Demography and settler politics in the Old City of Jerusalem, 1980-1988 - Richard Thomas

Article discussing a how government and settler policies collude in the Old City of Jerusalem, as well as how they constrain each other.

Submitted by Ed on September 22, 2014

ISRAELI GOVERNMENT CONTROL and sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the Old City has been characterised by a single and over-riding concern: how to guarantee and consolidate Jerusalem as the 'undivided' and 'eternal' capital of the state of Israel.1 The chief method which successive Israeli governments have used to pursue this objective has been to establish an Israeli Jewish demographic majority over Palestinians within the boundaries of the Municipality of Jerusalem. This article will argue, in the first place, that despite being successful in this objective in statistical terms, the full picture seriously challenges Israeli Jewish numerical dominance in the long-term. Second, it will examine how an awareness of this development among Israeli government officials and planners has led to overt and covert government encouragement of the settlement activities of Israeli Jewish religious groups in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Finally the article will assess possible developments relating to demography and settlement in the Old City. Two areas are beyond the scope of this article: the role of the Jordanian Awqaf (Endowments) Administration in the politics of the Old City and, by its very currency, the full implications of the Palestinian uprising on the Old City.

The Jerusalem municipal area

THE ISRAELI ANNEXATION of Jerusalem and the enlargement of the Jerusalem municipal boundaries to include parts of the West Bank in 1967, led to the incorporation of 70,000 Palestinians into the new capital of Israel. Government policy since then has dictated that the demographic dominance of Israeli Jews over Palestinians should be maintained at a ratio of approximately 7:3 at least, and that future planning should be determined by this objective.2 Table 1 shows that, by and large, this objective has been achieved:

TABLE 1: Population growth in Jerusalem of non-Jews (Palestinian) and Jews (Israeli) 1967-19843

The fact that, in the face of a high natural increase in the Palestinian population and significant Palestinian immigration into the Jerusalem municipal area, this objective has been attained can be explained by two interlinked government policies. First, the Israeli government expropriated Palestinian land in and around the Jerusalem area and placed restrictions on the usage of the remaining Palestinian land. This effectively halted the expansion of Palestinian suburbs and villages within the Jerusalem municipal boundaries.4 Second, new Israeli immigrants were encouraged to settle in the new housing estates or 'settlements' built upon these expropriated lands. Indeed, in 1970s it was proposed that 80% of all new immigrants to Israel should be channelled to Jerusalem for the very purpose of asserting Israeli Jewish demographic dominance in the city.5 While this proposal was never implemented in full, the inducements for the new immigrants were sufficient to result in Jerusalem comprising in 1984 10.6% of the total population of Israel as opposed to 9.9% in 1972.6

These statistics, however, do not reveal the complete picture or the dilemmas that the Israeli government has had to confront. In the first place, the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem were drawn up in such a way as to exclude large concentrations of the Palestinian population. For example, although the road leading northwards out of Jerusalem to Ramallah is inside the municipal boundaries, the suburban Palestinian villages of Al-Ram and Bir Nabala on either side of the road have been excluded. In the second place, government restrictions on land use and housing inside municipal boundaries led to the emigration of Palestinians to areas just outside the municipal boundaries. Both these groups of Palestinians use and work in Jerusalem and thus make up the daily reality on its streets and buses, and in its shops, offices and factories but cannot live within the formal juridical boundaries of the Municipality. In these two ways the statistics exclude a large number of Palestinians who would still regard themselves as Jerusalemite. Demographically, then, Jerusalem is the centre of a much wider metropolitan area than its municipal boundaries suggest.

This fact is ultimately recognised by planners in the Jerusalem Municipality who plan according to a 'functional' city and insist on participation in the planning of areas outside the formal jurisdiction of the Municipality. The 'functional' area is consequently defined as including the Palestinian-dominated sub-districts of Ramallah and Bethlehem. In 1984, only 52% of this wider metropolitan area was estimated to be populated by Israeli Jews and most of these were found to be in West Jerusalem.7 Viewed from this perspective, the Palestinian challenge to Israeli Jewish demographic dominance is a serious and growing one for the Israeli government. It is further underlined by two dilemmas confronting Israeli planners.

