Amid International Inaction, Israel’s Systematic ‘Demographic Engineering’ Thwarting Palestinians’ Ability to Pursue Justice, Speakers Tell International Conference
East Jerusalem Crisis ‘Far from Over’, Under-Secretary-General Says, Warning Threats to Status Quo in Holy City Can Have Severe Global Repercussions
Home demolitions, evictions and the denial of citizenship are just some of the ways Israel has pursued its systematic policy of “demographic engineering” over 54 years, participants in the International Conference on the Question of Jerusalem said today, raising questions about how Palestinians can pursue justice — let alone live secure lives — in the face of international inaction.
The International Conference — held in virtual format under the theme “Forced demographic change in Jerusalem: Grave breaches and a threat to peace” — was organized by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, with support from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It featured a panel discussion with community representatives and leading experts who provided an account of the situation on the ground and spoke to the legal, administrative and political arguments used to justify decades of Palestinian marginalization.
The panellists included: Lara Friedman, Foundation for Middle East Peace; Michael Lynk, United Nations Special Rapporteur; Suma Qawasmi, Sheikh Jarrah community leader; Nivine Sandouka, Hoqoqna — Our Rights East Jerusalem; and Emily Schaeffer Omer-Man, Human Rights Attorney.
In opening remarks, Rosemary DiCarlo, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, speaking on behalf of Secretary-General António Guterres, said the theme is particularly relevant, as the forced displacement of Palestine refugee families in occupied East Jerusalem catalysed events that culminated in 11 days of deadly armed conflict in May. The Gaza war, the third since 2008, claimed many lives, predominantly Palestinians, she said, noting that Palestinian protests, Israel’s heavy-handed response and clashes around the Aqsa Mosque compound brought tensions to a “whole new level”.
The crisis is far from over, she said, describing Jerusalem as “a powder keg”, with those who are willing to play with fire. She pointed to the provocative “flag march” by extremist Israelis chanting racist slogans through East Jerusalem, which brought about new clashes. She called on all sides to respect the status quo of Jerusalem holy sites venerated by billions of believers worldwide.
“Any threat or perceived threat to the physical integrity of the holy sites can have severe global repercussions,” she said, expressing hope that Israel’s incoming Government will act responsibly. She urged Israel to cease demolitions, evictions and illegal settlement activities, stressing that measures to change Jerusalem’s status and demographic composition are without legal validity and should be firmly rejected by the international community.
“Ceasefires and a patchwork of interim agreements are no substitute for a permanent status agreement, which will end the conflict,” she stressed.
Palestinians are not resigned to their fate of perpetual occupation. She urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders, supported by a revitalized Quartet on the Middle East, to recommit to credible negotiations that address all outstanding permanent‑status issues, ushering in the vision of two States, based on 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as a shared capital and Gaza fully integrated into the future Palestinian State through a credible, time-bound national reconciliation process.
Riyad H. Mansour, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine, similarly pointed out that Palestinians — both in occupied East Jerusalem and throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory — are facing massive aggression at the hands of Israel’s occupying authorities. This antagonism has extended to the neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan and is indicative of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians within both the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel itself.
If the international community is serious about adhering to international law and Security Council resolution 2334 (2016), it cannot merely reiterate these principles while the occupying Power commits crimes with impunity, he asserted. Questioning what is being done — after 54 years of occupation — to defend international law and implement relevant Council resolutions, he called on the international community to act, rather than advocate for restraint as Israel kills civilians.
Otherwise, he said, it is unfair to continue asking Palestinians to do certain things, as they are frustrated and resentful under the current abhorrent system of occupation. “Enough is enough,” he insisted. It is time for the International Criminal Court to expedite its investigation into war crimes committed against the Palestinian people.
Cheikh Niang (Senegal), Chair of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, said Israel’s settlement activities throughout the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem — including the neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan — present a major obstacle to peace, threatening in particular Palestinians’ rights to self-determination and return.
He said Jewish settlers have been evicting Palestinian residents from their homes under the protection of Israel’s security forces as thousands marched, yelling hate speech, to the gate of the Muslim quarter in the Old City. He stressed that a two-State solution, leading to a long‑overdue Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital, is the only viable way to achieve peace.
Samir Bakr, Assistant Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation for Palestine and Al-Quds Affairs, likewise affirmed that the absence of dissuasive international measures has emboldened Israel to carry on with its violations. He called on the international community to activate legal mechanisms to guarantee Israel’s accountability and take all measures necessary to pressure Israel into honouring its obligations under international law.
Emphasizing that Jerusalem has been an integral part of the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967 — and that its annexation is illegal, null and void — he cautioned against taking actions that legitimize Israel’s pernicious moves to change the demographic, political, legal and historical status of the holy city. The Security Council must ensure compliance with its resolutions, halt Israel's settlement and ethnic cleansing policies, and thereby avert dire repercussions that could plunge the already volatile region into a cycle of violence.
