Escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle for Influence in East Jerusalem in the Shadow of the Coronavirus Crisis

By Michael Milshtein​ | May 17, 2020


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The Coronavirus crisis throws into relief years-long fundamental problems regarding Israeli control in East Jerusalem. In this frame of reference, the Israeli-Palestinian cleavage line in the city—that embodies the gap between realities of civic life in the two parts of the city—has sharpened, accompanied by an ongoing struggle between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over influence in East Jerusalem.


Present Israeli-Palestinian tensions over this matter revolve around a number of hubs:

 

1) An ongoing effort on the part of the Palestinian Authority to take advantage of conditions forged by the health crisis to further establish its influence in the eastern part of the city is clearly afoot. In the course of this move, the Palestinian government in Ramallah has promoted care for Palestinian residents of the city, manifested in the organization of sanitation crews to disinfect public areas; establishment of isolation facilities in East Jerusalem for Coronavirus patients; and provision of personal protective gear to residents to combat the virus. Israel for its part, has worked with resoluteness to disrupt these maneuvers, primarily through temporarily taking into custody senior Palestinian Authority officials responsible for East Jerusalem, such as the Minister for Jerusalem Affairs and the Regional Governer of 'al-Quds'[1].:

 

2) A particularly serious problem became apparent in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods situated beyond the security barrier that enclosesthe northern edges of the city. This includes the Shu`afat refugee camp, the village Kafr 'Aqab and the Semiramis neighborhood, where (all told) 120,000 Palestinians reside (along side some 200,000 Arabs who live within the municipal boundaries of the city). These areas have suffered for years from a governmental vacuum that has led the area becoming ridden with crime, violence and anarchy that worsened with the outbreak of the Coronavirus crisis, sharpening awareness that in essence, there was no sovereign presence in this zone. Against the backdrop of shared Israeli-Palestinian apprehensions regarding the ramifications of the situation in these areas for the public health , a rare case of cooperation was proposed, whereby Israel allowed Palestinian security machinery to deploy temporarily during the month of April in Kafr 'Aqab to establish order (i.e. Kafr 'Aqab - with a population of 60,000 persons is the epicenter of anarchy and violence in the area)

 

3) Harsh conditions in the neighborhoods beyond the wall led, from time to time, to 'unauthorized' local initiatives by operatives from the Fatah/PLO in the area. They set up volunteer teams that had gained the inhabitants' trust, that maintain public order and compliance with Coronavirus directives (for example, closing off areas found to be hotspots of the virus) More than once, this led to friction between the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, against an existing sentiment of public criticism of the Authority – which like Israel, it was charged—has neglected and discriminated against the residents of East Jerusalem, and failed to supply them with medical assistance.

 

4) The Coronavirus crisis aroused preexisting dissatisfaction among East Jerusalem residents concerning discrimination in both the economic and civil affairs. In this frame of reference, it was claimed that residents of East Jerusalem don't have accessibility to health services on a plane with those in the western part of the city. Also pointed out were the disgraceful socioeconomic straits of Arab residents of the city, who are the poorest in Israel (while according to Palestinian researchers, since the outbreak of the Coronavirus, unemployment in East Jerusalem has risen to 30 percent, and the number of families living below the poverty line has reached 80 percent). It should be noted that in recent weeks the Jerusalem Municipality has bolstered its interventions on behalf of city residents in the eastern sector of Jerusalem, beginning with granting assistance and extending broad-based medical care to Arab residents.


5) The Temple Mount is the most explosive hub for Jerusalem in particular, as well as a major focal point within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general. The unprecedented closure of the entire Al-'Aqsa mosque compound to prayer, all the more so during the month of Ramadan is generating tensions throughout the Palestinian arena, accompanied by charges that Israel seeks to "Judaize the Mount" under cover of the Coronavirus crisis. The charge of duplicity falls on fertile ground: Deep Palestinian suspicions that Israel has been seeking for quite a while to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, an effort that Palestinians say reached a peak in recent years and is manifested in a significant increase in the number of Jews permitted to pray on the Temple Mount.

 

6) Jerusalem is situated at the hub of "implied finger-pointing" by the Palestinians according to which contagion in the West Bank originated in Israel (a charge accompanied from time to time by incitement, including senior Palestinian Authority officials charging Israel deliberately sought to infect Palestinians using IDF soldiers and Israeli settlers in Judea and Samaria as the vector. Thus according to Palestinian Authority data, approximately 60 percent of all 550 Palestinians in the West Bank who tested positive to the Coronavirus are from areas that hug Jerusalem  (28 percent) or are from the city itself (31 percent)—findings that sharpen the charge that contact with Israelis is the primary vector for contagion (this along with Palestinian charges that 74 percent of all those with the Coronavirus on the West Bank are laborers who worked in Israel or who were in contact with Israelis.


In the course of the process of exiting the Cronavirus crisis, it is recommended that a number of lessons that have emerged in recent months be noted in regard to East Jerusalem, and to examine how they can be translated into practical policy.


First of all, proposing a solution to the grave problem of the status of East Jerusalem residents living beyond the security barrier should be examined. A decision needs to be made in this regard: Whether to include them within the Jerusalem's city limits—a designation that would require relocating the security barrier; or to define them as residents of the Palestinian Authority (that is, to transform. some of the eastern parts of the city into part of Area C or B.[2] There is a third option: To embark on an interim solution (less recommended) to formulate a special status for residents of these areas.


Secondly, it is recommended that hubs of economic distress in East Jerusalem that worsened in the shadow of the Coronavirus be addressed without delay and in a focused-manner, since if the situation persists it is liable to spur violent public friction with security forces.


Thirdly, and the most important - one must be cognizant that the process of exiting the Coronavirus crisis is taking place at a time of heightened sensitivity in the Palestinian arena. This is so due to the harsh economic distress that has developed— that is liable to lead to the outbreak of broad-scale violence. (For more than a decade, a scenario such as this has not occurred due to relative prosperity and economic stability, which since has been shaken.) There is also deep Palestinian suspicion that Israel plans to take steps to annex the West Bank as soon as the National Unity Government takes office, the timing also being due to a time element, with Israel wanting to take advantage of the 'window of opportunity' for such an action while President Trump is at the helm.


With this kind of backdrop, it is recommended that Israel demonstrate greater sensitivity than it has in the past: To refrain in the short-term from changes in the status quo in East Jerusalem (for examine, broad-scope demolition of illegal construction), and to be particularly cautious of changes on the Temple Mount - steps that could trigger unrest among Palestinians in the city and throughout the West Bank, with the potential of unrest radiating farther afield—to the Gaza Strip and to Arab society in Israel.



[1] The Muslim name for Jerusalem, literally 'The Holy One'.

[2] both of them Palestinian areas under Palestinian civil control, while security arrangements differ between B and C).