First, the land available for the construction of Israeli Jewish housing estates within the municipal boundaries is rapidly being depleted. To simply extend the municipal boundaries again would not necessarily solve the problem. As we have seen, this would unavoidably result in the inclusion of the newly-established areas of Palestinian settlement on the municipal borders of Jerusalem into the municipal area, thus cancelling out the demographic gains such an extension intended. Second, the construction of new Israeli Jewish housing estates would repeat the already established pattern by which employment is provided for thousands of Palestinian labourers from the West Bank who are then tempted to seek accommodation in the Jerusalem area. This would also off-set the demographic gains for the Israeli government that the housing construction was supposed to provide.8

In the mid-eighties it became apparent to Israeli planners that they could not outstrip the growth of the Palestinian population. Running to stand still, the Israeli government needed to increase the Israeli Jewish population in Jerusalem through immigration in order to match the Palestinian natural increase. Its options, however, are increasingly limited and its only alternative is to adopt a policy of reducing the Palestinian population in the Jerusalem area with greater severity. In the Old City of Jerusalem we can see how the demographic pressures building up in the municipal area will lead to the reduction of the Palestinian population. This article will focus on the Muslim Quarter.

The Old City

THE DEMOGRAPHIC FACTS in the Old City present a disturbing picture for the Israeli government. In 1972, 98% of the Old City population was Palestinian. Following the reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter and its settlement with exclusively Israeli Jewish fanillies and yeshiva students, this figure changed to 93% in 1981. Table 2 gives the population figures of the Old City by traditional quarters:

TABLE 2. Population of the Old City by Quarters-non-Jews (Palestinians) and Israeli Jews9

It should be noted that after a high point in 1981, the population of the Muslim Quarter dropped by nearly 16% in 1983. However, the accuracy of these statistics must be qualified since some of the Old City residents who have moved out of the Old City keep a nominal presence in their former dwelling, staying one night a week for example, in order to maintain their claims for Israeli National Insurance benefits to which a Jerusalem residency entitles them. One can nevertheless still conclude that the Palestinian proportion ofthe population is likely to continue to diminish and it is merely the speed of this reduction which remains to be seen.

Israeli municipal planners work on the assumption that the desirable maximum for the Old City population should be no more than 20,000 people.10 They also aim to increase the Jewish population of the Old City to 5,000, following the completion of the reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter. This has extremely important ramifications for the Palestinian population in the other quarters of the Old City, particularly the Muslim Quarter. If this projected figure of 5,000 for the Jewish Quancr is added to the population of the Christian and Armenian Quarters for 1983 (Table 2), one arrives at the figure of approximately 9,500. Thus in order to meet the projected target of 20,000 for the whole of the Old City, the Palestinian population in the Muslim Quarter would have to drop to 10,500 - a reduction of over 40% of the 1983 figure of 17,500. The severity of this reduction in the Muslim Quarter may be mitigated by reductions in the Armenian and Christian Quarters. (There are some indications that the church hierarchies are encouraging their congregations to emigrate outside the Old City by providing subsidized housing). However, it is quite clear, as will be seen, that the main focus of the government's plans will continue to be the Muslim Quarter. If the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israeli government are to be successful in reaching their target of 20,000 in the Old City, then possibly up to 7,000 Palestinians will have to leave the Muslim Quarter. At this point we can begin to see the connections between the long term development plans of the Municipality for the Muslim Quarter and the unofficial support for the Israeli settler groups active in the same area.

Since the mid-seventies, the Jerusalem Muncipality has been trying to introduce a programme of 'slum clearance' in the Old City in order to reduce the density of housing and thus the Palestinian population. In addition, it wishes to create 'open spaces' to allow more room for leisure and recreational activities within the walls of the Old City.11 Not wishing to antagonise the Jordanian-controlled Awqaf which manages the greater part of the housing and commercial properties in the Muslim Quarter, the Jerusalem Municipality has so far only proceeded with piece-meal projects. But with the demographic situation in the Jerusalem area becoming more serious from an Israeli perspective, it is increasingly likely that the Israeli government will be promp.ted to overrule the Municipality's sensibilities in this respect, and pursue a more aggressive policy of Palestinian 'resettlement'.

