Peace Now’s Emergency Conference — Mayor Barkat Endangers Jerusalem

On the night of Thursday, July 1, 2010, Peace Now held an emergency conference in Jerusalem, attended by about 120 people, representing different groups and initiatives that came together to protest and express concern about recent developments in Jerusalem. Why hold an emergency conference? Because in this same week, the week that the Meretz party left the municipal coalition, it became clear to us all that something bad, dangerous and anti-Jerusalem was happening, and that we had to come together and act against this development. We realized that after many years, someone was now sitting in the mayor's chair who intends to make irreversible Israel's unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, and who wants to do everything in his power to eliminate the prospect of a compromise in Jerusalem and a two-state solution.

In 1967, the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem were captured and declared part of "united Jerusalem." Unlike many of the areas occupied in 1967 that have been under military occupation ever since, these neighborhoods were unilaterally annexed by Israel and have, in practice, become an inherent part of the State of Israel. However, 43 years on, not one country in the world has recognized this annexation. Moreover, from the reality on the ground, it is clear to everyone that East Jerusalem is a different entity from West Jerusalem. For example, the bus lines of the Israeli bus company will not go through most of these Palestinian neighborhoods. The Jerusalem municipality does not consider itself obligated to treat the Palestinian residents living in East Jerusalem on an equal basis as the Israeli citizens living in West Jerusalem, or to fulfil its commitments to them. The actual fact is that Jerusalem is two towns and not one city.

Mayor Nir Barkat's Destructive Agenda

Still, it appears that not all Jerusalemites see the city as containing two separate entities. One of these Jerusalemites is Nir Barkat, the new mayor of Jerusalem. He was elected in November 2008, as the secular hope for the city's residents. However, Barkat has pursued a settlement policy that encourages the accelerated development of Jewish tourist sites in East Jerusalem in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods.

During Hillary Clinton's first visit to Jerusalem as U.S. secretary of state, she found it necessary to criticize Barkat's house demolition policy, and thus Barkat chalked up the first international scandal in his name. But this was not enough. Instead of heeding American advice, Barkat issued construction permits to settlers for 20 housing units at the Shepherd Hotel in the center of the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. When his predecessor Uri Lupolianski was in office, he had prevented a discussion of the settlement issue for years, but Barkat advanced the issue barely a few months after his election.

During the week of the emergency conference, Barkat convened the local planning committee to discuss his plan to demolish dozens of Palestinian houses in the Silwan neighborhood of al-Bustan. The demolitions are to make way for the establishment of an archaeological park for tourists in the area called the "Garden of the King." The al-Bustan neighborhood houses were built by Palestinians largely without building permits because obtaining building permits is almost impossible for East Jerusalem Palestinians. Barkat believes that his plan offers the Palestinian residents the possibility of building alongside the intended park. At least theoretically, the plan would enable the local Palestinians to legalize their homes and this would actually work in their favor. But Barkar is not functioning in some remote backwater town, or in some far-flung neighborhood of Jerusalem; he is acting in Silwan, a few hundred meters from al-Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount), which is at the volcanic core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here, Israeli control is bitterly controversial.

Barkat's Plans Have Far-Reaching Political Implications

Even if we put aside the question as to why the Palestinians were forced to build illegally and the fact that dozens of families live in the neighborhood, the planned park should be built within the context of the future two-state solution, not now on Palestinian land. No Palestinian leadership will agree to an arrangement whereby Palestinians would have to leave their homes or become citizens of Israel; for them it would be a second Nakba. If the plans go ahead, it means that the mayor will have used his legal authority to destroy the idea of two states.

Is Barkat allowed to do this? Of course, the mayor can initiate plans and advance them. But these measures have far-reaching political implications. Barkat likes to say in his defense that he "makes order out of chaos." Order is good for the Palestinian residents and will allow, at least theoretically, for him to approve construction. We are all for order, but the order in East Jerusalem cannot be imposed by a mayor who awoke one morning remembering that Israel, the occupying power, had decided in 1967 that it had sovereignty there. Order can only truly be restored when the prime minister draws a border between the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods to create two separate capitals for two separate states. In such circumstances it is clear that the homes in al-Bustan neighborhood would become legalized, or illegal at least within the context of a Palestinian state.

Jerusalem Remains the Key to Peace

Thus, on July 1, we held an emergency conference of the Peace Camp, both religious and secular, to use our right to cry out and to call upon Barkat to stop destroying the chances for a compromise solution in Jerusalem. At the conference, we announced a new campaign in which we directly criticize Barkat in order to sway his opinions. About a week later, Peace Now activists held a tour in the footsteps of the "Nir Barkat Legacy," and we observed first-hand Barkat's plans for East Jerusalem. This is not an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the mayor; it is the statement of those who believe in two states for two peoples. We see that the mayor is trying to bury the idea of a two-state solution under the ruins of the houses of the al-Bustan neighborhood families. This is a clear statement which says that instead of focusing on the municipal issues for which he was elected, the mayor has chosen to try to enforce his position against the two-state solution via the authority vested in him as mayor of Jerusalem.

We will not back down, and will continue to remind the public and Mayor Barkat that Jerusalem is not an ordinary city. Any action that causes trauma in Jerusalem has far-reaching political implications. Irresponsible provocations may re-ignite the violence. We believe that Jerusalem could be the key to peace. We also believe that it is still possible to implement the difficult operation of separation into two capitals in Jerusalem and to save the city and both its Israeli and Palestinian residents.