DAKAR, 3 May — The International Conference on the Question of Jerusalem, which opened in Dakar, Senegal, this morning, held its first plenary session in the afternoon, examining life in East Jerusalem under Israeli occupation.
Daniel Seidemann, Lawyer and Founder of the Israeli non-governmental organization Terrestrial Jerusalem, said the city today was divided by walls of fear and hatred. It was seeing a popular uprising unprecedented since 1967, due in large part to the “horrendous and savage” murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir in 2014. The incident had conveyed the message that “in the eyes of official Israel, Israeli blood is blood, and its red; Palestinian blood is water”, he said, adding that Palestinian youth felt themselves adrift, while Israeli society was in a state of clinical denial about the occupation.
Nabil Al-Kurd, member of the Sheikh Jarrah Committee and Jerusalem resident, described the 2009 confiscation of half of his home by Israeli settlers. The occupied portion had been converted into a barracks, and the settlers frequently beat his family, including the women and elderly members. Any Palestinian who complained about such abuse was arrested and taken into custody, he said, noting that children suffered psychological trauma as a result and many dropped out of school.
Khalil Tafakji, Director of the Mapping and Geographic Information Systems Department of the Arab Studies Society, described Jerusalem’s geopolitical situation, pointing out that Israel’s “Judaization” of the city had begun long before 1967. The confiscation of Palestinian lands, withdrawal of Palestinian identification cards and demolition of Palestinian homes had become common over the last half century, and an “apartheid wall” had been built, he said. “Every millimetre [of the city] is a cause of conflict.”
Brona Higgins, International Component Coordinator of the Norwegian Refugee Council–Palestine, recalled that in 1967, Israel had granted “permanent residency” to Palestinians in Jerusalem — a status typically granted to immigrants. It was not fixed and could be easily revoked, meaning that Palestinians were in effect treated as “second-class citizens in their own home”. Expressing deep concern over that worrying trend, she said such revocations rendered Palestinians Stateless, in contravention of international law.
With the floor opened for an interactive discussion with the panellists, representatives of intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations as well as civil society raised issues relating to international law, psychological barriers to ending the occupation, and the use of education for peace programmes in both Israeli and Palestinian societies.
The International Conference will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 4 May, for a plenary discussion on international support for reliance, protection and development.
The first plenary segment featured presentations by Khalil Tafakji, Director, Mapping and Geographic Information Systems Department, Arab Studies Society; Daniel Seidemann, Lawyer, Founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem; Brona Higgins, International Component Coordinator, Norwegian Refugee Council–Palestine; and Nabil Al-Kurd, member, Sheikh Jarrah Committee and resident of Jerusalem.
Mr. TAFAKJI, describing Jerusalem’s geopolitical situation, said the city was not only about its holy sites, but also about the people living there. Judaization of the city had begun long before 1967, and Al-Quds Al–Sharif had been the name for the old city, he said, exhibiting a pre-1948 map. To the present day, no country in the world recognized the city as Israel’s capital because it enjoyed a special status. After 1967, Israel had significantly expanded the boundaries of Jerusalem municipality, and the policy of land confiscation had begun shortly thereafter. Justifications for confiscation included the expansion of green areas and the building of roads.
He went on to state that Israel had subsequently begun withdrawing identification cards and demolishing Palestinian homes. An apartheid wall had also been built to get rid of Palestinian inhabitants. A number of rights had been forbidden to Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents, and today they held only 13 per cent of the land they had occupied in 1967. Showing charts of the demographic changes since that date, he said there were Israeli settlement outposts in the old city and “every millimetre is a cause of conflict”. However, Palestinians remained in Jerusalem despite all those obstacles, and it was to be hoped that the international community would continue to support them.