Confirmation of this development is found in a further point. The Municipality is unable to secure firm government backing for its opposition to the activities of the Israeli settler groups now operating in the Muslim Quarter. While individual officials and councillors in the municipality may not necessarily object to the political aspirations of the settler groups its official policy, backed by Mayor Teddy Kollek, is to close the autonomous and uncoordinated activities of these groups.12 From the Municipality's point of view, the communal tensions these settlers engender in the Old City hamper its works in other fields and, more importantly, may affect its revenues if tourists are deterred by the violence their settlement provokes. Thus an examination of the settler groups in the Old City will illustrate both the demographic gains to be had by their encouragement and the political forces lined up against a continued Palestinian presence in the Old City.

Settler groups

A BRIEF HISTORICAL introduction is required. Prior to 1900, Jewish settlement in the Old City was concentrated in the Jewish Quarter in a position similar to the area currently known officially as the Jewish Quarter but much smaller. Severe overcrowding led to small Jewish groups moving to the Muslim Quarter, mostly in the Aqabat Khalidi area but also some along Tariq al-Wad and in the Bab al-Huta area near Bab al-Zahra (Herod's Gate).13 Due to increasing Arab-Jewish tensions in the 1930s, these Jewish communities migrated to the New City districts that sprung up in West Jerusalem outside the city walls. Their properties in the Muslim Quarter were either sold or leased to Palestinians or left empty and subsequently occupied by Palestinian squatters. Following the 1948 war and the annexation of East Jerusalem by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the leased, occupied or abandoned properties were placed under the jurisdiction of the Jordanian 'Guardian of Enemy Property'.

In many cases the Jordanian 'Guardian' leased out these properties to Palestinians so that in 1967, when Israel occupied the Old City and the 'Guardian's' responsibilities were transferred to the Israeli 'Custodian of Absentee Property' or to the Israel Lands Administration, the Palestinian tenants continued to pay rent to one of these Israeli institutions. At this point it should be noted that one of the key planks of the Municipality's platform has been the espousal of a 'mosaic' policy in which a territorial homogeneity (or residential segregation) of the Palestinian and Israeli Jewish communities is encouraged as a means of reducing inter-communal tension. In this context, there seemed little prospect that the leases signed by Palestinians with the different Israeli state institutions would be affected and, in this way, that there would be little change in the demographic composition Palestinian - dominated Muslim Quarter.

The victory of the 'Greater Israel' parties (Likud, Tehiya and the National Religious Party) in the 1977 Israeli elections changed the situation. A number of settler groups were formed which challenged the Muncipality's position. While intending to pursue their long term objective of building a Jewish temple in the Haram al-Sharif area, they also decided to establish a Jewish presence in the Muslim Quarter by taking over the former Jewish properties already mentioned. In this latter aim they received assistance from individuals within key Israeli ministries and departments controlled by the 'Greater Israel' parties such as the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Housing, the Custodian's Office in the Ministry of Justice and the Israel Lands Administration.14

There are four main settler groups. Two, Ateret Cohanim and Torat Cohanim, are an offshoot of Gush Emunim, the main national settler organisation active in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Another smaller group, the Young Israel Movement, was founded by Meir Kahane's brother and has close links with the Kach party. The last group, yeshiva Shuvu Banim, has attracted much media publicity due to its confrontational tactics. While all the groups have separate membership and engage in independent fund-raising activities, the first three groups share a common strategy in seeking to establish a vibrant Israeli Jewish presence in the Muslim Quarter through the establishment of seminaries and residence.

