Jerusalem: A Displacement Master Plan - Interview with Khalil Tafakji

Jerusalem: A Displacement Master Plan - Interview with Khalil Tafakji

This is the transcript of an interview conducted by al-Majdal with Mr. Khalil Tafakji of the Mapping and Geographic Information Systems Department of the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem. The interview was conducted on 30 December 2008.

al-Majdal: You work at the Mapping and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Department, what is this organization?

KT: We were founded in 1983 as part of the Arab Studies Society by the  late Faisal Husseini.

  Our goal from the very beginning was to research and document the effects of Israeli policies and practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) affecting land and property, and to be able to produce maps showing these effects. Since its inception, the Department has accumulated a vast wealth of expertise and information; we have produced maps of historic Palestine as it was in 1945, a map of Israeli illegal settlements from 1967 to 1994, and a series of books and articles detailing various aspects of Israeli policies and practices in the OPT.

This expertise enabled us to play an advisory role in the negotiations process in the early 1990s when we moved to the Orient House (later shut down by Israel). We have focused especially on 1967-occupied Jerusalem (East Jerusalem), and in 1998 undertook a pioneering project to survey all Palestinian property in the city through which we became the major information reference point for people engaged in land transactions, zoning proposals, and actually played an important role in limiting fraudulent sales of property by people forging title deeds to properties they do not own.

al-Majdal: How was the city of Jerusalem affected during the 1948 Nakba?

KT: Before 1948, Jerusalem was a major hub of Palestinian social, spiritual, economic and cultural life, second only to Jaffa. It was also the headquarters for many of the Palestinian political forces which, to varying degrees had mobilized to defend Palestine from the violent Zionist takeover. The military wings of these organizations set up their military front in the villages to the west of the city in an effort to halt the Zionist forces before they reached the city, and in the early months were somewhat successful despite their very poor training and lack of arms. On 6 April 1948, the Haganah (the main Zionist military force) launched Operation Nachson to push towards Jerusalem. Three days later, the Irgun and Stern committed the infamous Deir Yassin massacre as their part of the operation, and the following day, the main Palestinian resistance force led by Abdel Kader al-Husseini was defeated at al-Qastal.

By early May, the British forces essentially handed over the western part of the city to the Haganah, and the Jordanian military held on to the walled (old) city and the eastern part. The 23,000 Palestinian residents of the western part of the city became refugees, many of them in Shufat and Qalandiya refugee camps on the outskirts of the city, and others went to Jordan and elsewhere. In terms of land and property, practically the whole western part of Jerusalem was confiscated by the Absentee Property Law. As for the tens of Palestinian villages to the west of Jerusalem, all were depopulated and destroyed, with the exception of Abu Ghosh, 'Ayn Naqquba and 'Ain Rafa.

: Between 1948 and 1967, Palestinians who managed to remain within the armistice boundaries (the 'green line') lived under Israel's discriminatory military rule; in cities like Jaffa, Ramleh and al-Lydd they were segregated into ghettos in these cities. What was the Palestinian experience in Israeli-controlled Jerusalem in these years?

KT: To the best of my knowledge, there was no significant Palestinian population left in western Jerusalem (Israel confined the remaining families to the Baq'a neighborhood, known at the time as the Bak'a Zone). I know that today there are only five Palestinian families still living in that part of the city. For all intents and purposes, that area had been depopulated, so we cannot really compare it to Ramleh or Jaffa, let alone Nazareth where most Palestinians of that city were able to remain in the city. I should also point out that this thorough and systematic forced displacement of Palestinian residents of the city was not by chance, but because the Zionists very clearly and consciously saw, and continue to see, Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state, and having any Palestinians in the city did not fit with that idea of the city. Also, this is why for us Palestinians, the issue of refugee rights, particularly the right of return is as much a part of the Jerusalem issue as the wall and zoning and all the rest of it.

al-Majdal: The eastern part of Jerusalem came under Jordanian control in 1948 until Israel occupied it in June 1967. What was the effect of Israeli control in the aftermath of the occupation?

