After a deadly shooting on al-Haram al-Sharif in East Jerusalem on July 14, 2017, Israeli occupation forces unilaterally imposed new security measures undermining the long held status quo governing the compound. The new measures, namely the introduction of metal detectors, turnstiles, and additional security cameras, triggered Palestinian civil disobedience in Jerusalem and a general escalation of violence in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, over 450 Palestinians were injured in the oPt over the weekend alone. For the month of July thus far, more than a dozen Palestinians have been killed, including four civilians over the past ten days.
To prevent the “unrest” from spreading and further challenging diplomatic relations between Israel and neighboring countries, Israeli officials from the General Security Services and the military, alongside the Coordinator of Government Activities in the oPt, urged the government to pave a more cautious road ahead.
Following lengthy consultations, the Israeli Security Cabinet decided on Monday, July 24 to “de-escalate tensions” by replacing the metal detectors with “advanced surveillance technology” over the next several months. According to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, the new measures will include smart cameras with facial recognition capabilities and a thermal system to detect concealed weapons. Senior Palestinian clerics, however, rejected the new terms and demand a full restoration of pre-July 14 arrangements.
Whatever the eventual result of the growing crisis over the al-Aqsa compound, Israeli measures therein are only the tip of the iceberg. Israel is currently pursuing a broader scheme to alter the “status quo” in the colonial city.
Amidst the tensions over the past week and a half, a new construction plan by the Construction and Housing Ministry was announced to add roughly 1,100 housing units between the Israeli colonies of Geva Binjamin and Neveh Ya’akov in northeast (occupied) Jerusalem. The plan, which is in an advanced planning stage, would mean cutting off East Jerusalem from southern Ramallah in the West Bank and further expanding the Israeli “Greater Jerusalem” project outside of the municipal boundaries. The plan is reportedly meant to create Jewish territorial contiguity in the expanded city and prevent “socioeconomically weak” Jewish populations in Jerusalem from relocating to colonies deep in the West Bank.
Relatedly, tensions over al-Aqsa have put back into focus an Israeli attempt to remove 140,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites from city boundaries. In May 2017, a (then) “secret plan” was pitched by Likud Minister of Knesset Anat Berko to officially break off Shu’fat (Palestinian) refugee camp and Kafr ‘Aqab (north of Jerusalem) from the Israeli Jerusalem Municipality and organize them into neighborhood councils. Both have been walled off and denied services since the early 2000s, despite being located within city boundaries and residents paying municipal taxes. Palestinians fear that the plan is meant to eventually revoke their residency/citizenship status.
According to Haaretz, the scheme to separate these neighborhoods from colonial Jerusalem stems from a 2015 study by Israeli researcher Nadav Shragai. Instead of re-partitioning the city, Shragai argues that Israel should create regional councils (under Israeli sovereignty) in zones beyond the separation barrier. The arrangement would meet minimal Palestinian demands of self-rule while subtracting a substantial number of Arabs from the population register (thereby better maintaining the long-desired 73/26 population percentage in favor of Israeli Jews in Jerusalem). The regional council would also act as sovereign bodies preventing the transfer of such zones to a future Palestinian state.
Recent reports have revealed that Israeli ministers Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) and Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) included a provision based on Shrahai’s study in legislation currently being considered in the Knesset. The legislation, if passed, would make the withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied East Jerusalem all but impossible. At the same time, the bill includes a clause that would allow for the transfer of authority over certain areas within city limits (such as Palestinian neighborhoods) to local administrative bodies subordinate to the Israeli Municipality.
Those concerned over recent measures at al-Aqsa must recognize that it forms part of a broader strategy to change the overall status quo in Jerusalem to Israel’s strategic advantage.