Three aspects of these groups' activities are relevant to this article. First, the activities of the settler groups correspond to the long-term plans of the Israeli government and, indeed, in this respect, of the Jerusalem Municipality itself, which, as has been argued, is to maintain the demographic upperhand in the Old City by reducing the Palestinian population. In occupying and renovating former Jewish properties in the Muslim Quarter, in buying other Palestinian-owned properties, in evicting tenants and precipitating the departure of their Palestinian neighbours through harassment and intimidation, the settler groups are contributing to the execution of these long-term plans. The Municipality's objections are not so much to do with the end result, as to the uncontrolled and often violent methods employed.

Second, the overt and covert support the settler groups receive from the government allow them to bypass any Municipality objections. This has put the Municipality in a weak position vis-à-vis the settler groups and it is no longer able to maintain its 'mosaic' policy in the Old City. For example, although it was able to enforce building regulations regarding the illegal construction of a floor by the Shuvu Banim settler group, it was not able, as it wanted, to evict the group itself.15 In addition the groups were able to approach the government directly and receive grants for renovation and settlement activities. The extent and strength of their support is impressive. Both Zevulun Hammer of the National Religious Party and a former Minister of Religious Affairs and David Levy, Deputy Leader of the Likud Party and Minister of Housing, have indicated their support vocally and through their respective ministries. The Ministry of Religious Affairs, for example, granted Atara Leyoshna, the real estate body set up by three of the settler groups, the sum of $250,000 in 1984.16 It also set up a commission to investigate the possibility of restoring a number of small synagogues in the Muslim Quarter.17 In 1986 the Ministry of Housing granted $40,000 to Ateret Cohanim, the largest of the groups, for reconstruction work in the Muslim Quarter despite the fact that this sum was not allocated in the annual budget.18 In May 1987, Ariel Sharon, the Minister for Trade and Industry, called on the government to increase the resources available for settlement in the Old City and directly challenged the Municipality by moving in to a former Jewish property belonging to Ateret Cohanim on Tariq al-Wad. Sharon has also been linked with another settler group running the Shuvu Banim yeshiva through his friend Avaraham Dweik, a New York fmancier, who funded the yeshiva's legal defence against the Municipality in the dispute mentioned above.19 Professor Yuval Ne'eman, leader of the Tehiya Party, has expressed his support for the settlers and called for a renewal of the charter for the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter and for its work to be extended into the Muslim Quarter.20 In sum, the settler groups have collected a formidable array of political support that wields powerful governmental influence.

The third and final point to note is that the settlers appear to have a clear strategic plan in choosing properties for occupation and renovation. Former Jewish properties under the jurisdiction of the Custodian of Absentee Property along Aqabat Khalidi have been given priority (See Map 2). From this initial base, properties adjacent or close to them are then selected and the existing Palestinian tenants are encouraged to vacate through a mixture of violent harassment and financial inducements.21 In this way, a chain of settler-occupied properties is being created in the heart of the Muslim Quarter from the top of Aqabat Khalidi, which can be reached from the Jewish Quarter across the roofs of the covered markets, down to the old Hungarian synagogues on Tariq al-Wad, beside which an army post guards the underground passage-way to the Western (Wailing) Wall plaza. Similar 'chains' have been created in the northern section of Tariq ai-Wad and in the Bab al-Huta area near Bab al-Zahra (Herod's Gate). It is interesting to observe that the establishment of such territorial linkages is consistent with traditiona forms of Zionist colonisation and settlement.

The future for the Palestinians in the Old City

THE OPEN REVOLT of the Palestinians against the Israeli occupation of the Old City in the first half of 1988, sparked off in part by the activities of the settlers and Sharon's provocative move into the Muslim Quarter, has made conjecture as to future developments extremely difficult. While the Palestinian uprising has had an immediate affect in freezing the situation in the Old City, it is not likely to alter the situation in the medium and long-terms unless, of course, there is a political settlement between the PLO and the Israeli government.

