The Secret Battle for Yerushalayim

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The security barrier in Yerushalayim. (U.N.)

During the days of Bein Hametzarim, the Three Weeks, when we mourn the destruction of Yerushalayim, there is a heavy battle being waged over the city in general, and its eastern section in particular. The Muslim world, aided by Europe, the U.N., and others, is trying to undermine the Jewish hold on the city and to increase its Arab population. Hamodia’s reporter reveals new details here about the subversive, mostly hushed campaign.

Within three days earlier this month, four incidents occurred, all sharing a common thread. Palestinian Authority security forces broke down the doors of PA government offices in the Old City that the Israelis had previously sealed. All Palestinian schools in the capital raised Palestinian flags; 300 Turkish pilgrims visited Kever Shmuel Hanavi in northern Yerushalayim and raised a Turkish flag there, and a cell of ISIS terrorists was discovered in the Kalandiya neighborhood, just a few hundred yards from Israeli territory.

These incidents do not, at first, seem related. But they are all part of a greater campaign being waged over the sovereignty of Yerushalayim. This time of year, the Three Weeks, when we mourn the destruction of Yerushalayim, is a fitting time to reveal a bit of the secret campaign being waged in this same city.

More than 50 years after unification in 1967, the question of who controls Yerushalayim, with an emphasis on the eastern part of the city, is raised constantly.

It’s hard to say that the State of Israel controls eastern Yerushalayim — when police vehicles are afraid to enter the parts of the city officially under Israeli control, and every effort to arrest someone who doesn’t pay taxes or who owes money to the authorities — not to mention terrorists — is a major military operation. The conclusion? Fifty-two years after liberation, the city is not really united, nor is it really in Israeli and Jewish hands. In large swathes of the eastern part of the city, the Palestinians do what they want.

Anyone passing through that part of the city often encounters a single word spray-painted as graffiti : tasriv — an Arabic word that means “illegal sale.” It’s basically a warning from the PA to the people: Beware of selling land to Jews; if you are caught you will be killed.

A report recently published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) exposes the scope of Palestinian involvement in Yerushalayim, and the amounts of money the PA invests in the city.

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The barrier around the Palestinian town of Bir Nabala. (OCHA)

Dr. David Koren, a senior researcher at JISS, notes that the PA invests NIS 64 million a year into its activities in Yerushalayim. In the report, Koren reveals that the biggest expenses are support of PA institutions in Yerushalayim; legal and financial aid to people being prosecuted for illegal construction; financial aid for merchants and cultural funding.

Israel has also discovered that, often, PA investment comes in response to Israeli efforts to expand municipal services in Arab neighborhoods, Koren says.

The PA has set itself a goal of de facto control of as many parts of the lives of the residents of Yerushalayim as possible. It actively raises donations from international entities, such as the EU, and Arab nations. The “Jerusalem Unit” in Abu Mazen’s bureau coordinates these activities, with the goal of delegitimizing Israeli activity in the city. The goal of foreign intervention is not only to improve the lives of the city’s Arab residents; it is to create a subversive anti-Israel entity.

Three Spheres of Activism

There are three main spheres of activism involved, according to Dr. Koren: the Palestinian sphere, the extra-Palestinian-Islamist sphere and the international sphere. The Palestinian sphere is the PA and its Fatah supporters, along with Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood movements Hamas and the Northern Faction of the Islamist Movement. From time to time, these two arrowheads cooperate under the banner of the “Joint Jerusalem Committee of the National and Muslim Forces.” This entity encourages boycotts of visits of Israeli government figures in the eastern neighborhoods, and fights against implementing an Israeli curriculum in schools there.

Koren divides the extra-Palestinian sphere into organizations and states. The two prominent Muslim states operating in eastern Yerushalayim are Turkey and Jordan, who are vying for influence over Har Habayis and its surroundings. Jordan’s status in these areas is anchored in its 1994 peace agreement with Israel. The Waqf, a Jordanian entity, manages day-to-day affairs of the Temple Mount.

