Israeli policy pivot strengthens grasp on East Jerusalem

The Israeli government has backed a property law that could enable seizure of up to 40 percent of the Palestinian private property in Jerusalem. 

Mahmoud Illean/AP
A man watches a Palestinian house demolition in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, May 29. Palestinian homes built without a construction permit are often demolished by order of the Jerusalem municipality. Palestinians claim that it is impossible to obtain permits.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat recently advised the city's Arab residents to forget about ever having a capital in the predominantly Palestinian eastern part of the city.

In an interview last month, Mr. Barkat told the Times of Israel that if the Palestinians really want a capital in East Jerusalem, they can simply rename Ramallah, the de-facto capital of the West Bank about 10 miles to its north, ''Jerusalem'' or ''north Jerusalem.''

''There is no such thing'' as a Palestinian sovereign role in Jerusalem, he added.

The mayor's rhetoric starkly highlights recent Israeli government actions that observers say are aimed at weakening the Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem and making the possibility of establishing a Palestinian capital there more remote. 

Last week the government threw its weight behind a controversial property law that could enable the state to seize up to 40 percent of the Palestinian private property in Jerusalem. And in recent weeks, authorities have revived a policy of demolishing Palestinian homes built without permits, ending an unofficial moratorium on home demolitions in response to US criticism. Palestinians argue that restrictive planning policies make it virtually impossible to get the required permits.

Israeli organization Ir Amim (City of Nations), which calls for equality in the city, says that 12 buildings housing a total of 105 Palestinians have been destroyed since April 15. 

"It's all connected. It's part of an overall policy of losing restraints and using more power to enforce themselves in East Jerusalem, to give the message 'we are here and will make our presence felt with full impact,'" says Yehudit Oppenheimer, director of Ir Amim. "The idea is to consolidate Israeli control without any consideration of the Palestinians who live there."

'Theft' at the very least

Abdullah Abdullah, a Ramallah-based member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, terms the moves "very dangerous." About the property law, which was initially used by Israel to seize property left behind by Palestinians who fled or were expelled during the 1948 war, Mr. Abdullah says, "The least we can say is that this is theft, but it also changes the identity of Jerusalem.''

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor dismissed Abdullah's remark as ''Palestinian propaganda." 

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev, meanwhile, denies there has been any change of policy and insists Palestinians' needs are considered. ''Israel is very aware of the sensitivities when it comes to Jerusalem and we will ensure that as we develop our capital that development serves the interests of all the citizens from the various communities,'' he said.

These developments do not bode well for US Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to prod the sides to a revival of peace talks on a two-state solution. His public remarks have not broached the city's future status.

The government's shift on Palestinian property in Jerusalem became apparent last week, after Israeli Supreme Court justices hearing appeals against property seizures demanded that Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein give his opinion.

''The legal position is indeed that properties in East Jerusalem whose owners are residents of Judea and Samaria are absentee properties,'' Mr. Weinstein wrote the court, using Israel's names for the West Bank.

This means that West Bank Palestinian residents can lose their property in East Jerusalem because they are designated ''absentees'' – even though they never sold their property and it was Israel that had expanded its borders to include their land in the 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem rejected as illegal by the international community.

Weinstein's statement reverses a 2005 position by then attorney general Menachem Mazuz, who ruled that the absentee property law should not be applied in East Jerusalem because this was not its original intend and it could harm Israel's international standing. 

Uneven playing field

But Danny Seidemann, a lawyer who is head of Terrestrial Jerusalem, a research institute that promotes conflict resolution for the city, says shifting away from Mazuz's stance could make up to 40 percent of the private Palestinian property in East Jerusalem subject to seizure by the Israeli government.

''The primary victims of this are all Palestinians in East Jerusalem,'' he says.

Since many properties are under shared ownership, with at least one owner a relative who lives in the West Bank, merely reporting a property sale could subject the property to being declared absentee in whole or part by Israeli authorities when the ownership is reviewed for taxation or other purposes, Seidemann said.

Seidemann, who is widely considered to be the top independent Israeli specialist on East Jerusalem, noted that the state is simultaneously backing the eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem properties owned by Jews prior to Israel's establishment in 1948.

''The state's position is that any land in Jerusalem that belonged to Jews prior to 1948 and was lost as a result of war will revert to previous Jewish owners while any property that can be purported to be abandoned by Palestinians will also revert to Israelis," Seidemann said. "That is not a level playing field and the comfort zone between these policies and apartheid is narrowing dangerously."

Palmor termed Seidemann's reference to apartheid ''simplistic smear and slander" and stressed that Jordan had confiscated Jewish property in East Jerusalem when it took control of the area in 1948. The policy of recent years addresses a legal vacuum created by Israel's capture of the area in 1967 and returns property "to its legal owners," he said.

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