerusalem-Palestinians.

During the al-Aksa Intifada (the Second Intifada), the Jerusalem-Palestinian identity became even more differentiated. Resident privileges such as freedom of movement, employment, and social security, became much more significant and stressed the differences between the Palestinians of Jerusalem and the Palestinians of the West Bank. The forced physical disconnection between the two communities, by the separation wall, weakened social, economic, political, and family ties. It also further diminished Palestinian political activity in Jerusalem.

The Capital of the Land

For seven centuries, since the fall of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187, Jerusalem was not the capital of the land and did not have any significant status. Only in the last decades of Ottoman rule was Jerusalem given special status as the capital of an independent district (sanjak) subordinated directly to the government in Istanbul. This expressed acknowledgment of the religious importance of Jerusalem to the empire. The Jerusalem district encompassed the sub-districts of Bethlehem, Jaffa, Hebron, Beersheba, and Gaza – i.e. the entire center and south of the country. The leadership of the sanjak was drawn from the privileged families of Jerusalem. Following the British conquest of Jerusalem, in December 1917, the city was declared the capital of a new political entity named Palestine-Eretz Yisrael. The borders of the mandate were defined after the British severed this entity from the areas east of the Jordan River and the border between the British Mandate and the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon was marked. The new capital in Jerusalem became the nerve center of the British administration and both Jews and Arabs living in the country perceived the city as their natural capital.

Once the Arab Jerusalem elite, led by the Husseini family, positioned itself at the helm of Arab national movement in Palestine, Jerusalem’s status as the political center of the Arabs of Palestine was reinforced. When the mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, was elected as the chief religious leader of Palestine, and the head of the Supreme Moslem Council, Jerusalem became the seat of national Palestinian institutions and the capital of the future Arab state. The mufti utilized the status of Jerusalem in Islam to mobilize the Muslim world to support the Palestinian struggle. The Palestinian national movement was seen as uniting Muslim and Christian Arabs and as such brought Muslim and Christian religious leaders to oppose the Zionist cause and turned Jerusalem into a symbol of Palestinian nationality.

But, when the great Arab Revolt of 1936 broke out, it was not led from Jerusalem. Apart from a few Husseinis, it was the local village leaders of Samaria who stood at the forefront of the uprising. A year later, in October 1937, the mufti together with other members of the Arab Higher Committee, which al-Husseini had established in 1936 as the central leadership of the Arabs of Palestine, fled the country. For the next decade, this self-exiled leadership wandered between the capitals of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Germany, and Egypt. The Palestinian political center had left the country and abandoned Jerusalem. The declared mission of the Arab Higher Committee was to establish a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, but it operated from outside the country and its political influence quickly waned.

Following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the Palestinians were left without any leadership. But, even in defeat and exile, the Palestinians retained their affinity with Jerusalem. In September 1948, under Egyptian auspices, an All Palestine Government was set up temporarily in Gaza. It declared Jerusalem the capital of the future Palestinian state (Israel declared Jerusalem its capital only a year later, on December 5, 1949).

The Palestinian government and declarations were merely symbolic. A Palestine state was not established and Jerusalem remained divided between Jordan and Israel. The trauma of the Israeli victory in 1948 was discernible in eastern Jerusalem, where Arab refugees crowded into the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and the Jewish neighborhood of Shimon Hazaddik, and many city utilities ceased to operate when the city was divided. The most dramatic change after 1948 was the change from being the dynamic capital of the British Mandate, the center of the administration and economic activity. Instead Jerusalem became an unimportant fringe city with a border running through it.

The Jordanians set about destroying Palestinian national identity and undermining Jerusalem’s political standing. In 1951, Jordan annexed Jerusalem and the West Bank. One year later, all government offices in Jerusalem, which had been independent until then, were subordinated to the central offices in the Jordanian capital, Amman. Protests voiced by Jerusalem mayor Aref al-Aref and other Palestinian notables were rejected. In order to legitimize the annexation in the eyes of the Palestinians, the Jordanians appointed Palestinians from the West Bank to positions of importance in the Jordanian administration. However, Palestinian national feelings and outrage continued to smolder under the surface.

