On September 14, 1999, the day after Oslo’s Final Status negotiations opened, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak visited Ma’ale Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement on the West Bank. There he declared that this Jewish “neighborhood” would remain part of Israel’s Jerusalem. “Every house you build,” he promised residents, “every tree you plant here, will be Israel’s forever…”. [1] Final status negotiations represent the last stage of the Palestinian-Israeli “peace process” initiated six years ago. Long-deferred discussions about the future of Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and other issues are to be addressed by September 2000.

Barak’s pledge to the settlers of Ma’ale Adumim is a grim foreshadowing of future Israeli policies on Jerusalem. Built in occupied territory in the mid-1970s on the land of the Arab villages of Abu Dis and At-Tur, this “suburb” — as Israelis prefer to call it — is home to more than 24,000 Jewish residents and off limits to Palestinians by law. Barak’s well-timed visit to Ma’ale Adumim represents less an act of cynical political posturing than an assertion of ideological commitment to maintaining sole Israeli control over all of Jerusalem and its environs. The Jerusalem that Palestinians and Israelis are to negotiate over as Israel’s occupation of the city enters its 52nd year is itself over determined by Barak’s commitment to the expansion of Jerusalem-area settlements such as Ma’ale Adumim and their incorporation into Israel. It is doubtful that an equitable agreement on the city can be achieved given the prevailing political, economic and military inequalities between the two competing national communities.

Jerusalem and Oslo

Oslo’s stipulations regarding final status issues are largely undefined. The agreement states only that negotiations over issues of primary contention shall be deferred until final status talks. There are, for instance, no dates by which specified withdrawals from defined occupied territories are to take place. No specific mechanism exists for rolling back Israel’s illegal appropriations of land in Jerusalem — East or West — or elsewhere in the occupied territories. But in one respect, the accords are unambiguous: UN Resolutions 242 and 338, which speak of an Israeli withdrawal from “territories occupied” in 1967, are to serve as the basis for negotiations. Thus, the accords make it nearly impossible to raise and redress the injustices committed against the Palestinian people before 1967. This has foreclosed West Jerusalem as a site of active contention. But to Barak, “East” and “West” Jerusalem are largely irrelevant terms since the Jewish State asserts that Jerusalem is and will remain Israel’s “undivided and eternal” capital, under sole Israeli control. This position, repeated by Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy at the opening ceremony of the Final Status talks, is supported by no other nation.

Anti-Zionist opponents of Oslo correctly criticize the agreement for failing to ensure for the Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem what is enshrined in UN resolutions and supported by a very broad international consensus. The vast majority of the international community considers Israel’s conquest of East Jerusalem a violation of International Law and the Fourth Geneva Convention. [2] Any solution concerning the city’s final status must at a minimum extend to Jerusalem’s Palestinian community the right to national self-determination and the prerogative of establishing their capital in the city. On few other issues is the international community in such broad agreement.

Ideological Work: Inventing the City

For most Israelis — and for every Israeli government heretofore — the notion of allowing any meaningful Palestinian national presence in the city is tantamount to “dividing” that which belongs eternally to the Jewish people. So powerfully have the discourses of fear, fantasy and fanaticism permeated mainstream Zionist imagination on Jerusalem that the Israeli Government will not voluntarily progress toward even a limited version of shared sovereignty in this urban space. Even secular leaders of the Israeli “peace camp” have articulated bizarre, biblically based formulations of entitlement to the city. [3] Israeli geographer Oren Yiftachel has noted that Zionism’s “Judaization” and “de-Arabization” program, operative in Israeli policy since the birth of the state, was and is premised on a “myth cultivated since the rise of Zionism that the land (ha’aretz) belongs solely to the Jewish people.” [4] This “ideological work” is particularly evident in Jerusalem. Upon interrogation, the Zionist vision of the city as “immutable” and “eternal” reveals a paradox: Jerusalem is said to be at once “fixed” in time and place while Israeli authorities continue to radically reconfigure and change it on a daily basis — spatially, demographically and discursively.

