A plan to separate the east Jerusalem neighborhoods located beyond the security barrier has gained steam and moved from the legislative phase to the planning phase, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
After advancing the amendment to Basic Law: Jerusalem the Capital of Israel, which made it harder to transfer parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority on the one hand, and opened the door to changes of municipal borders on the other, Elkin said he started initiating the steps needed to implement the plan.
Last week, Elkin met with officials from Israel’s National Security Council and the Interior Ministry who have experience running municipalities in the Arab sector to draft a document he plans to present to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I assume the bill will become a law in about four weeks,” Elkin told the Post. “After that, there will be no other hurdle to the plan, and it could be authorized by the interior minister.”
Elkin stressed that unlike other plans, the separation in Jerusalem would not require further legislation in the Knesset.
“But when it comes to such a decision, it would be appropriate to present it to the prime minister and hold a cabinet discussion on it,” he said.
But not only government officials are involved in the planning. A surprising player who joined the discussions this week was Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Only last week, Barkat said about the plan: “If you run away from the challenge, the challenge will chase you.”
Elkin and Barkat met for a “roundtable” meeting and discussed the plan. According to Elkin, the first step was to establish special teams to go over the number of residents living in these neighborhoods and to verify them.
These statistics are considered highly controversial. While the municipality maintains that only 51,340 residents live in the Arab neighborhoods beyond the barrier, left-wing NGO Ir Amim says there are between 120,000-150,000 people living there.
Elkin tends to side with Ir Amim’s numbers, but he says the vast majority of them are Palestinians from the West Bank who are not residents of Jerusalem and do not hold Israeli ID cards.
According to the plan, all Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem that are located beyond the security barrier, erected during the Second Intifada in 2004, will be cut off from the Jerusalem Municipality, and a new municipal council will be established in its place. If this were to happen, the residents of these neighborhoods would not be able to vote in municipal elections, thereby preserving a Jewish majority in Israel’s capital city, Elkin said.
Regarding technicalities, Elkin confirmed that in the first stage, an Interior Ministry committee would be established to run the new municipality.
This body will govern the northern bloc, which consists of Kafr Akab and the surrounding neighborhoods; the northeastern bloc, which consists of the Shuafat refugee camp and surrounding neighborhoods; the eastern bloc of Sawahra and a-Sheikh Sa’ad; and parts of the southern village of Walaja.
These neighborhoods are currently physically separated from the city, and its inhabitants are required to go through checkpoints to enter Jerusalem. However, they are wide open to the rest of the West Bank, and movement in and out of them is free.
After the erection of the security barrier, the municipality and other service providers started to neglect these neighborhoods.
Due to the lack of police presence, the areas have recorded a spike in crime as well as a lack of infrastructure and basic city services such as garbage removal.
In some places, such as Shuafat, armed groups reportedly roam freely, because the Israel Police rarely goes inside, and the Palestinian Authority police are not allowed in.
However, Elkin said the way of looking at these neighborhoods over the years was wrong, and it is not the security threat that should be dealt with, but the demographic threat.
“We are facing a ticking demographic time bomb,” he said. “Because we have neighborhoods here in which both residents of Jerusalem [Israeli ID holders] and West Bank Palestinians live, we see a phenomenon in which people from these two groups marry, and their children are then entitled to receive an Israeli ID.
“This means that the residents there are multiplying not like they were 50,000 [Israeli ID holders, according to the municipality], but like they were almost 150,000. Essentially, because of illegal migration into Jerusalem, you have a massive addition to the next generation [of Palestinians] in Jerusalem,” Elkin said.
He said according his ministry’s calculations, the ratio between Jews and Palestinians in Jerusalem is 60-40, but because of negative Jewish migration, this could change and be closer to 50-50 despite Jewish natural population growth being higher than in the Arab population.
“Delaying this plan is impossible, because as the years go by, you have more babies from these mixed marriages, and they are considered east Jerusalemites, so we must go in this direction [of this plan],” Elkin said.
Even though the plan would be enacted without the cooperation of the local residents, he said they would benefit from it, mainly because “the situation could not be worse there.”
“The Jerusalem Municipality did not prove that it could make things better there… and even if it will [fix infrastructures, roads, etc.], it will only attract more Palestinians to come there, and it would not solve the demographic issue,” Elkin said.
“The way that things are handled there now is problematic,” he said. “The municipality hires contractors from the PA territories to do their job… After we will establish a new municipal entity, it will establish entities that provide service, and it would be a ‘full-time job’ for it, not just ‘another challenge,’ as it is for the municipality in Jerusalem.”
Elkin said his plan does not intend to divide Jerusalem or transfer sovereignty of these neighborhoods to the PA.
“Saying that this move is dividing Jerusalem is a total lie and twisting the truth,” he said. “We are not talking here about handing over sovereignty; this is a municipal inner decision.”
Elkin said the PA objects to the move because “they know that it is a threat to the idea of dividing the city.”
Elkin is being criticized not only from the Right, but also from the Left.
Ir Amim researcher Aviv Tatarsky told the Post Elkin’s starting point is wrong, and the number of Jerusalem residents in these neighborhoods is not around 50,000, but more than 100,000. He said this is because of the housing crisis inside the city that attracted residents to this “no-man’s land.”
“The population is growing in these neighborhoods not because of natural growth, but because of the lousy planning and construction policy inside Jerusalem,” Tatarsky said.
“People cannot build in places such as Jebl Mukaber, Sur Baher or Beit Hanina, so they’re being pushed outside. If they’ll go live in Ramallah or Bethlehem they will lose their status as Jerusalem residents [meaning that they could not cross freely from the West Bank and Jerusalem], so they go to these neighborhoods.”