Public opinion is trending away from Jordan, however, due to Turkey’s rising power and its Islamist and anti-Israel president, Erdogan, who is perceived in the Arab street in Yerushalayim as the last of the “strong” Muslim leaders, who is daring to take on the “oppressive Jewish occupation.”

The third sphere — the international community — includes the U.N. and the EU. In the past, these two focused on funding leftist Israeli NGOs or Palestinian entities identified with the PA. Today, they are also engaged in building parks and renovating commercial areas, in addition to helping Arabs of eastern Yerushalayim being prosecuted for illegal construction.

Opposing Israeli Sovereignty in Yerushalayim

The vigorous opposition to Israeli sovereignty over Yerushalayim is a fundamental policy of the PA, says the study. According to the PA’s worldview, this is the first step in realizing the vision of a Palestinian state with a capital in Yerushalayim. Because “East Yerushalayim” is the heart of any future Palestinian state, then any diplomatic agreement must include transfer of this area to the PA. Therefore — in this view — as long as Israel controls the area, it is the duty of every Palestinian to work towards toppling Israeli sovereignty over the city. In practical terms, this means increasing the PA hold there and opposing any cooperation with Israel or organizations advancing Jewish settlement in the eastern part of the city.

Selling Real Estate to Jews

In recent months, the crux of Palestinian activity has been centered around the battle over the sale of assets to Jewish groups that Palestinians believe are trying to Judaize the eastern part of the city.

Over the past few years, the Yerushalayim Municipality has worked to improve civilian services in the Arab neighborhoods, including infrastructure, construction, planning, welfare and education. The Palestinians sabotage these efforts and are waging expansive information campaigns explaining to the residents that the purpose of these efforts is not really to improve their lives. Rather, they say, it is a Jewish “plot” to instill Israeli ways of thinking that will uproot the Palestinian character.

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The Palestinians also sow disinformation about the government’s intentions. For example, any expropriation of land in eastern Yerushalayim for the purpose of paving roads in an Arab neighborhood is portrayed as an effort to strip Palestinians of their land and that paving roads for Arab residents is for Jewish “settlements” to be established there in the future.

The PA also employs aggressive methods against anyone who cooperates with the Yerushalayim Municipality or other Israeli authorities. Local leaders who do not identify with Israel but who work with the authorities to improve quality of life, are verbally and physically harassed by PA elements, and are shunned.

In essence, what the PA is doing is preventing Arab residents of the city from being citizens with equal rights and obligations, which involves interacting with Israeli authorities and Israeli society. There is no doubt that the PA is tirelessly working to bring about a situation where the city is divided, and where its Arab residents side more with Ramallah than Yerushalayim.

Enter Hamas

But it is not only the PA; Hamas is also active in the city. Hamas is a terror organization whose activities are prohibited in Yerushalayim. Nevertheless, Hamas has captured the hearts of many people in eastern Yerushalayim and, beneath the surface, the group is accumulating much power on the street.

Har Habayis is the locus of Hamas activities. They lead cultural and religious activities on the Temple Mount, and spearhead the violent clashes with Israeli security forces. Hamas is active on the communal front, and operates charity, welfare and education groups.

Islamist and Arab Influences

The second sphere of activity, the Islamist and non-Palestinian Arab players, use cells — both active and sleeping. An ISIS cell was recently exposed and arrested in the Shuafat refugee camp. Other Islamic State cells focus on the city’s Christian population, calling on them to leave the city, spraying anti-Christian graffiti on their schools, and the like.

Turkey is the most significant foreign country player. It aspires to have influence in the Middle East, and to revive the Ottoman sultanate. As such, acquiring influence in eastern Yerushalayim in general and Har Habayis in particular is a strategic goal of the highest priority. The mounting involvement of the Erdogan regime — today a leading patron of the Muslim Brotherhood — indicates that Yerushalayim is part of a much wider process of generating Turkish regional hegemony. The primary loser in this developing arrangement is Jordan, which was always in charge of the holy sites and took the residents of eastern Yerushalayim under its aegis.