The “Arab Problem”

Dramatic changes in radical and spatial composition have characterized Jerusalem’s history since 1948. Israeli has spared no effort to contain Palestinian communities and, at times, rid areas of the city of any Arab presence and character. Occasionally, this has required the implementation of policies of eviction and even ethnic cleansing. [5] In 1948, Israel emptied West Jerusalem and its environs of more than 70,000 Arab residents. [6] Thousands of Palestinian homes in villages and urban neighborhoods were appropriated and declared the property of the Jewish State. These properties were immediately handed over to Jewish immigrants while their Arab owners were (and continue to be) denied the right to return to them.

Since the advent of military rule in East Jerusalem in 1967, the prevailing mode of domination and exclusion in the city has been bureaucratic; Israeli urban planning policies and “development” schemes have been effective means of control. The “silent transfer” of Palestinians from East Jerusalem is one of the main consequences of Israel’s policies. Through Palestinians outnumber Israelis in East Jerusalem (200,000 Palestinians to 175,000 Israeli Jews), the last 32 years have witnessed a net outflow of nearly 50,000 Palestinians from East Jerusalem. Exorbitant Israeli taxes, obstacles to constructing homes on their own land to accommodate family needs and harassment and discrimination in nearly every realm of life are cited as primary reasons for moving elsewhere. [7]

Just as the events of 1948 led to profound changes in the city’s landscape, the years immediately following the 1967 War witnessed dramatic alterations in East Jerusalem as well. [8] Such alterations included the unilateral expansion of the boundaries of the city five-fold. The operative logic in redrawing Jerusalem’s borders was to take as much Palestinian owned land into the newly gerrymandered Israeli municipality as possible, while leaving within these reconfigured borders the least number of Palestinians. The materiality of this objective is evident in the many ways Israeli planners have dealt with the “Arab problem” that remained within the newly defined municipal borders. Two former Israeli officials involved in these policies describe the objectives: “Two basic principles have guided Israeli officials in their rule of East Jerusalem. The first was rapidly to increase the Jewish population… The second was to hinder growth of the Arab population and to force Arab residents to make their homes elsewhere. [9]

Israeli planners have sought to address the “problem” of “dangerous” Palestinian birth rates as well as the obverse concern: “not enough Jews.” Israeli officials have explicitly spoken of the need to insure that no more than 28 percent of “united” Jerusalem’s population is Arab. [10] Having successfully colonized the city, however, the Israeli state is losing the battle to maintain this “demographic balance.” In response to these anxieties, one might ask a simple question: What are the implications of deeming certain kinds of ethnic/racial communities (and their birth-rates) threatening? What would be the reaction if the community in question were Jews and those articulating a concern about “too many Jews” were, say, mayors of major American cities?

By implementing discriminatory measures to police and partition space in the city, Palestinian villages and neighborhoods in East Jerusalem have become impoverished ghettos. Growth and expansion are seriously constrained. Investment and services from the Israeli Municipality are nearly non-existent in Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, in stark contrast to the neighboring hilltop settlements, islands of relative privilege. In East Jerusalem, Palestinians are permitted to build on less than 10 percent of their own land while nearly 40 percent of the city’s east side has been expropriated for settlement construction. [11] Although over 60,000 housing units in 8 settlements have been built for Jewish settlers in the last 32 years, not one subsidized public housing unit has been constructed by Israel for Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s Shifting Discursive Ground

Two shifts have characterized Israel’s political trajectory in the city since 1967. One is as old as the occupation of East Jerusalem itself; the other is an emerging discourse that has grown more pronounced since the advent of the “peace process.” Both have relevance for negotiations over the city’s future. The first is the effort to separate annexed East Jerusalem — its status and territory — from the rest of the lands occupied in 1967. If Israel has sought to use Oslo to redefine territories occupied in 1967 as “disputed” rather than occupied, Jerusalem — in this dominant lexicon — is described as neither. Rather, both West and East Jerusalem are “non-negotiable.” Israel refers to East Jerusalem settlements as “neighborhoods” or “suburbs.” Israelis residing here are not settlers, but “residents.”

Such uncompromising notions of entitlement would be less worrisome if they were voiced only by members of the settler movement. This is, however, the most mainstream of Zionist discourses, espoused by much of Israeli “peace camp.” Given that roughly half of the settlers in the West Bank live in East Jerusalem settlements this discourse is particularly alarming. That even much of the liberal-Zionist Meretz Party and the Peace Now movement accedes to this flawed and partial formulation of “occupied territory” underscores the limits of “left Zionism” and the difficulties ahead in negotiating the city’s future.

The second and more recent trend is linked to the first and represents a gradual reconceptualization of what constitutes “Israel’s Jerusalem” and therefore, of what is “non-negotiable.” The current municipal boundaries, redrawn by Israel in 1967, have given way to a conception of the city known the Israeli planners as “Greater Jerusalem” (see Map 1). This reformulation has coincided with a concerted drive (especially pronounced since the signing of Oslo) to intensify settlement construction in these “suburbs” and to integrate them into municipal Jerusalem through a complex, interlinking system of bypass roads and tunnels. Colonizing schemes in the “Great Jerusalem” area accelerated in the post-Oslo years, especially under the governments of Rabin/Peres/Meretz (1992-1996), which invested more than any pervious government in their expansion. [12]

Ma’ale Adumim, Gush Etzion, Givat Ze’ev and the other housing estates of “Greater Jerusalem” are home to at least 65,000 people. They, along with the settlers within Israeli-defined East Jerusalem, account for approximately 70 percent of all Israelis residing illegally in the West Bank. The notion that “Greater Jerusalem” is “non-negotiable” is growing among large sectors of the Israeli public. Even the most progressive members of Barak’s cabinet, individuals who openly call for a Palestinian state and for an end to “occupation,” consider these settlements essential to retain. [13] The Zionist consensus also supports the eventual redrawing of Jerusalem’s boundaries to bring these settlements (and the Arab land that surrounds them) into Israel’s Jerusalem.

Barak’s Vision of Jerusalem

Barak’s position on Jerusalem’s permanent status is indistinguishable from that of the previous Likud regime. Even his rival in Likud, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, affirmed before the May 1999 elections that Barak would “never divide Jerusalem.” Such assessments of Barak from the Israeli right should not inspire optimism among Palestinians. Nor should Barak’s acknowledged aversion to the Oslo process as envisioned by past Labor party leaders Rabin and Peres. Barak has stated that this vision is too conciliatory to the PNA. As one Israeli commentator has noted: “Barak is demanding that Arafat waive the three supporting pillars of the Palestinian political vision: the 1967 borders, the right of return, and Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.” [14] In return, the PNA is to receive Israeli recognition of a truncated Palestinian state on about half of the West Bank and an electric fence which would separate the two peoples so as to, in the words of the late Yitzhak Rabin, “stop the Arabs swarming around” in Israel. [15]

The political constraints before the Palestinians have been made manifest as Israel has reconfigured Jerusalem’s landscape at will during the “era of peace” while refusing to consider any scheme for shared sovereignty in the city. Despite a near unanimous consensus among the international community that East Jerusalem should serve as the capital of a future Palestinian state, Palestinians have been unable to wrest even one square meter of the city away from Israeli control over the last 52 years.

But it is also widely understood that the Israeli leadership faces certain constraints, too. While the different between Barak and Netanyahu is barely discernible, it is the Barak government which must now discuss final status issues, matters which until the beginning of final status talks in September 1999, were not on the agenda of the negotiations. Salim Tamari notes that although Barak has not heretofore demonstrated a willingness to make compromises on any of the final status issues, “if Israel wants to win the international and regional legitimacy it has always sought, it must conclude an agreement with Palestinians. Concluding a deal will necessarily mean making concessions on Jerusalem, on settlements and on the return of refugees.” [16] In other words, Israel’s “red lines” on Jerusalem will never be — and can never be — accepted by the PNA. Objective circumstances impinge on the Israelis as much as on the Palestinians.

While the concessions demanded by the Palestinians and the international community cannot be imposed on Israel, neither can the Palestinians be forced to accept the Labor Party’s vision of an exclusively Israeli-controlled Jerusalem. Israel can have peace, or it can have all of Jerusalem; it cannot have both. Barak might well choose the latter. He seems intent on transforming the final status talks into a second “interim agreement,” committing Israel to no territorial compromise on Jerusalem, only to further discussions. If Arafat accedes to another interim phase, the question of Jerusalem’s status would be deferred again, giving Barak’s government more time to expand settlements while projecting to the international community the illusion of movement in the peace process. This is a reality that Oslo — with all its lack of specificity — facilitates rather than checks.


Despite ad nauseum Israeli pronouncements that Jerusalem is “indivisible,” on the even of the Millennium the city remains more divided and segregated than ever. Israel’s continuing quest for Palestinian lands without Palestinian people is not only likely to survive Oslo, the danger exists that Oslo will actually institutionalize and legitimate this objective. Barring some sudden and miraculous alteration in the nature of the Zionist state and its relation to the Palestinians, Israeli policies of discrimination and Barak’s call for “separation” in Jerusalem will continue. Ultimately, the struggle for justice in Jerusalem must encompass more than ending settlement expansion and allowing the Palestinians to establish a capital here (essential though these are). The legacy of conquest and exclusion in the city must be replaced with an anti-racist, democratically organized and radically desegregated social order. It is unlikely that Oslo’s framework can bring such an order of true equality into being.


[1]Ha’aretz, September 15, 1999.

[2] See the text of what has become known as the European Union’s “Berlin Document,” issued in March 1999 by the European Union in response to the Netanyahu government’s violation of International Law.

[3] For instance, Shimon Peres stated that “since the Bible made no distinction between Judea and Samaria we have the right to settle in both… there is no argument in Israel about our historic rights in the land of Israel. The past is immutable and the Bible is the decisive document in determining the fate of our land.” Quoted in Chomsky, “The Palestinian Uprising: A Turning Point,” in Z Magazine, May 1989.

[4] Oren Yiftachel, “Democracy or Ethocracy? Territory and Settler Politics in Israel/Palestine,” in Middle EastReport 207 (Summer 1998), p. 9.

[5] During the Serbian military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo earlier this year, the parallels with Palestine were not lost on the Israeli left. Gideon Levy referred to the Kosovars’ tragedy as “Palestine 1948 with TV cameras.”

[6] Salim Tamari, citing UNRWA statistics, states that there were roughly 30,000 Arab refugees from West Jerusalem urban areas and another 40,000 from the surrounding villages emptied in 1948. “The Phantom City,” in Salim Tamari, ed., Jerusalem, 1948 (Jerusalem: Institute for Palestinian Studies, 1999).

[7] Most of the bureaucratic restrictions placed on the Palestinian population are detailed in Sarah Kaminker’s “For Arabs Only: Building Restrictions in East Jerusalem,” in Journal of Palestinian Studies 4 (Summer, 1997), pp. 5-16.

[8] For more on the post01967 occupation of Jerusalem, see Michael Dumper’s The Politics of Jerusalem Since 1967.

[9] Amir Chesin, Bill Hutman and Avi Melamed, Separate and Unequal (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999) p. 10.

[10] Chesin, Hutman and Melamed, op.cit., Chapters 2 and 3. An example of anxiousness over the growth of Palestinian population can be found in “Jews Now Less than 70% in Jerusalem,” Ha’aretz, July 27, 1999.

[11] Author’s interview with Sarah Kaminker, July 12, 1997.

[12] See Geoff Aronson, Settlements and the Final Status Negotiations (Washington, DC: Institute of Palestine Studies, 1996).

[13] During his pre-election visit to Etzion Bloc last April, Labor Party “dove” Shlomo Ben-Ami declared that these settlements would forever remain part of Israel’s Jerusalem.

[14] Aluf Benn, “Smiles, Handshakes and Foot-Dragging,” Ha’aretz, October 26, 1999.

[15] Quoted in Graham Usher’s “Why Gaza Says Yes, Mostly,” Dispatches From Palestine (London: Pluto Press, 1999).

[16] Author’s Interview with Salim Tamari, August 1, 1999.

How to cite this article:

Tom Abowd "“The Land without the People”," Middle East Report 213 (Winter 1999).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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