Jerusalem’s Future: Sovereignty, Administration, and Property Claims


The final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization over the future of Jerusalem raise two kinds of claims. The first addresses the future constitutional arrangement between the two parties and the rights of their respective residents in the city. The second addresses historical claims to properties and residences seized or abandoned during the wars of 1948 and 1967. Both sets of issues are the subject of final status deliberations.

Governance Issues:

The main issues include sovereignty (who will control the city), access (who has the right to visit the city), residency (who has the right to live in the city), and scope (what constitutes the limits of the city). While both parties agree that Jerusalem should remain an open and undivided city, the Israeli government insists that Jerusalem remain under Israeli sovereignty while the Palestinians insist that it become the shared capital of both Israel and a Palestinian state.

At stake are:

The fate of Jewish colonial settlements established inside the city boundaries after the Arab sector was annexed following the 1967 war;

The ending of the current Israeli blockade of the city, which excludes entry to the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza as well as denies their right to residency in the city;

The fate of some 200,000 Arab residents of the city (about one-third of the total population) who are de facto residents of the city but do not have the civil and political rights of the Israeli citizens;

The future right of planning, zoning, and the provision of services for the occupied sector of the city currently exercised by the Israeli (Jewish) municipality on behalf of its Arab residents.

The Palestinian Position:

The Palestinian position is based on an elaboration of UN Resolution 242. Ideally, from the Palestinian perspective, the two parties will arrive at a set of arrangements whereby administrative, zoning, and residency controls over the city will be shared by two separate municipal councils. Each will represent the elected members of the national communities (Arab Palestinian and Israeli Jewish), while sharing an overall joint authority that coordinates the needs of the city as a whole. In short, the Palestinians are seeking divided sovereignty and shared control. The official Israeli position, by contrast, is that Jerusalem is its “eternal, undivided capital,” and that it shall remain forever under Israeli sovereignty.

Israeli Property Claims:

Also at stake in the final status negotiations are the fate of properties appropriated by each side as a result of the wars of 1948 and 1967, and of the refugees who suffered from these wars. The bulk of the Israeli claims relate to property abandoned by Jewish citizens and seized by the Jordanian authorities in 1948 but subsequently taken back by the state of Israel and re-populated by Israeli Jews after 1967. This happened in the Jewish Quarter, Neve Ya’cov, and Atarot (Kalandia). Moreover, through confiscation, sequestration, and outright seizure, the Israelis have taken over areas several times as large as those originally belonging to Jewish citizens and have populated them with settlers.

Palestinian Property Claims in West Jerusalem:

No such reciprocity has been given by Israel to the former inhabitants of Arab properties in West Jerusalem. Talbieh, Baq’a, Qatamon, Ain Karem, and Lifta – these and several other destroyed communities and deserted villages within Jerusalem’s western neighborhoods seem to have been overlooked by history. Most of them were occupied, resettled, and eventually – in the case of Ain Karem, Lifta, and Talbieh – gentrified by Jewish immigrants who came to Israel after the war of 1948. For 50 years, the memories of these communities and villages have been kept alive by thousands of Palestinians who, uprooted from their ancestral communities, became refugees on the other side of the armistice lines, as well as in Amman, Beirut, Damascus, and other distant Arab and foreign diasporas. One striking feature of this displacement is that, with the exception of Beit Safafa, the Israeli military forces managed to accomplish a total transfer of the Arab Palestinian population from the western suburbs and villages to the other side of the border.

Counting the 1948 Refugees:

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) created a registry for Palestinian refugees who were eligible for its relief services and who sought shelter in one of five UNRWA field areas (the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria). Since a substantial number of West Jerusalem exiles were middle- class refugees, many of them do not appear in these records. For this reason, the figures in the table below, which include only urban refugees and their living descendants, are probably an underestimate.

UNRWA data, with all their limitations, show that the bulk of urban refugees in Jerusalem ended up living in the West Bankémostly in East Jerusalem and its suburbs, Ramallah, and Bethlehem. This pattern is drastically reversed for rural refugees. While the global figure for UNRWA-registered Jerusalem rural refugees (and their offspring) is 110,439, of those more than two-thirds (73,908 refugees) live today in Jordan, and only 36,130 live in the West Bank (UNRWA, May 1997).

Making Claims:

The above figures have great relevance and implications for future claims by Jerusalem refugees regarding their properties seized by Israel in the western suburbs and villages. Since many exiles continue to live either in the annexed eastern part of the city, or in its immediate vicinity, their claims for the return of their property (and their right of residence) are particularly poignant. Their claims are strengthened by the fact that Israel has established a dozen new colonies in areas where no Jewish claims existed in 1948, as well as expanded private Jewish residences in the old city in areas in which Jews had some property and residence claims before 1948.

Palestinian claims for their properties in the western part of the city (and its rural hinterland) are fully substantiated, both in records derived from land registry and land tax records, as well as in the records of the United Nations Conciliation Commission on Palestine. Israel’s claim that the city is united, indivisible, and subject to the same administrative laws of the state is in stark contrast to the failure of Israel to honor Palestinian property claims in the western part of the city.

Final status negotiations over the future of the city have created the atmosphere, and the conditions, for pressing the historical rights of Arab Jerusalemites to the forefront. The fact that most of the internal exiles are still alive, or have immediate offspring who are still alive, makes their patrimony more immediate and urgent.

Mr. Salim Tamari is Director of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies in Jerusalem. This brief is based on remarks he made at an American Committee on Jerusalem briefing on Capitol Hill on 22 November 1999, as well as on the book he edited, entitled Jerusalem 1948 (Jerusalem: The Institute of Jerusalem Studies and BADIL, 1999, available from the Institute for Palestine Studies).

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