KT: The days in which the Israeli forces entered the city and established control were themselves quite significant. I was seventeen at the time and remember the buses that the Israelis brought to Bab el-Zahreh (Herod's Gate), right in front of al-Rushaydiyyeh School, on which they loaded Palestinians and bussed them to the Jordanian border. This was in addition to many who fled the intense bombing and fighting that took place during the war; around 30,000 of the 100,000 Palestinians in the eastern part of Jerusalem became refugees during and just after the Israeli occupation.

Another very important event was the destruction of Haret al-Magharbeh (the Moroccan Quarter) just south west of the Aqsa mosque inside, and its extension outside, of the old city walls. The part of the city wall separating the two parts of the neighborhood is the wailing wall, a very important religious site for adherents of Judaism. Historically, this neighborhood is where Moroccan immigrants to Jerusalem and their descendants lived for most of the past seven or eight centuries, and the Ayyubid, Mameluke, and Ottoman architecture of the neighborhood was quite distinct from the rest of the old city. The destruction order was issued by the military commander Shlomo Lahat, who was previously the mayor of Tel Aviv, and on 11 June 1967 the bulldozers began to demolish the homes within the old city near the wall, and over several days most of the neighborhood on both sides of the wall was flattened. Many of the neighborhood residents refused to leave, and their homes were destroyed while they were inside which meant that many of them were killed. Today, when people go to pray at the Wailing Wall, they are standing on the site where these people's homes once stood, and where many of them were killed. One-hundred and thirty two Palestinian families were forcibly displaced from this neighborhood in 1967.

al-Majdal: Did the fact that the city was no longer physically divided have any significance?

KT: A different aspect of the occupation was that we could access the western part of the city for the first time since 1948. Many of the refugees from the western part went to reclaim their homes and properties, and some of them mounted legal challenges to get their property back. The Israeli courts applied the 1950 Absentee Property Law quite strictly, so the vast majority lost their cases. The very tiny minority, specifically those who had western passports in 1948, won their cases because of a loophole in the text of the law.

al-Majdal: In the years that followed the 1967 occupation, how did Israeli policies affect Palestinians in Jerusalem?

KT: Until the Likud election victory in 1977, Israeli interests in the West Bank can be summarized in four main points. The first two apply to Israeli policies generally since 1948: making sure that no refugees return to their original homes, and making sure that any form of Palestinian political organization to resist the occupation was severely repressed. The other two are specific to the West Bank and are quite clear in the Allon Plan, which was the Israeli plan on how to deal with the West Bank: to make sure that Palestinians in the West Bank are cut off from any direct access to Jordan, which has meant that the occupied Jordan Valley has been annexed de facto by Israel, and finally that Jerusalem become the 'indivisible and eternal capital of the Jewish state.'

This idea of Jerusalem has an ideological Zionist dimension, but also a practical geo-political aspect which in the Allon Plan serves to separate the occupied West Bank into two parts - north and south - by expanding Jerusalem eastward to the Jordan Valley through the establishment and expansion of the Ma'ale Adumim settlement block. For both ideological and geo-political purposes, policies implemented within the city of Jerusalem have aimed to transform the demographic character of the city into one with a guaranteed and overwhelming Jewish majority. This translated into major waves of land confiscation, specifically in 1968 when the Israeli authorities confiscated land in the northern part of the city to build the illegal settlements known as the French Hill, and Ramot Eshkol; and again in 1970 when Israeli authorities confiscated 12km² from Jabal al-Mukabbir, Shufat, Beit Hanina, the old Jerusalem airport and Beit Safafa to build the illegal settlements Talpiyot, Neve Ya'cov, and Gilo. Also that year, land was confiscated to create 'green areas' or nature reserves that are now Ramat Shlomo and Rehet Shufat. Since 1967, one of the many tactics the Israeli authorities have used is to confiscate land for proposed ecological reasons, and to later transform these green areas into Jewish-only settlements.

al-Majdal: What changed when Likud took power in 1977?

KT: It was largely an ideological shift with brutal implications for the rest of the West Bank. Instead of being an area to keep under control, the West Bank became Judea and Samaria (even administratively the name of the area was changed), the historic Jewish kingdom which Likud wanted to reclaim, and so the policies and practices aimed at taking as much Palestinian land as possible that had been practiced within the green line during and since the 1948 Nakba began to be implemented in the West Bank as well as Gaza. This is what sets the Ariel Sharon plans of the late 1970s apart from the Allon Plan; Sharon envisioned massive illegal settlement in all parts of the West Bank leading to annexation. It was this criminal vision which has been transforming into a reality for the past fifteen years.

