East Jerusalem

A plan for a controversial city?

Jerusalem is much more than the capital of the modern State of Israel. With religious sites coveted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Jerusalem is holy to a majority of the world’s population.

From its independence in 1948 until the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel only had sovereignty over the western portion of Jerusalem as we know it today. The eastern part of the city, which included the Western Wall, was under Jordanian control. In June 1967, during the Six-Day War, Israel captured the eastern side of the city and quickly annexed it a few weeks later, unlike other West Bank territories seized in the brief conflagration. Since then, Israel has been struggling to establish Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state while dealing with conflicting claims on her real estate. 

silwan jerusalem


Every Israeli government since 1967 has pursued the goal of building areas of Jewish population surrounding the Old City to establish Jewish control in strategic areas and prevent any future division of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, beginning in the late 1980s, Palestinian leaders including Faysal al Husseini and Yasser Arafat began making declarations about Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.

Contentious Construction

Both the U.N. and the current U.S. State Department object to Israel building Jewish neighborhoods in areas that were incorporated into the city following the Six-Day War, since they are beyond the Green Line (the 1949 armistice line) and conflict with their interpretation of U.N. Resolution 242.This resolution, from November 1967, calls for “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”

Current U.S. policy  maintains that Jewish construction in east Jerusalem is not conducive to bringing the other side to the negotiating table. According to this view, Jerusalem is a permanent status issue to be resolved through direct negotiations. Israeli actions taken to expand existing neighborhoods or add new ones have come under criticism from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Compared to the Bush and Clinton administrations, President Obama’s condemnation of Israel’s actions in Jerusalem has intensified, raising tensions between the two allies. In 2009, Israel agreed to a building freeze in the West Bank, but the U.S. State Department insisted that this applied also to Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Green Line. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that Israel’s right to continue building in its capital was not a matter for negotiation. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to hold direct talks as long as Israel does not include east Jerusalem in the building freeze.

What is East Jerusalem?

The battle over east Jerusalem has demographic and political ramifications. “East” Jerusalem in fact comprises neighborhoods that are north, south, and east of the city’s pre-1967 borders. That includes established Jewish neighborhoods built in the late 1970s and early 1980s such as Gilo, Ramot, French Hill, and Pisgat Ze’ev, as well as the newer Har Homa area, completed in 2005. Today, there are about 200,000 Jews and 270,000 Arabs living in Jerusalem territory that had been annexed by Jordan until 1967. (The total population of the city–including pre-1967 Jerusalem–is 765,000.) 

arab jerusalem In the media, these areas are often labeled “Arab East Jerusalem,” when in fact the neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem are both Arab and Jewish, with increasing numbers of Arabs renting or buying homes in Jewish neighborhoods such as Pisgat Ze’ev and French Hill, and a significant number of Jews living in predominantly Arab areas such as Shimon HaTzaddik/Sheikh Jarrah, the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and the City of David.

Eviction and Tension in Shimon Hatzaddik/Sheikh Jarrah

In 2010 friction has centered on two areas–Shimon Hatzaddik/Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. The cause of the tension is the same in both cases–Jewish development and expansion in areas with a majority Arab population.

Weekly protests started in Shimon Hatzaddik/Sheikh Jarrah in August 2009, organized by a loose coalition of Arab, Jewish, and international activists. The demonstrators who gather outside Jewish homes in the neighborhood focus on the evictions of a number of Arab families. These families had been living in homes owned by two Jewish organizations that, in the early 20th century, built the neighborhood north of Damascus Gate. The neighborhood surrounds a tomb believed to belong to Shimon HaTzaddik, a High Priest who was among the Jewish leadership between 410 BCE and 310 BCE, following the destruction of the First Temple. When the Jews fled due to pre-state Arab violence, the homes in the four-acre area were abandoned until 1956 when the Jordanians resettled Palestinian refugees there.

The evictions occurred after lengthy court proceedings brought by representatives of two Jewish organizations for non-payment of rent over the decades. About a dozen young Jewish families are now renting these homes that surround the tomb of Shimon HaTzaddik.

A Controversial Plan for Silwan

On the southern side of the Old City in Silwan, opposite the City of David, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is trying to implement the Jerusalem Master Plan, which was proposed by Mayor Ehud Olmert in 2000 and ratified in 2007. The plan sets forth various objectives for expansion of residential areas in the capital, including a challenging call for “preserving the Jewish majority in the city of Jerusalem while providing a response to the needs of the Arab minority residing in the city.”

First, to tackle the problem of dozens of Arab buildings in Silwan erected since the 1930s without permits, Barkat has proposed tearing down 22 illegal Arab homes in the area, while granting retroactive permits to another 66 unapproved homes. Residents of the 22 homes slated for demolition will be given alternative housing in the neighborhood. The plan has been criticized by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Arab Knesset members, and some local Arab residents who retained legal counsel to fight the initiative.

Barkat’s plan also calls for development of a tourism center and park to upgrade the area and provide employment and improved infrastructure. But residents as well as representatives of the Palestinian Authority have objected on grounds that the proposal is part of a plan to “Judaize” the area, and the U.S. State Department has voiced concern that the project will impede negotiations.

Solutions for governing Jerusalem have been proposed since before the founding of the state. The UN partition plan of 1947 called for Jerusalem to be an international zone; the Camp David Accords of 2000 suggested that the city be divided on the basis of its Jewish and Arab residents. Both plans were rejected by Arab leadership and made Israelis uncomfortable. There’s no doubt that even when direct negotiations do begin, given the complex religious and demographic sensibilities on all sides, Jerusalem will continue to be the most contentious issue.

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