In recent years, Jordan’s status has declined. At this point, it controls only the actual 144 dunams of Har Habyis. In fact, even this status is diminishing. Turkish flags fly from rooftops and on Har Habayis, and Turkish culture is being revived in the city. People are learning the Turkish language, playing Turkish music and eating Turkish food. Turkey’s public support of the Palestinian issue and the infusion of millions of dollars into eastern Yerushalayim is reaping much fruit.

Turkey’s involvement is possible thanks to its cooperation with Muslim Brotherhood entities in the city. The Turks fund a large part of that organization’s charities, women’s groups, cultural activities and youth programs. Turkey funnels funds through government aid agencies, the Turkish consulate and a series of Turkish organizations.

Recent years have seen increasing reports of efforts by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to strengthen their influence in eastern Yerushalayim. According to these reports, Saudi Arabia is taking advantage of Jordan’s decline to attain the post of “guardian of the holy sites” in Yerushalayim, along with Mecca and Medina, the important Islamic cities in Saudi Arabia.

At an Arab summit last year, Saudi Arabia donated $150 million for eastern Yerushalayim. These two countries have also purchased assets in the Old City. Despite these efforts, residents of the eastern part of the city are wary of the Saudi presence, and see their activities as an effort to buy their loyalty, rather than a gesture of authentic concern.

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Palestinians climb over a section of the barrier, near Ramallah. (Flash90)

EU and Other International Influence

The third sphere of involvement, the international community, focus on undermining Israeli sovereignty, “blackening” Israel and the Yerushalayim Municipality in public opinion, and advancing civilian projects to benefit Arab residents of the city.

The U.N. operates two main agencies in Yerushalayim — UNRWA and UNDP — to work on infrastructure and women’s rights.

A Battle for Awareness and Historical Truth …

Fifty-two years after reunification, there is still debate about the future of Yerushalayim. But as each year passes, the Arabs lose more ground. They realize that Israel has generated an irreversible reality. Public opinion polls of the Arabs in eastern Yerushalayim show that most prefer to stay in Israel even if a Palestinian state is established. There is also no doubt that their separation from the “Jewish” part of Yerushalayim will deteriorate conditions there even further.

But the wishes and welfare of the residents are apparently of little interest to those calling for separation. Over its five decades of sovereignty, Israel has been able to establish its rule in eastern Yerushalayim in an almost absolute way, and its efforts to crush the Palestinian institutions in the city have been largely successful. Huge Jewish neighborhoods have been built. The separation fence has disconnected the city from its social, financial and cultural fronts. Many Palestinian organizations have left Yerushalayim. At the same time, the divisions and competition that characterize the Palestinian political system have grown, and its ability to function in Yerushalayim has declined.

The Palestinian dream of having a state with East Yerushalayim as its capital, which in the early 1990s seemed attainable, is perceived today as harder than ever to achieve. American recognition of Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital has contributed much to the Jewish hold on the city. In a sense, it’s a big success for Israel. But it is too early to know what ramifications it will have for relations between Israel and the Palestinians in general, and on the fabric of life in the city in particular.

That does not mean that the battle is over. Palestinian opposition activities continue in numerous ways, violent and otherwise.

Still, Al Quds — the Arabic name for Yerushalayim — has lost its status. “The battle for Yerushalayim,” stresses Dr. Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the U.N., “now focuses on the truth of the city’s Tanach history. This campaign began after the Camp David summit in 2000, and was intended to pave the way for refuting Israel’s historical connection to the city. The denial of the existence of the Beis Hamikdash has spread in the Middle East in recent years …. The goal is to absolutely negate the legitimacy of Israel’s claim to Yerushalayim and to erase any trace of Jewish historical presence in the city.” This narrative has penetrated Western universities as well, Dr. Gold says.