For Jerusalem, this change meant actively expanding the borders of Jerusalem as part of this project of taking as much West Bank Palestinian land as possible. In 1980, the Israeli authorities confiscated another 4.4km² for the Pisgat Ze'ev settlement while expanding others. Since 1995 and the Oslo climate in which Israel legitimized its accelerated settlement expansion program by pointing to the negotiation process, more settlements were created and others expanded, most notably Har Gilo (on Wallajeh and Beit Jala land), Har Homa (on Abu Ghuneim), and the Gush Etzion bloc all of which became part of the the expanded Jerusalem metropolitan area in their municipal zoning.

If you look at it on a map, the land confiscated and settlements created in the 1967-1977 period created a kind of ring around the old city within Jerusalem, after 1977 the Israeli authorities began to work on acquiring land within eastern Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhoods themselves such as the old city, Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and Ras al-'Amud; today, around 35 percent of Occupied East Jerusalem is under exclusive Jewish-Israeli control. The additional aspect post-1977 was the creation of a new fact on the ground labeled 'greater Jerusalem' illegally annexed to Israel, and with arms reaching north, east and south which are built on West Bank Palestinian land but off limits to West Bank ID-carrying Palestinians.

al-Majdal: The Israeli Separation/Apartheid Wall is often used as the prime example of the Israeli creation of facts-on-the-ground. How does the Wall fit into this map of 'greater Jerusalem'?

KT: The most basic part of the answer to this question is that the Wall separates between what is now considered the West Bank, which is the Palestinian Authority administered areas, and Jerusalem, which as I said has been de facto and illegally annexed by Israel, even though this is theoretically still under negotiation. To understand it better we need to realize that since 1973, a central part of the stated policy of the Jerusalem municipality has been to limit the relative size of the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem, to ensure that Palestinians continue to be a small minority within their historic city. So while the wall itself is a brutal monstrosity, the effects and goals of the wall are the real crime, and this is what the International Court of Justice realized and stated in their advisory opinion of 9 July 2004.

What the Israeli planners who planned the route of the Wall did was to use it to physically exclude densely populated Palestinian areas, like the Shu'fat refugee camp and Anata, from Jerusalem - instantly removing a large portion of the city's Palestinian population from the city. Add to this that many of the people who depend on Jerusalem for their jobs, schools, hospitals, etc.. live just on the other side of the wall, and that historically Jerusalem is the main hub of West Bank economic, cultural, and social activity. The wall thus severs all of these relationships.

There is also a housing crisis that the Wall has created; Israel systematically strips Palestinians of their Jerusalem residency if they cannot show that they are habitually resident within Jerusalem. As such, there was a frenzy of people moving into increasingly overcrowded and overpriced housing within the already overcrowded Palestinian neighborhoods in order to keep their Jerusalem residency status. Without this status, Palestinians are forced to acquire West Bank residency which means they can no longer enter the city without military permits, and can no longer receive health, family and retirement benefits for which they've been paying taxes for as long as they have been Jerusalem residents. The result is that those unwilling or unable to move into the city have lost their residency status, and that there has been a serious deterioration of Palestinian quality of life for those within the city.

al-Majdal: You said that the Israeli controlled Jerusalem municipality has an official policy of maintaining a ceiling on how many Palestinians live in Jerusalem. Can you tell us more about the ways in which this policy works?

KT: We can look at the workings of the municipality's Local Outline Plan Jerusalem 2000, a published document that does very little to conceal the objectives of the Israeli authorities which can be described as the Judaization of Jerusalem, that is to change the demographic composition of the city to favor the Jewish-Israeli population. The plan is quite clear that the planning objectives of municipal policy and practice are to maintain a Palestinian population that is no more than 30 percent of the city's total population. Towards this goal, there are two kinds of policies and practices, those that aim to increase the city's Jewish population, and those that aim to decrease the city's Palestinian population.

