Largely attributable to the fervent religious and nationalist aspirations epitomised by the city, a resolution of its final status is frequently whispered to be the key to establishing a just and lasting peace.

Yet now, in circumstances where no diplomatic initiative, let alone progress appear visible, Israel is clearly implementing a strategy intent on forcibly determining outcomes by creating facts on the ground.

Through the construction of an apartheid wall and through an insidious policy of ethnic cleansing, Israel has for some time been working to render any future peace along the lines of the two-state solution impossible.

The heart of the battle

This Israeli demeanour goes right to the heart of the conflict. Consistently setting the boundaries of any peace process, the actions of Israel will determine the future of both Israel and Palestine.

Israel's wall destoys all aspects
of Palestinian life

These actions are now, however, tearing at the very heart of both countries. The wall that is cutting up and imprisoning the West Bank, destroying any feasibility of a viable Palestinian state, is now carving through the holy city of Jerusalem and pre-determining the final status issue which holds such imperative significance.

It is hard to comprehend how such a blessed city can represent such great challenges. Sacred to Muslims, Christians, and Jews, Jerusalem provides the picturesque setting for the assignation of the three great monotheistic religions.

Its divinity and great beauty are only magnified by its rich architecture, its eclectic mix of cultures and its unique amalgamation of tradition with nascent modernity.

Hallowed ground

All the while Jerusalem maintains an identity positively steeped in history. In little doubt due to this magnificent status, the holy city has, through centuries, represented a hallowed and sought after prize becoming the backdrop to many a devastating battle.

Today, situated at the heart of the Middle East region, Jerusalem remains also at the heart of an ominously aging and bloody conflict. Embodying the profound aspirations of its irreconcilable inhabitants, the city has in our day become a disputed national capital - the centre of the Palestinian struggle against occupation.

This contest over a city both sides would like to see as their capital stands as perhaps the biggest single obstacle to establishing a lasting peace in the region.

Protestors speak out against the
construction of a Jewish area
in Arab east Jerusalem

Widely viewed as responsible for scuttling the Camp David negotiations in July 2000, the level of significance and potency wrapped up in the Jerusalem issue is evident in the approach adopted by subsequent peace negotiators who have invariably opted to defer or postpone discussion of any final settlement.

Explaining the reasoning behind the continued postponement of Jerusalem’s final status is multi-faceted but can best be facilitated by examining the connotations of not settling the issue. Most importantly, who will benefit from delaying the final settlement?

Delay tactics

Israel is evidently all too eager to delay talks over the final status of Jerusalem. Doing so affords them added time to alter the facts on the ground.

Through aggressive policies of illegal settlement expansion, land encroachment, destruction and confiscation, compounded by abhorrent, draconian treatment of the Palestinian people, Israel is of the impression it can wipe from view any remaining material existence of the land of Palestine, and break forever what little fervour remains of the Palestinian soul, long before a Palestinian capital is established.

Tragically for the Palestinians, the realities of land confiscation, harassment, unemployment, repression, poverty – occupation – are making this Israeli dream inexorably more probable.

The years since 1967 have seen numerous Israeli attempts to reconfigure Jerusalem and drive out its Palestinian residents.

 Initial policy involved a candid redefinition of the municipal boundaries whereby Israel attempted to pilfer the maximum amount of territory while simultaneously maintaining a minimum increase in the Palestinian population of Jerusalem.

Maintaining a Jewish demographic majority in the city has always been a paramount concern. However, this could only ever be achieved artificially, by employing discriminatory policies - restricting Palestinian building, revoking Jerusalem residence rights and forcing Arabs from the city.

Housing strategy

Under the guiding principle of maintaining a 72%:28% majority of Jews over Arabs, the Israeli government has attempted to counter Palestinian demographic strength by encouraging Israeli Jewish immigration into the city.

The city’s gradual metamorphosis has thus been affected largely through the creation of Israeli settlements, provision of good quality Jewish housing, jobs and services. Moreover, much of this housing has been strategically located on the Palestinian side of the city.

In addition to annexing Palestinian land, Israel further resorted to inflicting a series of harsh bureaucratic measures intent on making life as unbearable as possible for Palestinian Jerusalemites.

