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Is Israel ‘denationalising’ Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem?

An Israel-driven erosion of occupied East Jerusalem’s historic religious status quo continues to threaten Palestinian presence in the area along with Muslim and Christian holy sites, speakers have told a gathering hosted by an Arab think-tank in the US capital.

“We are living in continuous deterioration of the status quo. It is facing big challenges from the Israeli policy,” Nazmi al Jubeh, who teaches history and archeology at Palestine’s Birzeit University, said in a webinar hosted by the Washington DC-based Arab Center on Tuesday.

Al Jubeh said the Islamic Waqf –– a Jordan-managed organisation that runs the Al Aqsa mosque’s affairs –– is fast losing control over the religious complex due to partition. He said the lack of Palestinian leadership inside occupied East Jerusalem, besides Israel bringing more illegal settlers, will ultimately drive all Palestinians out of the city.

“Israel has managed to destroy local leadership in Jerusalem, which was in the past represented through the Orient House. So, we don’t have any direct relationship with the Israeli administration concerning the city,” he said.

Orient House served as the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) until 2001 when Israel closed it.

“The destruction is very real, the partition is very real, and we all have to take it seriously,” al Jubeh warned.

First initiated by the Ottoman Empire in 1852 and later adopted by Great Britain, the status quo is a framework that regulates the administration of the religious sites in Jerusalem but has been repeatedly violated since Israel occupied the city in the late ’60s.

‘Denationalisation’ of Palestinians

Israeli attorney Daniel Seidmann said the erosion was exacerbated in 2017 when “rabbis associated with the settlers in the West Bank began not only to permit Jewish visits to the site but also encourage it.”

Seidmann, who also specialises in Israel-Palestine relations, said that former US president Donald Trump’s plan for Jerusalem has greatly undermined the status quo, which has since been adopted by Israel as a policy.

Driven by hardline groups that weaponise faith, such as the “end of days” Evangelicals in Washington and the Temple Mount Movement in occupied East Jerusalem, the goal has turned into “shrinking the Palestinian space”.

“What we have been witnessing for many years is the increase of settlement activities in this area by biblically-motivated settlers and their increasing impact on shaping the landscape and the public domain,” Seidmann said.

“What we are witnessing here is the fragmentation of East Jerusalem, the denationalisation of Palestinians and the marginalisation of Christian and Muslim equities.”

Christian sites targeted

The Israeli grinding down of the status quo has also left a great impact on Christians in occupied East Jerusalem. Speakers said Christian worshippers are often harassed by Israeli police and extremist Jews around the holy city.

“Israeli settler organisations are targeting Christian properties and holy sites with the aim of pushing Christians aside and changing the character of areas from Christian to Jewish,” said Michele Dunne, executive director of Franciscan Action Network, a Washington-based advocacy group.

The Mount of Olives, which is a Christian-dominated area, has also been threatened by Israeli settler organisations that aim to build an Israeli national park in the area to minimise or erase other non-Jewish characters, Dunne said.

She said the Christian leaders in occupied East Jerusalem are no longer allowed to speak to anyone in the Israeli government because they are not considered important enough.

“The Israeli government is much less concerned about leaving the impression that it is a responsible custodian of the holy places and it respects the religious plurality of Jerusalem,” Dunne said.

The plight of Christians and their holy sites was also raised by Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.

“As custodians of Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian holy sites, we are committed to protecting the historical and legal status quo and to their safety and future, the king said.

But the Christian community is “under fire”.

“The rights of churches in Jerusalem are threatened. This cannot continue. Christianity is vital to the past and present of our region and the Holy Land. It must remain an integral part of our future.”

Israel denies accusations by Jordan and Arab countries that it has tried to change the status quo of holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, which it occupied in the Six-Day War in 1967 –– a territory Palestinians see as the occupied heartland of their country.

Almost 500,000 illegal Israeli settlers live in over 130 settlements dotting the occupied West Bank alongside nearly three million Palestinians living under Israeli military rule.

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