Behind the Palestinian Stabbing Spree

Since its victory in the Six-Day War, Israel has sought to tip the demographic balance in Jerusalem. Palestinians have lost not only control of the city’s future, but any hope of living normal lives there.

Palestinians walk past Israeli police after Friday prayers outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City

Palestinians walk past Israeli police after Friday prayers outside Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, Sept. 18, 2015. Amir Cohen/Reuters/Corbis

What would prompt a 13-year-old boy to stab another 13-year-old boy in Jerusalem? Incitement? Religious zealotry? A culture that glorifies martyrdom? How about the unintended consequence of forty-eight years of municipal policies designed to foster a stable, Jewish majority while preventing any linkages between the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the West Bank?

Since 1967, all policy making in the city has directed at the singular goal of insulating Jerusalem from any possible future territorial compromise. While these policies have succeeded in cementing a physical and political separation between Jerusalem and the West Bank, they have also created a leaderless, under-educated, impoverished, and disenfranchised under-class from which these knife-wielding youth have sprung.

With Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, the reunification of Jerusalem was seen as both miraculous and tenuous. While to many Jews it felt as if divine guidance had brought the people of Israel back to the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, and the cemeteries of the Mount of Olives, there was also a palpable sense that international pressure could require the Jewish state to relinquish them. For Israeli authorities this required the immediate creation of facts on the ground. As founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion exclaimed in the heady days after the war, “We must bring Jews to eastern Jerusalem at any cost! We must settle tens of thousands of Jews in a brief time.”

Ben-Gurion believed the situation too urgent to await “the construction of orderly neighborhoods.” Yet that was precisely the strategy envisioned by the various inter-ministerial commissions tasked with planning the development of the city: a phased expansion of Israeli settlements that would gradually, but purposely, form an inhabited barrier between Jerusalem and the West Bank. The first step was to push the city’s boundaries beyond the walls of the Old City, beyond the Mount of Olives, east, north, and southward into the West Bank. With the stroke of a pen, seventy square kilometers of hilltops, valleys, and villages were drawn into Jerusalem’s sacred orbit, and incorporated into the urban master plan.

While this expansion created room for new settlements, it also added some sixty-thousand Palestinians, or “non-Jews” in municipal parlance, into the demographic balance sheet. A hastily conducted census revealed this minority constituted 26 percent of the population, with a much higher birth rate. This meant that securing a stable, Jewish majority would also require managing, or rather minimizing, the “non-Jewish” population in addition to increased migration.

Zoning policies were both the swiftest and sharpest arrows in the municipal quiver as they could both facilitate and constrain, often at the same time. For example, zoning certain areas as national priority zones allows the expropriation of privately owned land, whereas setting aside certain areas as “green areas” would preserve the un-built land until, as former Mayor Teddy Kollek explained, “we are ready to build there.”

One such hilltop between the West Bank village of Beit Sahour and the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher was designated as part of the city’s green belt until 1997, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered its Jewish National Fund-sponsored pine forest ploughed under in order to stop Bethlehem from spreading into Jerusalem. Today, the settlement of Har Homa boasts a Jewish population in excess of twenty-five thousand.

On the flip side, the absence of zoning was used to limit growth within the 13 percent of east Jerusalem territory designated for Palestinian use. As in any modern, urban landscape, construction in Jerusalem required new construction fit within established town planning schemes. While such plans existed for the burgeoning Jewish settlements, the municipality was reluctant to impose them on the Palestinian neighborhoods in deference to the residents “nationalist sensitivities.” Without such plans, however, it is virtually impossible to get a permit to build. Allowances existed for granting permits on the basis of spot planning schemes, but the lengthy and expensive permitting process often took years and applications were denied more than 50 percent of the time.

These constraints left growing Palestinian families with two choices: build without a permit and risk demolition, or move a few kilometers over the green line where housing was more abundant. Before the first intifada in 1987, most decamped to the more open and welcoming suburbs of Ramallah or Bethlehem. It was only during the Oslo years that these Jerusalem natives learned such choices ran afoul of Israel’s permanent resident policy.

Again, in deference to sensitivities of the local population, the State of Israel refrained from imposing citizenship on the Palestinians who came within the expanded borders. Instead, they became permanent residents of the country. As with any green-card style designation, permanent residency is contingent on actual residency. Moving abroad for more than seven years, obtaining a foreign passport, or simply taking a foreign spouse would indicate intent to reside elsewhere and negate the premise of residency. However, starting in 1996, the ministry of interior redefined abroad as anywhere that city ceased to be a resident’s “center of life.” Although this revised policy was contested and eventually repealed, the ministry of interior revoked eleven thousand Jerusalem residency cards between 1996 and 2009.

The unintended consequence of this more stringent compliance regime was that Palestinian Jerusalemites came flooding back to the city in a desperate attempt to preserve the right to live in their native city. Rents increased, families crowded into smaller and smaller spaces, and more built without the requisite permits. Housing demolitions accelerated: ninety-eight in 2014 alone. This influx brought further deterioration to the already pressured living conditions in the “non-Jewish” sector. Today, 74 percent of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and 82 percent of Palestinian children in East Jerusalem live below the poverty line. Unemployment is at 33 percent of the male workforce, and 26 percent of high school students drop out before the eleventh grade. This is unsurprising given that there is a shortage of 2,000 classrooms in East Jerusalem, and 43 percent of those that are available are deemed inadequate by national standards.

This legal, political, and territorial limbo leaves Palestinian youth in the city with few choices. Taking opportunities abroad, or even in the West Bank could result in permanent exile. Yet staying means ever shrinking horizons, a future defined by the Sisyphean struggle to keep from sliding further down the slope. Even marriage choices are constrained by municipal boundaries. A spouse from the West Bank means miles, upon miles of paper work just to apply for family reunification permits, which for women is almost never granted since “local customs” hold she follows her man into the hinterlands.

Add to this combustible mix ramped up efforts by rightwing settlers to insert themselves within Palestinian areas and the ground is prepared for explosion. Without the Palestinian Authority to keep a lid on things, as they do in the West Bank, it is wholly predictable that provocations—or even perceived provocations over the holy sites—become a catalyst for rage. While the daily indignities of life in Jerusalem are a shared, individual trial, the shrines are a collective responsibility—one of the few places beyond the reach of the ministry of interior or the municipality. In a city where there is no earthly future, it is unsurprising that martyrdom is enjoying renewed appeal.

Allison Hodgkins is an assistant professor of international security and conflict management in the Department of Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.

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