The debris of a house demolished because
it was built without a permit

The injunction against most Palestinian house construction has meant that only 4% of Palestinian-held East Jerusalem land is allocated for building to accommodate Palestinian growth, that is, once extortionate permits have been obtained.

Many hundreds of houses belonging to Palestinians have been designated as “illegal” and subsequently demolished. At least 50,000 Palestinians have been forced to move outside of the city boundaries because of the severe housing shortage. Meanwhile all Jewish housing projects within the city remain heavily subsidised.

Desperate attempts

After the Oslo Accords were signed between the PLO and Israel in 1993, attempts to outnumber the Palestinian population in the city reached new heights as Israel introduced new regulations by which Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who live outside of the municipal boundaries of the city were declared ineligible to continue and hold Jerusalem identity cards.

This led to the instigation of further discriminatory practices against the Palestinian Jerusalemites, thousands of which were denied proper identification cards and many more of whom regularly have theirs confiscated as Israel tries desperately to achieve a demographic change to serve its political ambitions in the city.

As well as trying to minimise the Palestinian Arab population in Jerusalem, prior to any final status talks, Israel has made great attempts to sever the rest of Palestine from its geographical, political and spiritual centre by constructing a belt of Jewish settlements around the city.

The creation of exclusively Jewish settlements, and the continued systematic pursuit of settlement expansion, all attempts of Israel to change the facts on the ground, is illegal under international law altering fundamentally, as they do, the city’s culture and demographic character, and thereby violating Security Council resolution 476 which reconfirms that all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying power, which purport to alter the character and status of the Jerusalem have no legal validity.

Such UN resolutions appear now somewhat superfluous – irrelevant in the face of Israeli aggression. Since the 1967 invasion and occupation of Palestine, the policies of Israel have remained widely sanctioned despite their steady relapse into the unimaginable.

Even now, as Israel resorts to constructing an 8m high concrete wall (not around territory that could constitute a viable Palestinian state, or along anything that could conceivably resemble the Green Line - but purposefully built to encircle and imprison all Palestinian populated areas) the United Nations and the international community has proven redundant in coming to the aid of the Palestinian people.

Despite its well rehearsed and much publicised, yet still empty rhetoric, the international community now stands idly by as Israel seeks to further the repercussions of this apartheid wall, and irreparably alter the sacred city of Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem envelope

The first phase of the apartheid wall's Jerusalem construction solidified what is widely referred to as the "Jerusalem envelope". The new barriers extending east-west from Ofer military camp to Jaba village (north of Jerusalem) and from Gilo settlement to Umm al-Qassis (northeast of Bethlehem), as well as a north-south wall in East Jerusalem, effectively seal off the eastern portion of Jerusalem from the West Bank, separating Palestinians from Palestinians under the guise of essential Israeli “security” measures.

Already, residents of Jerusalem Governorate communities located north and west of Jerusalem’s municipal boundary and, to the south, communities under the Bethlehem Governorate, have lost land to the construction of the barrier.

The formation of the Jerusalem Envelope is still in its initial stages, the Eastern section is still impending and Israel has not yet decided on the final trajectory that will link the apartheid wall, currently tearing its way through the West Bank, with this barrier that cuts through and around Jerusalem.

What is for certain is that, when completed, this horrendous construction will constitute the most dramatic change effected by Israel in East Jerusalem since it was conquered and annexed in 1967.

It seems, just as Ariel Sharon has worked to ensure a viable Palestinian state territorially, and thus logistically, impossible, the city of Jerusalem is now also under the knife, the intention being to put the viability of a Palestinian capital in jeopardy.

The real goal

Evidently the Israeli goal has long been, and remains to this day, the postponement of negotiations concerning Jerusalem for as long as possible, giving themselves as much time to implement and exhaust such calamitous policies mentioned above.

The government of Israel will then, eventually, use the permanent status negotiations to turn the “facts on the ground”   as determined by bulldozers and discriminatory legislation – into a justification for its claim of sovereignty over the occupied city.

This, however, is not the only possible outcome. In recent months we have seen Israeli behaviour deteriorate so far as to echo the distinctive traits of a policy only comparable to that of ethnic cleansing. If this is allowed to continue, there will be no occasion for final status negotiations, and no occasion for peace.

-----------------------------------------------------------Mustafa Barghouthi is secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.