In the medium-term, given the weakness of the Municipality in the face of the settler groups' operations and government support for them, and given the strength of their financial base and legal position, it would seem that the existing properties held by the settlers will continue to remain in their possession. This means that the 'chains' of settler-occupied property have already become the status quo. Without stiff Palestinian resistance, the next few years will see the gradual depopulation of the Aqabat Khalidi area of Palestinian residents. One can project that within five years the Jewish Quarter will be enlarged to absorb this part of the Muslim Quarter. Growth of Israeli Jewish settlement in the northern Tariq al- Wad section and the Bab al-Huta area is likely to be more gradual and more dependent on governmental intervention but will be along similar lines.

The longer term is quite likely to see the clearance of areas of Palestinian residence, leaving only the major historical sites, museums and schools. The commercial areas of the bazaars and suqs will be left for touristic reasons while Christian premises along the Via Dolorosa will be retained so as not to alarm the Western church hierarchies. Israeli Jewish settlement will increase in the Muslim Quarter but will be restricted to yeshiva students, the main emphasis being the restoration of synagogues and Jewish sites of historical interest. In conclusion, if the occupation of the Old City continues without major changes, by the end of the century we are likely to see an Old City 'Disneyworld' featuring variously-clad religious personnel with Palestinian shopkeepers providing an exotic biblical backdrop for tourist excursions.

  • 1This status was conferred on Jerusalem after the passing of the Basic Law 1980. From a juridical point of view, it merely reaffirmed what had been established in previous laws incorporating East Jerusalem into Israel, notably the Law and Administrative Ordinance (Amendment) Law and the Municipal Corporations Ordinance (Amendment) Law both passed in 1967.
  • 2See Benvenisti, M., Jerusalem: The Torn City. (Minneapolis: Israelitypeset Ltd. and the University of Minneapolis, 1976) p.250.
  • 3Statistical Yearbook of Jerusalem, No.3 -1984 (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, 1985) p.89.
  • 4This is a well-documented area of study but for Jerusalem, see Mattar, 1., in N. Arur: Occupation: Israel over Palestine, (London: Zed Books Ltd. 1984) p.138.
  • 5Benvenisti, op. cit. p.252.
  • 6Statistical Yearbook, op. cit. p.31
  • 7Hyman, B., Kimhi, 1., Savitzky, Jerusalem in Transition: Urban Growth and Change, 1970s-1980s (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, 1985) p.37.
  • 8Benvenisti, op. cit. pp. 253-4.
  • 9Statistical Yearbook, op. cit. p.107.
  • 10Sharon, A. Planning Jerusalem- The Old City and its Environs (Jerusalem: Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1973) p.82.
  • 11See Kroyanker, D. Jerusalem Planning and Development 1982-1985: New Trends (Jerusalem, The Jerusalem Foundation, 1985) pp. 23-5.
  • 12The Municipality's position has been expressed clearly in Out of Jerusalem, Winter, 1983, Vol. 4, No.1, pp. 5-7. Out of Jerusalem is published by the pro-Kollek Jerusalem Committee.
  • 13Ben Arieh, Y. Jerusalem in the Nineteenth Century: The Old City (Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben Zvi Institute, 1984) pp. 377-386.
  • 14See articles by Nadav Shragai in Ha'aretz, 23.4.86 and 25.4.86.
  • 15See Jerusalem Post article entitled 'Yeshiva in Moslem Quarter Likely to Retain its Lease', 24.1.84 and articles from 13.12.83 and 14.12.83.
  • 16Nadav Shragai, op. cit.
  • 17See article by Nadav Shragai in Ha'aretz, 11.5.87 and by Hadar Horesh in Kol Ha'ir, 1.3.85 and 6.12.85.
  • 18Report by Avi Temkin in Jerusalem Post, 27.3.86 entitled 'Yeshiva gets $40,000 to buy Moslem flats'.
  • 19See Jerusalem Post articles "Old City Yeshiva", 19.12.83.,23.12.83.
  • 20See interview with Professor Ne'eman in Kol Ha'ir, May 1987.
  • 21See Abu Shakr, J. Israeli Settler Violence in the Occupied Territories, 1980-84, (Chicago: Palestine Human Rights Campaign, 1985) pp. 23-4.