Ms. FRIEDMAN emphasized that the events unfolding in Jerusalem are not new, adding that “people tend to start paying attention to Jerusalem when things blow up”. What is happening today has occurred daily, in various forms, since 1967, when Israel took control of East Jerusalem and began its policy of demographic engineering after the 1967 war. These policies have ebbed and flowed over 54 years, and along with them, international engagement. The current reality is the logical and inevitable result of Israel working with ideologically motivated actors both inside and outside the country to implement a systematic policy of demographic engineering with total impunity.
She said events in Sheik Jarrah and Silwan speak directly to the question of who has the right to return, noting that Israel’s assessment is that Israelis can return to properties lost pre-1948, but Palestinians cannot. The national narrative that “God is on Israel’s side” feeds into the irreversibility of its control over the city. In 1948, Israel took possession of the western part of Jerusalem, whose Palestinian residents had fled or been expelled. In 1967, when Israel took over East Jerusalem, its Palestinian inhabitants could not be removed en masse. “If you say you have sole sovereignty in Jerusalem,” she explained, it matters to be able to say that the population is Jewish majority. Palestinians inside Israel after 1948 were given Israeli citizenship, but Palestinians in East Jerusalem were not, leaving them in the legal limbo of permanent resident status. Palestinians born in East Jerusalem, whose families have been there for decades, today have the status of foreigners holding the “privilege” of living there, which can be rescinded at any time.
After 1967, she said various means were used to take land in East Jerusalem, grounds that were then used for building Government-backed settlements. “There is nothing accidental about settlements in East Jerusalem,” she said. They were built to anchor the entire area to Israel through a “DNA strand that can never be pulled apart”. Later, the idea of “greater Jerusalem” was pursued, leaving a huge part of the West Bank to be treated as such through policies that targeted Palestinian homes inside and around the Old City, with the Government working both legally and illegally with private actors to that end. Today, the absentee property law is being weaponized to take land, along with the Jewish right of return, which is being pursued in Hebron and East Jerusalem alike. Identification cards are being taken from Palestinians and housing limitations now prevent them from building homes. While these and other acts over 54 years have sowed enormous anger, resentment and hopelessness, they have not succeeded in pushing Palestinians out of Jerusalem.
She described events unfolding today as a clashing of Israeli policies that are reaching their logical conclusion after 54 years of impunity. Because the international community only offers empty rhetoric, it would be irrational to expect Israel to behave differently. “What is left?”, she asked. “Where do Palestinians go for justice?” To expect them to pursue their claims in Israel’s High Court of Justice is “delusional”, as the judicial body has proven over decades that it is unwilling to rule on the principles underlying Israel’s policies. Any small gains made have been achieved on technicalities, rather than because collective punishment is illegal and immoral, she said, underscoring a fundamental conflict between the rights of Palestinians, the obligations of international law and what is happening on the ground.
MS. QAWASMI described events unfolding in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood where she lives as ethnic cleansing — and simply another chapter of Israel’s modern military occupation. The neighbourhood is home to 28 Palestinian families who have lived there since 1956, following an agreement with Jordan, which provided the land. These families had been forcibly uprooted from their homes in historical Palestine in 1948. Following Israel’s illegal annexation in 1967, the neighbourhood has faced illegal claims of ownership and forced displacement, backed by Israel’s discriminatory policies. “We are trying to prevent settlers from taking over Palestinian homes,” she said, objecting to the unjustified use of force by Israel’s Defense Forces to stop people from speaking up. “We decided we are going to help our parents and grandparents keep their houses,” she said, stressing that the world cannot continue to turn a blind eye to Palestinians’ basic human rights. “We don’t want to experience the Nakba again,” she stressed.
Ms. SCHAEFFER OMER-MAN said the 100-plus legal proceedings over the years concerning Sheikh Jarrah can be roughly divided between the plight of those living in the eastern and western parts of the neighborhood. In eastern Sheikh Jarrah, an agreement in place since the 1980s created a protected tenancy for the Palestinians living there — not ownership rights — and while this may have kept many in their homes, it allowed their residency to be subject to the will of settler committees that have evicted many on procedural grounds ever since. The western part, on the other hand, has been subject to a years-long battle to prove the status of the land, centered on competing claims of public ownership versus title granted to Jewish tenants by Jordanian authorities. She said that the problem inherent in discussing these details is that it requires stepping into the Israeli legal framework, which treats the subject of Palestinian evictions as a real-estate issue. This situation — rampant across the Occupied Palestinian Territory — is representative of a larger trend to rewrite international law out of the Israeli legal framework as that country fulfils a clear demographic policy through “creeping legal annexation” that departs starkly from international law. She called on the international community to support the International Criminal Court in its investigations into this issue and on States to ensure that private actors are not complicit in these practices.