“Israel’s diplomatic echelons are not dealing with this properly,” he says. “When Palestinian representatives are asked, ‘What is your goal in the diplomatic process?’ they answer: a Palestinian state with the capital in Yerushalayim. Israeli representatives reply that the Israeli goal is a diplomatic agreement, which, although an important goal, is very vague. Hence there is asymmetry between the Palestinian and Israeli approaches, which perpetuates the Palestinian interests.”

My colleague, writer and journalist Nadav Shraggai, the author of several important books on Yerushalayim and its status, says that “the battle for Yerushalayim is not only a battle for land, but no less a battle for awareness and historical truth. The Palestinians and Muslims have engaged for many years in denying the Jewish connection to the city and all that is holy in it.”

In Israel there is a painful argument regarding the Arab work on Har Habayis and around it. Time and again, archaeologists demonstrate that Palestinians are deliberately erasing any evidence of Jewish presence. Since the city was reunified in 1967 and until the last year, the Waqf’s destructive activities on Har Habayis have been documented. A few years ago, the Antiquities Authority gave the Waqf permission to open the underground caverns known as Solomon’s Stables to use for Muslim gatherings, even though it had never been used for this purpose before. Israel’s defense establishment is growing increasingly concerned that these massive underground halls are being prepared for the day that the Muslims and Jews will clash. Hundreds of thousands of people can hide there, and Israel is not sure that weapons and ammunition have not been smuggled there.

The police have little presence on the Mount, except for cameras that transmit pictures from limited angles. Defense officials treat every complaint in this area with “delicate avoidance.”

Arab Facts on the Ground

In addition to trying to erase past evidence, the Palestinians have ramped up their efforts to purchase assets all over Yerushalayim, notably on the seam neighborhoods. Even worse is the massive Palestinian purchases of land in western Yerushalayim. For examples, dozens of shops in Machaneh Yehudah and on Jaffa Road have been bought by Palestinians, and many stores in the city center have been rented by Palestinians.

Israel’s GSS has proven that the “leadership in Ramallah” is urging Palestinian real estate agents to forge ties with the churches that have lots of land in the western part of the city and offer to buy these assets. Not all churches are willing to cooperate, but the Anglican Church has forged very close, cooperative ties, and land belonging to them in western Yerushalayim has already been sold to Arabs.

The Palestinians recently established a fund that purchases homes and lots in eastern Yerushalayim marked as likely to be sold to Jews. Fatah sources say that this fund will “save” this real estate from right-wing Israelis seeking to buy up properties in the eastern part of the city. According to Palestinian figures, since 1967, some 80 homes in eastern Yerushalayim have been sold to Jews, out of a total of 6000.

Israel’s Internal Security Minister, Gilad Erdan, has recently launched an initiative to send policemen and forces into Arab neighborhoods. The GSS and the police with the help of intelligence, torpedo PA events and prevent overt influence. This determined stance means most of the PA’s activities are taking place under the radar for now, mainly through civilian organizations that it operates.

The battle for control in eastern Yerushalayim between Israel and the Palestinians is intensifying. Israel has full American backing, but the Palestinians are determined to fight vigorously.



Yerushalayim, Israel’s largest city, by the Numbers


— 1.22 million people live in the metropolitan Yerushalayim area; some 850,000 live in the city itself.

— Yerushalayim is larger than Tel Aviv and Haifa combined.

— In 1967 74% were Jews and 26% were Arabs.

— More children are born in Yerushalayim than in any other city.

— Most Jews who move to Israel prefer to settle in Yerushalayim.

— Yerushalayim is the youngest city in the country.

— Of the city’s Arab residents, 96% are Muslim and 4% are Christian.

— 63% of the city’s residents live in the eastern part of the city, meaning parts that were regained after the Six-Day War, and 37% live in the western part of the city.

— Chareidi neighborhoods have the highest birthrate in the city. Topping the list is Me’ah Shearim and its environs, with 52 births for every 1,000 people. 65% of residents age 20 and over are married (in Tel Aviv that number is only 43%). 22% are single, 6% are divorced and 5% are widowed.