“The pre-war Jerusalem [...] is one that is fundamentally unrecognizable today, a city of considerable social mobility, of ethnic diversity, and of communal conflict that is tempered by a fair amount of mutual dependence and local solidarities. This particular combination of ethnic hybridity was exemplified in the coexistence of traditional, messianic, and secular trends, lending a cosmopolitan character to the city under British colonial aegis.”
Tamari, S. (2002). Jerusalem 1948. The Arab Neighbourhoods and their Fate in the War. p. 2(1)
The narrative of Jerusalem, whose existence can be dated back at least to 3000 BC, is currently highly controversial, shaped by the incompatible ideological claims of Israel, Palestine and the world community. The following historical review will begin in the Ottoman period, followed by the British Mandate period and concluding in the current period, when Jerusalem is still ruled by a colonial power.
Jerusalem under the Ottoman Empire (1516-1917)
Having been occupied by many different rulers throughout its long history, Jerusalem became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516. In 1838, Jerusalem was still a modest city, counting only 11,000 inhabitants (40.5 percent Muslims, 32 percent Christians, and 27.5 percent Jews) (2).
Nearly all construction was concentrated in the Old City within the walls, boasting a culturally rich, ethnically mixed and religiously diverse lifestyle. In the New City outside the walls, cemeteries, a variety of religious buildings and walled summer homes were located. (1)
The Ottoman land reforms of 1839 and 1856 entitled non-Ottomans to own land. This gave European the opportunity to increase their political influence in the holy city. In 1874, the Ottomans set up a plan for the modernization of the city, including the improvement of infrastructures, railway construction, a telegraphic line etc. (3) The involvement of Western experts in implementing this plan offered yet another opportunity for the colonialist powers to promote their interests in the city.
The growth of Jerusalem’s population in the latter half of the 19th century led to the first attempts to settle outside the city walls, which were initially accompanied by security concerns. As overcrowding and sanitation problems in the Old City steadily increased, however, there were increasing numbers of people eager to move outside the walls. (1) The good living conditions of the New City changed the image of living outside the city walls from one of isolation into one of health and comfort.
In 1905, the total population of Jerusalem was 32,400 (41 percent Jews, 34 percent Muslims, 25 percent Christians) referring to Ottoman census figures. (1) The movement of Jews outside the Old City was well documented as neighborhood construction was organized and shaped by a formal process. Conversely, the Arab community had a different approach to neighborhood construction, which was based on individual land availability and family capital than on regularities. Consequently, this process was often not being officially documented. (1)
Jerusalem during the British Mandate (1917-1948)
In December 1917, the British occupied Jerusalem, and officially became its mandatory power in 1920. This transition was accompanied by ambivalent feelings among the Palestinian population. On the one hand, it promised greater stability and improved services for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, after the chaos of the First World War. On the other hand, as early as November 1917, the British government published the Balfour Declaration stating its support for the Zionist project of building “a Jewish national home in Palestine”. The fear of growing numbers of Jewish immigrants and the establishment of a new state on their land resulted in intensifying Arab resistance to the British Mandate. (5) These tensions culminated in the Al-Buraq Uprising (or 1929 Palestine Riots). The uprising erupted after the British authorities changed the status quo by easing the conditions for the growing number of Jewish worshippers to access the Western Wall (Al-Buraq for Muslims), which had been under exclusive Muslim authority. The uprising ended in 133 Jews and 116 Muslims killed. Ilan Pappé states that already then, “the violent eruptions were due to a mistaken British policy, rather than to inherent Muslim aggression”. (6) Jewish immigration continued unabated.
Following these events, the Arab Revolt (1936-39) broke out, demanding the cessation of Jewish immigration and land acquisitions and Arab independence/autonomy. (7) Led by anti-Zionist nationalists headed by Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the revolt spread across the country, before finally being crushed by the British, who used harsh reprisals and collective punishments to subdue the Palestinians. At the price of over 5,000 Palestinians and more than 300 Jews dead (8), the revolt led the British government to reconsider its wholehearted commitment to the Zionist cause, and resulted in the White Papers of 1939, which restricted Jewish immigration and land acquisitions. However, partly thanks to the support of the Jewish community during the Second World War…(7)
In February 1947, the British declared the end of their mandate and handed the decision of the future of Palestine over to the recently founded United Nations. (9) In November, the UN recommended the Partition Plan (Resolution 181), calling for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state and the internalization of Jerusalem (corpus separatum). The Palestinians rejected the plan as they were longing for independence and considered the share of Palestine allocated to the Jewish State, 56%, to be unfair given the fact that the Jews at that stage legally owned only 6-7% of the land and remained a minority of the population. Referring to the figures used in the UN partition plan, there were 508 000 Jews (31 percent of the total population) and 1,132,000 Palestinians living in Palestine at that time. (10)
Jerusalem in 1948
After the UN plan was approved in November, fighting between Zionist and Palestinian Arab forces broke out all across the country, including Jerusalem, leading to the Nakba (“catastrophe”) of 1948.