Ms. SANDOUKA, noting that the new Israeli Government’s intentions towards East Jerusalem are still unknown, pointed out that the previous Government emphasized the Jewish element of Israel’s identity and worked to eliminate any mention of Palestinian identity or narrative in school curricula. Further, even though Palestinians comprise 60 per cent of the population in East Jerusalem, they have only received 30 per cent of building permits issued, and Palestinian neighborhoods have not naturally expanded since 1967. Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are considered residents — not citizens — so if they live or travel outside of the city for a period of time, or marry a person with Palestinian citizenship, they have their residency revoked despite paying taxes. She also detailed the shrinking space for civil society actors in Jerusalem, pointing out that, since 2016, Palestinian civil society organizations must report their sources of funding, and are subject to closure or prosecution if such funding comes from places deemed unfriendly to Israel or if they express a viewpoint critical of Israeli policies. Underscoring that the United Nations has not assumed its responsibility to protect civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory — the “cornerstone of any peace process” — she called on the international community to provide funding and the opportunity for advocacy, to hold Israel accountable for the poor living conditions in East Jerusalem and to support peace activists on the ground.
Mr. LYNK said that, by looking at a map, one can see that Jewish Israeli settlements encircle Palestinian East Jerusalem, blocking off the Palestinian West Bank like a fortress, while a separation wall weaves in such a way as to maximize Israeli settlements and minimize the number of Palestinians living within it. The Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhoods are adjacent to the Old City. However, Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem are citizens of Israel, while Palestinians hold permanent resident status — meaning they cannot vote and have no voice in what is happening around them. Because it is so difficult for them to receive housing permits, their neighbourhoods are twice as dense. Stressing that the goal is to make it demographically and politically impossible for Palestinians to return East Jerusalem as the capital of their own State, he said the Security Council and the General Assembly both have stated that East Jerusalem is occupied, that annexation is null and void, and that Israel’s attempts to demographically change that area violate the fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids such confiscation of property except when rendered “absolutely necessary”.
Offering a legislative account, he said that, in 1950, Israel’s Knesset passed the Absentee Property Law, stating that Palestinians who fled during the 1948 war cannot recover their property. It then passed the Legal and Administrative Matters Law in 1970, stating that Jews who lost their property in the 1948 war can reclaim their property. He pointed out that the tensions that led to violence in Gaza in May arise, in part, from these incessant claims by Israeli settlers in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, which have left hundreds of Palestinians facing the loss of homes they have had since the 1950s, and thus, an insecure status. Israel’s courts do not recognize or apply international law, seldom protecting those who deserve protection under the fourth Geneva Convention and applying the 1970 law in ways that validate their rulings. He drew attention to Security Council resolution 476 (1980), stating that Israel’s occupation — then only 13 years old — is already prolonged and that there is an “overwhelming necessity” to end it. The Council had condemned Israel’s defiance of its own resolutions; stated that any proposed annexation of East Jerusalem is illegal, null and void; and threatened accountability. If that was the case in 1980, “what are we to say now?”, he wondered, stressing that the occupation is now indistinguishable from annexation and has acquired apartheid features.
In the ensuing dialogue, the Committee Chair relayed questions from the wider virtual audience about why the term “forced demographic change” is used more so than “illegal occupation”, and how to incorporate international law principles — and their violation of them — into the framework of the solution. The session also heard commentary by several delegates, with Indonesia’s representative underscoring the priority need to address Israel’s occupation. A solution can only be reached through multilateral dialogue and the revival of peace talks, he said, stressing that there should be no impunity for human rights violations.
The representative of Egypt said Israel’s continued unilateral measures — including settlement activities in East Jerusalem — jeopardize the two-State solution. He called on Israel to uphold its obligations under international law and to offer protection to Palestinians from extremist Jewish groups. Escalation of violence presents the need for a reinvigorated peace process and settlement of the Palestinian question, in line with resolution 2334 (2016), the Arab Peace Initiative and a two-State solution. He also underscored the importance of the United Nations in helping the International Quartet on Peace in the Middle East to advance negotiations.
The representative of Turkey warned that, unless the causes of violence are addressed, fighting will reoccur. She expressed concern over demolitions in Silwan and stressed that families in Sheikh Jarrah now face eviction. She pointed to a Human Rights Council resolution adopted in May which established a commission of inquiry to investigate instances of repression based on national, racial and religious identity, underscoring the need to pursue all possible avenues for accountability.
The representative of Tunisia recalled that administrative measures taken by the occupying Power to alter Jerusalem have no legal validity, expressing concern that looming evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan only are exacerbating the situation. He called for an end to impunity.