Adnan Abu Amer
Middle East Monitor / February 2, 2021
With the a new US president in the White House, it is clear that Joe Biden’s predecessor targeted occupied Jerusalem by giving Israel the green light to weaken the Palestinian presence in the holy city and place further restrictions on the indigenous population. Palestinian have had their backs to the wall ever since Trump moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem and recognised the city as the “undivided” capital of Israel.
The Israelis believe that even if President Biden wants to change the effects of Trump’s Jerusalem policy, he will have difficulties in doing so because the former president has helped to cement Israel’s occupation in the east of the city.
The embassy move was a turning point. It gave the Israeli government the chance to deepen its control over Jerusalem’s Palestinians and their neighbourhoods. The policy of the occupation state is to separate them from their West Bank hinterland and bring them closer to the status of the Palestinians living inside Israel.
Around 356,000 Palestinian live in Jerusalem at the moment, that’s 38 per cent of the city’s total population. Despite the financial difficulties they have faced since the construction of the Apartheid Wall, many still have close links to the West Bank, due to work or family links. Their connection to west Jerusalem has not been broken over the years.
Under Trump, the Palestinian Authority was weakened and there was no political process; Israel was given a free rein. He was the first US president to visit what Palestinians known as the Buraq Wall, but the Israelis call the Western or Wailing Wall. Under Trump’s “deal of the century” unveiled a year ago, Jerusalem came under Israeli sovereignty, including the Old City and the East Jerusalem Palestinian neighbourhoods. Plans to increase the size of Israel’s illegal settlements in the city by building thousands of new housing units have been approved since then.
One of the immediate results of the Trump policy in Jerusalem was an increase in the number of Palestinian Jerusalemites applying for Israeli citizenship. Between 2000 and 2003, the number of such applications was less than a hundred. By 2009, the figure was more than 700, and last year 1,633 applications were submitted.
There has also been an increase in the number of Jerusalemite students studying the Israeli curriculum, a move that Israel is promoting as part of the five-year plan for East Jerusalem approved in 2018. Trump’s gifts to Israel did not mean a fundamental change in the occupation state’s policy in Jerusalem; they simply strengthened it. With almost 400,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites with no citizenship rights, Israel may not actually want to grant them any.
One of the most memorable images from Trump’s term in office was of US Ambassador David Friedman breaking a wall in a tunnel in the Silwan neighbourhood, in the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sarah, the former Mayor of Jerusalem MK Nir Barkat, and US envoy Jason Greenblatt. This was in support of the Elad and Ateret Cohanim organisations, which seek to develop Israeli tourism in the Old City, while expelling Palestinians and strengthening illegal settlements.
The Trump presidency clearly gave Israel the confidence to expand its presence in occupied East Jerusalem, with more and bigger settlements and Jewish institutions. Such a strong presence was discouraged during the Obama administration, and it may face similar difficulties under Biden.
Since the occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, no structured Israeli steps have been taken to grant citizenship to Palestinian residents. The main obstacles to this are the need to learn Hebrew and then obtain a permit from the security services, because citizenship is not only permission to enter Israel, but also naturalisation for those who live there. Such a move would inevitably face a political battle with right-wing Israeli groups and political parties refusing to allow 400,000 or more Palestinians from becoming Israeli citizens and altering even further the country’s demographic, which is in any case tilting towards the Arab population as a result of the higher birth rates.
Moreover, the Palestinian themselves have not applied for Israeli citizenship en masse, because to do so would be interpreted as recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the city. That would serve Israel’s interests, and would give some degree of justification to what Trump has done since 2017.
Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza