World leaders converging on the UN General Assembly will soon be hearing from Palestine’s Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. They should focus on Jerusalem, which is again at a boiling point and has the potential to be a global flashpoint if international leaders and diplomats fail to address increasingly reckless rhetoric from Israeli government leaders and the provocative actions of Israeli settlers.
In recent days, right-wing Israeli Jews escorted by Israeli police have been making incursions inside the Al-Aqsa compound, also known as the Noble Sanctuary and Temple Mount to Jews. They are calling for more access to the compound with the ultimate goal of building a third temple in place of Al-Aqsa, which is revered by Muslims worldwide and is based in East Jerusalem – Palestinian territory that Israel occupied and illegally annexed in 1967.
Israeli authorities have abetted these right-wing extremists by effectively imposing a physical and temporal partition of the Al-Aqsa compound. We have been here before: It was Ariel Sharon’s deliberately provocative visit to Al-Aqsa as opposition leader 15 years ago this month that triggered the Second Intifada and years of bloodshed.
Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party – such as Miri Regev and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel – have sought to violate the status quo in pursuit of Jewish control over the compound. In fact, the Israeli government provides funding to groups such as the Temple Institute, an organization that aims to build a temple to replace the Noble Sanctuary, destroying it altogether. If they succeed in this plan, there will be bloody repercussions in Palestine, Israel, the Middle East and beyond.
The coverage of the turmoil in Jerusalem has tended to focus on the clashes. These are typically viewed as signs of an emerging “religious war.” This framing, however, fails to address the political and ideological context in which the strife unfolds and the explicit aims of the Israeli government.
Since 1967 Israel has worked to transform Jerusalem into a Jewish city under exclusive Israeli control and sovereignty and to thin out its Palestinian population. Its goals are publicly outlined in the 2020 and 2030 Jerusalem Master Plans: To attain a ratio of 30 percent Palestinians and 70 percent Jews.
Israel has achieved this in several ways. To begin with, it illegally annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 as part of a land grab of 70 square kilometers of West Bank territory that maximized the amount of land controlled by Israel while minimizing the number of Palestinians living there.
Israel has also used zoning policies to restrict the urban and demographic expansion of Palestinians. For instance, more than one-third of the land in Palestinian neighborhoods has been designated as “open landscape areas” and Palestinians are thus constrained to build on only 14 percent of the land.
Israel has also reshaped the geography of Jerusalem to transform its demographic and physical landscape: It constructed a ring of Jewish settlements, building connecting roads that bypassed Palestinian towns and villages. There are currently 16 settlements in East Jerusalem, in which more than 210,000 settlers live in violation of international law.
Palestinians are also forced out of East Jerusalem due to the discrepancy of service provision between Palestinian neighborhoods and Jewish settlements. Less than 10 percent of the municipal budget is allocated to Palestinian areas, although Palestinians pay the same amount of Arnona tax as Jewish citizens.
To further erase the Palestinian identity of Jerusalem, Israel has closed at least 31 Palestinian institutions since 2001, including the Orient House (the seat of Palestinian leadership) and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. In this climate, many institutions relocated from Jerusalem, leaving an institutional and leadership vacuum for the city’s Palestinians and a deep fear that Al-Aqsa is next.
The Israeli authorities have renamed around 300 streets and alleys, the latest being a neighborhood in Silwan that is to be renamed Shir Ha Maalot, a Talmudic name that means the road to the “temple.”
Meanwhile, the socioeconomic conditions of Palestinians in Jerusalem have deteriorated. Approximately 75.4 percent of Palestinian Jerusalemite residents live below the Israeli poverty line and unemployment rates reached 19 percent in 2014.
The actions of Israeli extremists – many of whom are in or supported by the government – aim to fast-track Israel’s longstanding policies for the city. The turmoil in Jerusalem is a red flag that Arab and international policy makers cannot ignore: It can and one day likely will cause catastrophic conflict.
The majority of the world leaders meeting at the UN over the next several days have recognized the State of Palestine. It is past time that they hold Israel accountable for its policies against the Palestinians and their heritage in Jerusalem, as well as throughout the occupied Palestinian territory.