On July 16, 1951, former Lebanese prime minister Riad Bey al-Solh was assassinated in Amman, following rumors that Lebanon and Jordan were discussing making a joint separate peace with Israel. Only 96 hours later, on July 20, 1951, King Abdullah of Jordan was shot dead while visiting al-Aksa mosque in Jerusalem. The assassin, a 21-year-old tailor’s apprentice from the Husseini family, was shot to death by the king’s bodyguards. Abdullah had gone to Jerusalem to meet Mossad director Reuven Shiloach. Ten conspirators were accused of plotting his assassination and brought to trial in Amman. Former military governor of Jerusalem Col. Abdullah el-Tell and Musa Abdullah Husseini were charged with masterminding the assassination. Talks with Israel were stalled.

The assassination of the King of Jordan was an unusual event. The Palestinian population generally did not openly oppose the Jordanian government, even though the relations between the two banks of the Jordan remained uneasy, especially in light of Palestinian demands for representation. Discrimination in budgets and political influence kept Palestinian identity alive in Jordan. In 1959, King Hussein tried to appease Palestinian dissatisfaction by declaring Jerusalem the second capital of Jordan and announcing that he would build a palace in Jerusalem. But, again, these declarations were merely symbolic.

In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) held its inaugural meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. This was not only a symbol of the rebirth of institutional Palestinian nationalism, but also a declaration that Jerusalem is the only capital of the Palestinians. In 1966, following a series of raids on Israeli settlements from Jordan, in which three Israeli soldiers were killed, Israel retaliated with a daylight raid on the Arab town of Samoa, south of Hebron. Fourteen Jordanian soldiers were killed and 125 houses were blown up. Israel had one casualty, the commander of Paratrooper Battalion 202, Lt.-Col. Yoav Shaham.

Following the raid, massive anti-Jordanian demonstrations broke out in the West Bank, the most violent of these occurring in Jerusalem. On Friday, November 25, 1966, after the prayers at al-Aksa mosque, demonstrators opened fire on the Jordanian policemen stationed at the Damascus Gate. A curfew was declared and police were sent to take control of the PLO offices in Jerusalem. The demonstrations continued anyway, with the leaders demanding that Jordan collaborate with the PLO and allow Palestinian terrorists to operate against Israel. On the eve of the Six Day War in 1967, another big demonstration took place in eastern Jerusalem. Ahmad Shukeiri, chairman of the PLO, arrived in the city and, from the pulpit at al-Aksa, gave a fiery speech calling for the conquest and destruction of Israel. Like many in the Arab world, Shukeiri believed that the Arab armies were about to defeat Israel and he wanted the areas liberated from Israel to be given to the PLO.

But, this was not to happen. In six short days, Israel defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan plus gained control of the Sinai, Golan, and West Bank. Eastern Jerusalem was, for the first time, under Israeli rule.

National Resistance

The conquest of eastern Jerusalem by Israel came at a time when Palestinian identity in Jerusalem was rising, but did not include a demand for the separation of the West Bank from Jordan. When major figures in Arab Jerusalem reinstated the Supreme Muslim Council in July 1967, they declared, “Arab Jerusalem is an integral part of Jordan.” The council’s creation was a direct response to Israel’s decision to reunite Jerusalem. The council aimed to become the national leadership of the Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel’s response to this initiative was quick: the council members were deported from Israel.

At the same time, the Fatah movement, which became the leading Palestinian movement after the war in 1967, began to organize armed terror cells in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Fatah activity was not only motivated by Israel’s conquest of the West Bank, but also by fear that a political settlement might be reached in which Israel would return the West Bank to Jordan.

Yasser Arafat organized the armed cells that were to operate against Israeli targets. Swimming across the Jordan River into Israel, he operated in the territories and Jerusalem for the next six months, evading Israeli attempts to capture him. In August 1967, he met with Faisal Husseini in Jerusalem, supplied him with arms, and asked him to be the commander of Fatah in the city. Husseini’s attempted activities were discovered and he was arrested in October 1967 and sentenced to a year in jail. Other attempts by Fatah to plant bombs in Jerusalem were also discovered ahead of time. Two attacks did succeed: an attack with hand grenades on August 18, 1968, and a car bomb in Zion Square on November 22, 1968.

The success of Israel’s security forces in uncovering terror cells and bases forced the PLO to move its center of operation across the Jordan River and attack Israel from Jordan. In March 1968, Israel attacked the large Fatah base in Karameh, Jordan, encountering opposition from Fatah terrorists and Jordanian military forces. Even though Israel managed to destroy the PLO base, Palestinians perceived the high casualties Israel sustained in the attack as proof of Palestinians managing to stand up to the Israeli military. Fatah became the most important Palestinian organization and in February 1969, Arafat was elected chairman of the PLO.