In terms of increasing the Jewish population, the main tactic used is that of settlement construction and expansion. For instance, the plan calls for the construction of at least 17,000 new illegal settlement housing units in the coming years. Another aspect is support at all levels - from the Jerusalem municipality, to the Israeli government, to Zionist para-state organizations like the Jewish National Fund - for settler groups like Elad and Ateret Kohanim which actively work to take over Palestinian homes and real estate within the city to establish settler communities in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods. This is clearest in the old city, but takes place across the eastern part of the city. For instance, the municipality allocated a $13 million budget for an eight-year project to establish a 'national park' in the al-Bustan Valley of Silwan, a Palestinian area, with a large proportion of the funds for the project going to the Elad settler organization. Another side of increasing the number of Jewish settlers in Jerusalem is the major development of settler infrastructure in the city. The most significant example of such infrastructure is the Jerusalem Light Rail project, a massive transportation system which will almost exclusively service the settlements in and around Jerusalem connecting them with the western and central parts of the city, and greatly enhancing the settlement expansion project's chances of success.

We can take the same 'national park' project in Silwan to show the other side of the equation, displacing Palestinians from Jerusalem. In order to create this national park/settlement complex, with its 'for-Jews-only' apartments, kindergarten, library, car-park and synagogue, 88 Palestinian homes in al-Bustan were served with demolition orders. Usually in the past, the municipality has used section 205 of the 1965 Israeli Planning and Building Law which allows for demolition on the basis of unlicensed construction. This has usually been enough because the authorities discriminate quite clearly against Palestinians and it is very difficult for Palestinians to renew, let alone acquire, licenses for their homes. For al-Bustan, many of the demolition orders were based on section 212/5 of the 1965 Planning and Building Law which allows for demolition on the basis of "public interest". This is extremely dangerous since it means that the master-plan goal of Judaization is a public interest, and will essentially allow unhindered demographic and social engineering by the municipal authorities.

Demolition of Palestinian homes in Jerusalem has been rapidly accelerating over the past few years. In the last six months of 2007, 20 Palestinian homes were demolished by the Israeli authorities. In first six months of 2008, 44 Palestinian homes in the city were demolished displacing 269 people, 159 of them children; and this was before the Local Outline Plan was officially adopted by the municipality which means that these numbers can only grow if there is no action to stop the Israeli authorities from displacing and taking our city away from us, and if the world continues to allow Israel to grossly violate international law without scrutiny or accountability.

al-Majdal: What kinds of actions have Palestinians in Jerusalem taken to defend their rights in the city?

KT: The options are quite limited in light of the massive imbalance of force in Israel's favor combined with the blind international support for the Israeli regime. There are increasing efforts at international advocacy both at the grassroots level with the campaign for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as well as on the more formal level by working with international agencies operating here, as well as making detailed submissions at appropriate international venues. As a result, the plight of Jerusalem's Palestinians figures prominently in UN reports and resolutions dealing with Israeli human rights abuses.

On the ground, and especially in cases of house demolition orders, there continues to be social solidarity among Palestinians, with some support from international solidarity activists and some Jewish-Israelis who work to fundraise for advocacy campaigns, legal challenges, house rebuilding, and in some cases try to physically stop demolitions from being carried out. A case where such solidarity was clearly manifested was that of Um Kamel al-Kurd whose home was destroyed along with 27 others in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood; the community set up a solidarity tent, which itself was subsequently destroyed and rebuilt three times, and was accompanied by an important action in which Um Kamel, a refugee from the Talbiyeh neighborhood in the western part of the city, marched to her old home in Talbiyeh.

Part of what we work on in the Mapping and GIS Department is to fundraise for and develop detailed zoning plans for certain parts of the city where we can get all of the residents' consent which are subsequently submitted to the municipality for approval. There are huge complicating factors, that are confounded by the various kinds of property title held by Palestinians, as well as the time, great financial and skilled human labor costs required. The other difficulty is that even if we overcome all of these obstacles, there is no guarantee that such zoning plans will be accepted by the municipality, especially given the stated goals of this Israeli institution. In cases where we have been successful, however, we have managed to ensure that Palestinians will be able to remain in their city for the foreseeable future.

*Khalil Tafakji works at the Mapping and GIS Department of the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem. He can be reached at toufakji [at] hotmail [dot] com.