While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington getting an earful from US lawmakers about the need to stop Jewish settlements and establish a Palestinian state, back in Jerusalem the new mayor is implementing a very different policy.
Since taking office in January on promises to develop the city equitably, Mayor Nir Barkat has stepped up demolition orders of Arab homes in East Jerusalem, charged an Israeli human rights organization on Tuesday. In addition, he is moving forward with a $100 million development plan that would further diminish the city's Arab population and thus thwart Palestinian efforts to establish a contiguous state with a capital in Jerusalem.
According to the report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), 1,052 demolition orders have been issued since the beginning of the year, 34 of them signed by Mr. Barkat himself. So far, 23 have been carried out.
"The many demolition orders issued in 2009 suggest that this number will rise dramatically by year's end," the report stated.
The Mayor's office turned down an interview request but said in a statement the the "arguments of the ACRI are misinformed and wrong, accompanied with great disinformation; they are inflaming the issue in an irresponsible way without knowing the accurate facts."
In response to the report, the mayor's office provided figures that show demolitions in East Jerusalem in previous years has been similar or higher than this year's so far, arguing that there was no marked increase in demolitions carried out. The statement added that there has been no change in enforcement policy since Barkat took office, and "no foundation to the claim that an order was given to expand it.... The municipality acts in respect for the rule of law and enforces legal decrees as is expected."
Palestinian building curtailed; Jewish settlements expand
The report comes in the midst of Mr. Netanyahu's first official visit with President Barack Obama in the US since becoming prime minister. Underscoring their differences, Mr. Obama emphasized the necessity of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while Netanyahu conspicuously avoided an endorsement of that formula, saying that Palestinians should be able to "govern themselves" and that he favors increased economic cooperation.
Part of Obama's formula for restarting the peace process includes the expectation for Netanyahu to rein in Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank. That stipulation is outlined in the road map – a blueprint for peace adopted by Israel in 2003.
But for Palestinians, and for others supporting a two-state solution, equally troubling is the creation of new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem – Israel calls them neighborhoods – while building in existing Palestinian neighborhoods is severely curtailed.
"They are not giving solutions for Palestinians to build, and yet they are building new settlements inside Jerusalem," says Nasrat Dakwar, a lawyer for ACRI. He added that under the new mayor, the municipality is even serving demolition orders on homes that are officially part of Jerusalem but are beyond the separation barrier, which wasn't done in previous years.
The issue demands additional attention because later this week Israel marks Jerusalem Day, during which it will celebration the 42nd anniversary of what it calls the reunification of Jerusalem. Israel officially annexed all of Jerusalem, but other countries including the US to not recognize those parts of a Jerusalem as a legitimate part of the Israeli capital.
$100 million plan would dislodge Palestinians
In addition to demolitions, plans under way for a vast tourist complex near the Old City – as reported by Ir Amim, another Israeli human rights group – represent a looming Israeli footprint on largely Palestinian areas. Its proposed location, in the shadow of holy sites such as the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall, make the project potentially explosive and suggest a renewed effort to prevent the establishment of an official Palestinian sector in Islam's third-holiest city.
One of the partners in the $100 million development plan is a private group named Elad, which focuses on buying Palestinian property in East Jerusalem and moving settlers into Arab neighborhoods. Several human rights organizations say there is an obvious link between the ramping up of demolition orders and Barkat's plans to develop the tourist complex in East Jerusalem – focusing on Jewish history in the area known in Hebrew as Ir David (City of David) and as Silwan in Arabic.
According to Ir Amim, which tracks policy affecting both Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem, the under-the-radar project is motivated by a right-wing ideological goal of cementing Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem. That plan, which has not been made public, appears to be focused on moving Palestinians out of the historic heart of Jerusalem – areas near the Old City – while allowing some Palestinian growth in much more peripheral areas, such as those closer to the West Bank city of Ramallah.
"All of these things are linked, though not every house demolition follows this logic," says Sarah Kreimer, the deputy director of Ir Amim.
"The plan is based on moving as many Palestinians out of the historic basin as possible and making way for Israeli nationally controlled projects or settler projects," she says. "It's a plan to try to lessen Palestinian population in the center of town."
In reaction to such complaints over Barkat's performance so far, he announced last week that there would be an additional 13,500 additional housing units allowed for East Jerusalem's Arab residents, who are feeling the pinch of overcrowding in Arab neighborhoods.
"What he didn't say, and what we later learned, is that this is his plan for the year 2030," says Tali Nir, an ACRI lawyer. "What he declared is not a solution." Most Arab neighborhoods lack municipality plans for any new housing to be added. "Our message to the mayor is, allow planning in these areas, and until you do, stop demolitions and stop building settlements."