Rising support for Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank brought about the events of September 1970, known as Black September. In pitched battles, the Jordanian army expelled the Palestinian military organizations from Jordan.

In 1974, the Arab League declared the PLO the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and in 1979, Faisal Husseini established an academic Palestinian study center located in one of the Husseini family properties in Jerusalem, the Orient House.

The outbreak of the First Intifada in December 1987 took everyone by surprise, including the Palestinian organizations. In Jerusalem, Israeli security forces managed to curtail demonstrations and Arab activities turned into individuals throwing rocks, commercial strikes in which Arab shops in the eastern part of the city closed, stabbings, and attacks on government offices in eastern Jerusalem. The intifada created a local Jerusalem Arab leadership, led by Faisal Husseini. When negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians started in 1991 (in preparation for the Madrid conference), Arafat, afraid a local leadership would develop to rival him, started separate clandestine talks with Israel that ultimately led to the Oslo Accords.

A New Reality

The Oslo Accords, which postponed making any decisions regarding Jerusalem until a later stage that was never reached, created a coalition of left-wing and Islamic Palestinian organizations bent on thwarting the agreements. On the one hand, Jerusalem became the site of repeated terror attacks, on the other hand, the security forces of the newly formed Palestinian Authority began to operate in eastern Jerusalem, especially against drug dealing and other crimes. The Palestinians believed that drug dealers had not been arrested by the Israeli Police because they were Israeli informants.

Oslo did not last. The Camp David talks between Israel and the Palestinians failed and when Ariel Sharon, head of the opposition in the Knesset, made his ill-fated visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000, violent demonstrations broke out in Jerusalem. By January 2001, with the breakdown of talks between Israel and the Palestinians in Taba, the Second Intifada was raging. The Second Intifada was characterized by widespread suicide bomber attacks, the preferred mode of operation of the Islamic organizations, and brought about the breakdown of all the agreements achieved in the Oslo Accords. The Second Intifada also claimed the lives of thousands of victims and spurred the collapse of the Palestinian economy and an economic recession in Israel. The Israeli operation Defensive Shield in 2002, among other actions, finally ended the Second Intifada, restoring an uneasy quiet to Jerusalem and the West Bank and reducing the number of terror attacks to two or three a year.

In 2014, wide-scale terror erupted again, and, as always, centered on Jerusalem and the al-Aksa mosque. These attacks, called by some the Third Intifada, did not stem from Palestinian national aspirations, but from the extremist strain of Islam that has developed in the Arab world. Extremist Muslim organizations that have taken root among Israeli Arabs have played a major part in fomenting violence in Jerusalem, becoming the main instigators of these trends in the city.

The Price of Ambivalence

From the beginning, Israel’s attitude to the Arab population of eastern Jerusalem has been ambivalent. Israel brought modern utilities and amenities, employment, social benefits, health services, and education to the Arabs of eastern Jerusalem thinking that all this would make it possible for them to live under Israeli rule. But in 1967, the Arabs of eastern Jerusalem were not the leaderless Israeli Arabs of 1948. The city had an elite that included former ministers, senators, and judges who had served in the British Mandate and the Kingdom of Jordan. They boasted polished English, Oxford educations, and adeptness in policymaking and negotiating. They quickly understood that Israel was not planning to give them a say in governing the city so negotiations between Mayor Teddy Kollek and the leaders of eastern Jerusalem did not yield any results.

The status of the Jerusalem Palestinians has yet to be fully defined. Their residency can be revoked and their future is uncertain. They live in Israel, work in Israel, and enjoy Israeli social and health benefits. But they have no representation in the management of their city, their status and property are not secure, their dealings with the authorities are complicated, and their identity and identification are complex. Some of them live on the other side of the separation wall in neighborhoods where there is no law and no authority. From time to time, they have to deal with new ideas regarding their status, such as declaring some of their neighborhoods not part of Jerusalem, which will upset the little security that they have in their lives even more.

“Like the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin,” Amnon Ramon concludes, “I, as a researcher, believe that we have to seriously address the issues of the Arab population of eastern Jerusalem. After 50 years of Israeli rule, we have to come to terms with the elephant in the room, to find a common interest and a way in which these Jerusalemites will be able to express their identity and self within Israel. We have to be able to give them a future.”

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