Mr. SEIDEMANN said “Jerusalem today is divided” by walls of fear and hatred that had become more intense than at any other time since 1967. During the popular uprising of the last year-and-a-half, the Israeli authorities had arrested more than 950 Palestinian boys — more than 1 per cent of all Palestinian youth under the age of 18. No mayor or prime minister in the world was more “utterly detached from the reality of the city they purport to run” than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mayor Nir Barkat, he emphasized.
Palestinian youth in East Jerusalem felt themselves adrift, cut off from the Palestinian hinterland in the West Bank and not a part of Israel, he continued. Living in a society that denied the right to any significant political expression — increasingly resorting to arbitrary enforcement and collective punishment — those young people witnessed an adult Palestinian society incapable of fulfilling the basic obligation towards its children: giving them a future that could be lived in dignity. The ensuing loss of respect for adult authority had had a devastating impact and was one of the major manifestations of the current uprising, he said, noting that East Jerusalem was in the grip of a popular uprising unseen since 1967.
Questioning the reason for that, he said the “horrendous and savage” murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in 2014 was far more significant than the isolated event it appeared to be. Israel demolished the homes belonging to the innocent families of deceased Palestinian terrorists, while doing no such thing to the Jewish terrorists who had murdered Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Palestinian youth heard the following message: “In the eyes of official Israel, Israeli blood is blood, and it’s red; Palestinian blood is water.” Israeli society was in a state of clinical denial about the occupation, he said. Today, there were three very clear threats to establishing a “reasonable” occupation-ending border in Jerusalem: settlement-construction activity, a lack of plurality among Jerusalem’s religions, and the existence of a “state of acute disequilibrium” that could lead to a major catastrophic event. “There is no greater threat to the Israeli people than continued occupation,” he stressed.
Ms. HIGGINS said the Norwegian Refugee Council–Palestine was extremely concerned about the high rates of displacement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, an estimated 263,000 in 2015 before the escalations of tensions in 2016. “The trajectory is extremely depressing,” she said, highlighting the “push” factors of displacement such as wanton destruction of civilian property, forced evictions, land expropriation, obstruction of humanitarian assistance, settlement expansion, settler violence, the construction of the wall, revocation of residency rights and others. Israel planned to advance a bill that would greatly restrict residency rights with the explicitly stated aim of minimizing the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem and to retain a 70 per cent Israeli to 30 per cent Palestinian presence.
She went on to say that while Palestinians had enjoyed “permanent residency” in Jerusalem since 1967 — a status typically granted to immigrants — Israelis in the city, on the other hand, could have citizenship. Furthermore, permanent residency status was not fixed and could be easily revoked; Palestinians were in effect treated as “second-class citizens in their own home”. That system had evolved in a number of ways, including the introduction of a “centre of life” policy requiring Palestinians to prove that their centre of life had remained in East Jerusalem for at least seven years. Between 1967 and 2014, more than 14,400 residents of East Jerusalem had had their permanent residency revoked, she said. Furthermore, on 21 January 2016, the interior Minister had revoked the residency of four Palestinian youths suspected of having carried out attacks against Israelis, despite the fact that no guilt had yet been legally established. Such revocations rendered Palestinians stateless, in contravention of international law, she said.
Mr. AL-KURD said 2009 had seen an increase in attacks by settlers against Palestinian residents of the city, adding that three houses in his neighbourhood had been taken, including half of his own home. The pressure on the neighbourhood continued, with two families in the process of being displaced and nine others under imminent threat of expulsion. Palestinians could not invoke the same laws used by settlers to claim their houses and were therefore pushed out of Jerusalem. He said that he had fought for 10 years to obtain residency, “to live on my own land”, whereas Israelis had immediate citizenship.
He went on to say that the occupied piece of his home had been converted into a barracks, and the settlers frequently beat his family, including the women and elderly members. Any Palestinian who complained about such abuse was arrested and taken to the police station. Children suffered psychological trauma and many dropped out of school. Describing settlers as an arm of the Israeli occupation, he said they received salaries for taking over Palestinian homes, adding that other methods used to push Palestinians out included the imposition of fines and taxes as well as expropriations and document searches.