An agreement between King Abdullah of Jordan and Golda Meir, Head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department and future Prime Minister of Israel, provided for the division and annexation of the area designated for the Arab State by Transjordan and the future State of Israel. According to Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, King Abdullah aimed to expand his kingdom and “had no intention of allowing a Palestinian Arab state to come into being”. (1) As Jerusalem was a corpus separatum, it was not included in the agreement so that its sovereignty was a matter of conflict. (11)
Even before the outbreak of the fighting, it was clear to experts on both sides that the Zionist forces were trained and equipped much better than the Arab forces, thanks among other things to having fought alongside the British in World War II. (12) The Arab fighters, on the other hand, mainly acted in an individual, spontaneous matter. (1)
With the outbreak of fighting, civilians of both sides, Palestinians and Jews, began leaving their neighborhoods in the New City of Jerusalem. Most of the Palestinians living in the New City, who counted around 28 000 by 1948, lived in the southern part of the New City (in the neighborhoods of Talbiya, German Colony, Greek Colony, Qatamon, and Baq’a) and in its eastern part (in Musrara to the north of the Old City and Deir Abu Tor to the south). The Jewish neighborhoods of the New City, with around 95 000 inhabitants, were mainly located in the northern and western parts. (1)
Afraid of losing the Jewish neighborhoods upon their inhabitants fleeing their homes, the Zionist leaders prohibited all Jews from leaving without permission and compelled them to pay taxes even when they had left their properties behind. (4) In January 1948, after the Haganah bombing of the Semiramis Hotel in Qatamon, which killed 26 civilians, nearly all the inhabitants of that wealth neighborhood who had the means to do so evacuated their homes. (13) The growing numbers of Palestinian Arabs fleeing the neighborhoods in the New City peaked after the massacre of Deir Yassin, a village located about five kilometers west from Jerusalem, in April 1948. In that massacre, over 100 Palestinians villagers were “killed in the most brutal way” by Jewish paramilitaries. (14) The brutality of this event caused panic among the Arab population all over Palestine. (15)
The Arab neighborhood of Qatamon was pivotal to the Zionist plan of conquering the New City due to its strategic location. The battle, which was well prepared by Jews forces, started on April 30 and cost the lives of over 100 Palestinians. Following the occupation of the neighborhood, many Palestinian properties were looted and most of the inhabitants lost all their belongings. (16) By mid-May, Baq’a was occupied and looted by Zionist forces as well, so that only 750 Palestinians remained in their homes in the New City. (1)
On May 14, the British Mandate officially ended and a few hours before, Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel. Before their withdrawal, the British supported the Zionist conquest of Jerusalem by permitting access to some strategic locations, such as the prison complex called the Russian Compound. This cooperation facilitated the occupation of the Arab areas of the New City by Jewish forces shortly after the British withdrew. (1)
As most of the Palestinian-Arab population in the areas occupied by Israel was being displaced, so were the Palestinian in the New City. The depopulated neighborhoods were immediately resettled by Jews. (1) In September, the resettlement became a systematically structured policy. (4) With the steadily growing number of new Jewish immigrants, the housing crisis of the new state was partly solved by settling in Palestinian properties in Jerusalem. (1)
In August 1948, Israel declared West Jerusalem as “a territory of the State of Israel”. Still waiting to be confirmed as a member of the UN, the Israeli government did not take any further steps towards the annexation at that time. (1) Other steps were subsequently taken to consolidate Israel’s hold on Arab occupied lands and properties. The 1950 Absentee Property Law stipulated that anyone (meaning Palestinians) who has left Palestine before September 1, 1948, would be considered an “absentee”. All property belonging to an absentee would be appropriated by the Custodian of Absentee Property authorized to decide whether to lease, maintain or sell it. These properties were used for Israeli military bases and Jewish settlements. (17)
Moreover, the State Property Law (1950) and the “Development Authority (Transfer of Property) Law” (1950) and were enacted, which limit construction on territories that had been Arab previously but became parts of Jewish municipalities with the establishment of the new borders. Furthermore, many areas were declared as military areas so that people were prohibited from living there. (18) Following the expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinians from what became the State of Israel, these and a complex array of other laws were aimed to consolidate the gains of the Nakba and the ethnic cleansing of the country. This is in line with the basic principle of Zionism – maximum land with a minimum of Arabs. (13)
