The Shrinking Public Presence of Palestinians in East Jerusalem

One of the few remaining symbols of Palestinian political life in occupied East Jerusalem, the Mapping and Geographic Information Systems (MGIS) Department of the Arab Studies Society was closed earlier this week.

Accused by Israel of conducting illegal activity, the closure of the office is the latest in a series of actions that have seen Palestinian intuitions and buildings closed and outlawed since Israel occupied the city in 1967.

Early Tuesday, the Israeli police broke into the offices of the Arab Studies Society and arrested the MGIS Department Director, Khalil Tafakji. Tafakji is a former peace negotiator well-renowned for his knowledge of settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The police confiscated computes and materials, and interrogated Tafakji for several hours. The Israeli authorities accused Tafakji of collecting information on Palestinians who sell land to Jewish Israelis in East Jerusalem and passing this on to the Palestinian security services. Furthermore, the MGIS Department was alleged to have received funding from the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Israeli authorities originally announced the office would be closed for six months, but quickly reversed the decision to allow the office to reopen on Thursday. According to Tafakji, Israel’s U-turn proves that "he has no direct connection with the Palestinian Authority".

Palestinians were outraged at the move, with Saeb Erekat, General Secretary of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, releasing a statement condemning "Israel’s ongoing campaign to deprive Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Palestine, of any voice of its national institutions and organizations in an effort to erase any Palestinian presence in the city."

Palestinians have indeed witnessed their incremental exclusion from public life in Jerusalem, with illegal Israeli settlements springing up throughout the east of the city, including in the heart of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. The construction of the separation wall, which Israel started building in 2002, has effectively cut Jerusalem off from the rest of the West Bank. Furthermore, Israel’s system of control prevents ordinary Palestinians living in the West Bank from entering the city without a permit. Palestinians in East Jerusalem are thus increasingly isolated from their surroundings. Moreover, Palestinians lack any meaningful political representation in the city itself.

While according to the international community, Israel has illegally ruled over East Jerusalem since 1967, the Oslo Accords (1993-1995) granted the PA access to the city, albeit limited. However, following the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2001, Israel took the decision to outlaw the PA from operating in the city. This included the closure of the influential Orient House, Palestinians’ political headquarters in Jerusalem. With Palestinian East Jerusalemites boycotting municipal elections in Jerusalem – the vast majority considers participation in municipal elections a step towards normalising Israel’s occupation over East Jerusalem – their voice is missing from official debates on the future of the city. Their exclusion is perfectly symbolised by city’s mayor, Nir Barkat, who favours settlement growth and has previously called for the demolition of homes in East Jerusalem in response to the dismantling of illegal Israeli outposts in the West Bank. Palestinian East Jerusalemites have seen their life increasingly defined in terms of the security and even personal needs of Jewish Israelis.

Jerusalem has long been at the centre of disputes between Israel and Palestine, with Palestinians continuing to refute Israel’s claim over the city. This week’s events at the Arab Studies Society are a reminder that the Israeli authorities are in no doubt over who owns and controls the future of the city. Yet without dealing with Palestinian’s legitimate concerns and aspirations, the Holy City will never be at peace.


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