In the ensuing discussion, a number of intergovernmental, non-governmental and civil society representatives discussed those presentations, and several asked questions to which the panellists responded.
Several speakers noted that besides the Palestinians, many others around the world were suffering the effects of the occupation. For example, one journalist said, Senegalese religious leaders were no longer able to make their pilgrimages to Palestine, and journalists in the Occupied Palestinian Territories were imprisoned and unable to transmit information to the rest of the world.
A lecturer at Dakar’s Université Cheikh Anta Diop said that a challenge for both the Palestinian and Israeli sides related to education and awareness, asking whether the two populations were fully informed through education-for-peace programmes, and whether there was a way forward through the current impasse.
Meanwhile, a Senegalese filmmaker said the Israeli State had forgotten that the whole world had risen as one to liberate Jews from Hitler’s forces. “We have to do something,” he said, noting that the United Nations was “just standing by” as Israeli forces continued to oppress Palestinians. He proposed that each State close its embassy in Tel Aviv until the Palestinians had their State.
Mr. TAFAKJI, responding, said the present Israeli mentality was anchored in a belief that there was only one Israeli State and that Palestinians were “invaders”. That mentality needed a force to stop it, but no such force existed, and the international community could only look on. There was likely to be more bloodshed in the future, he predicted.
Mr. SEIDEMANN, recalling that his father had escaped from Nazi Germany, said both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples had been scarred by tragedy. Reiterating that many Israelis lived in denial of the occupation, he said that a “process of mutual humanization is critical”, but it was not taking place. The forces of moderation had been destroyed in both societies, and a dose of reason was needed on both sides.
Ms. HIGGINS, while agreeing that the whole framework of international law was being delegitimized and eroded by Israel’s actions, stressed that no one was more brutalized by those actions than the Palestinian people. Third States were obliged to take actions to counter Israel’s grave breaches of international law, she added.
Mr. AL-KURD said his people had been forced out of their own territory while Jews migrated from all over the world to live in Israel. Palestinians were treated like foreigners in their own land, he said, calling on the international community to better understand the conflict’s historical dimension.
In the second round of comments, the representative of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) agreed with Mr. Seidemann that many Israelis were engaging in “wilful myopia” about their treatment of Palestinians. They believed that they were the chosen people, and that they could “do whatever they like”. He asked the panellists whether an agreement could be reached between the parties when such attitudes persisted.
Other speakers, affirming their support for the State of Palestine, asked how the United Nations could better enforce its own resolutions on the question of Palestine. Other questions raised included whether Muslims and Jews could marry in Palestine, and whether Muslim States were really working to support the Palestinian cause.
A representative of the Palestine Committee of Senegal said Africa owed a debt to Palestine, recalling that Nelson Mandela had said that Africa’s freedom would not be complete until Palestinians were also free. There must be a distinction between Jews and Zionists, he said, emphasizing that there could be no peace in the Middle East until Palestinians had their own State.
Mr. TAFAKJI said in response that Israel enforced its own law — the law of power. Among Muslims, it was permissible for a Muslim to marry a Jew, but the same was not true in reverse. Furthermore, countries like the United States continued to pursue colonial policies in support of the Hebrew State, he added.
Mr. SEIDEMANN agreed that many Israelis suffered from major psychological barriers that prevented them from giving up the occupation, and that they were dehumanizing Palestinians. On the question of whether there was a way forward in that context, he said: “If we stop believing in the ability of the human spirit to regenerate itself, let’s just pack our bags and go home.”
Mr. AL-KURD said Palestinian Jews had once coexisted peacefully with Palestinian Muslims until Zionism had taken hold. That ideology sought to obliterate Palestinians and all their supporters.
Ms. HIGGINS said Palestinians were being asked to swear allegiance to their occupying Power, in contravention of international law.