Upon the end of the British Mandate Jordan moved to take control of the designated Arab State, as well as the corpus separatum of Jerusalem. (19) By the end of the war, Jordan controlled the West Bank of the Jordan River as well as what became known as East Jerusalem, which included the Old City; both were annexed in 1950. The Jews annexed most of the New City, which came to be known as West Jerusalem. Note that before the war, a clear definition of a Palestinian part and a Jewish part of Jerusalem was impossible, as the neighborhoods developed without central planning, and Muslims, Jews and Christians had no difficulty living side by side. By 1949, the city was divided along ethnic lines and the temporary armistice line became an impassable barrier cutting it in half. The few Jews captivated by the Jordanians in the Old City found a home in Israel, while tens of thousands of Palestinians were forced into refugeehood, almost all of them never to return to their lands and homes in the city. (1)
By the end of 1948, UN Resolution 194 called for the return of the refugees and the demilitarization and internationalization of Jerusalem under UN control. (19) This resolution was rejected by the State of Israel, which continued its expansion and resettlement of former Arab neighborhoods in the city. (1)
Jerusalem after 1948
In February 1949, Israel annexed West Jerusalem, not yet officially. Both Israel and Jordan preferred a partition of Jerusalem to its internalization as this would mean loss of power for each. (11) In early 1949, Israel began transferring its government offices to Jerusalem, insisting that this move was not motivated “by a desire to create new political facts”. (20) Fearing a new step towards the internationalization due to an upcoming UN vote (on Resolution 303), Jerusalem was officially declared Israel’s capital in December 1949. (1) By that time, about 60,000 Palestinians from Jerusalem had become refugees and lost their property to Israel, without being allowed to return or given any compensation since. (21)
Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, Israel brought more than one million Palestinians, including refugees from Jerusalem and elsewhere, under its control in the West Bank and Gaza. After only two days of fighting, the Israeli military occupied the Old City. Within the holy compound, the Moroccan Quarter was demolished and its inhabitants expelled to make room for Jewish worshippers near the Western Wall (Al-Buraq Wall). (22)
Soon afterwards, East Jerusalem, as well as many nearby towns and villages, were annexed by Israel and included in the municipality what was now called the “unified Jerusalem”. The huge city was designed to maximize the land area controlled by Israel and to minimize the Palestinian population being included in the city – in accordance with the aforementioned Zionist principle. Consequently, some villages surrounding Jerusalem were excluded from its boundaries whereas their lands were included. (23, 24)
The annexation of East Jerusalem is not complete, however. Fearing that granting national voting rights to the city’s Palestinian inhabitants would affect the political power balance, they were granted permanent residency status rather than citizenship. However, residents included only those present at the time of the 1967 census, so anyone who was absent for whatever reason did not become a resident. (23)
In January 1968, the first two Jewish residential colonies – French Hill and Ramot Eshkol – were established in annexed areas of Jerusalem after the land had been confiscated from its former Palestinian owners. These confiscations mark the beginning of illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories. Land expropriation from Palestinians is an ongoing phenomenon, rationalized in Israeli law under the fit-all category of "public purposes". (23) Illegal settlement is only one of many methods used by the Israeli government to maintain a Jewish majority in Jerusalem. Others include restrictions on housing construction (in 2016, only 55% of requests for construction permits in the Palestinian neighborhoods were approved, compared to 85% in the Jewish neighborhoods (25)) and house demolitions (in 2016, 88 houses in East Jerusalem were demolished and 295 residents lost their homes (25). Moreover, the municipal budget for public services is distributed unequally between the Jewish settlements and the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. (26) Finally, in 2017, 76 percent of the Palestinians of Jerusalem live under poverty line, compared to 21.7 percent of all inhabitants of Israel. (25)
All these examples mark an ongoing process of displacement and discrimination of the Palestinian population of Jerusalem, and clearly indicate that the aim of the Israeli government is to limit the number of Palestinian inhabitants in Jerusalem while maintaining control of the holy sites.
This article was written by Zochrot Organization in August 2017. Special thanks to Charlotte Perka for the research on this paper.
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20. Hudson, M. (1990). The Transformation of Jerusalem, 1917-1987 AD. Jerusalem in History, Bethlehem: Olive Branche Press
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23. B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (2011), Background on East Jerusalem.
24. Association for Civil Rights in Israel (2017). East Jerusalem 2017: Facts and Figures.
25. B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (2011), Neglection of Infastructure and Services in Palestinian Neighborhoods
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