Barkat proposes changing Jerusalem's borders

In speech at National Defense College last week, mayor suggested a 'land swap' between Jerusalem land outside of the security barrier.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
For the first time since he took office in November 2008, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat suggested a plan to divide parts of Jerusalem and give them to the Palestinian Authority in a speech last week.
Barkat suggested that small parts of municipal Jerusalem that lie on the Palestinian Authority side of the security barrier should be under the responsibility of the PA rather than the municipality, which has trouble providing services and accessing those areas due to the security situation there.
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The comments were made during a speech at a National Defense College alumni event on Tuesday. It was the first time that Barkat has publicly proposed any kind of division of the city.
In the tumult surrounding “price-tag” attacks from the extremist Right and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech at the same event regarding the treatment of those extremists, Barkat’s speech was largely overlooked, despite its significance.
“We must relinquish areas of the municipality that are located outside of the fence,” Barkat said in his speech last week. “I recommend keeping the fence the way it is, and relinquishing parts of the municipality that are on the other side of the fence and annexing the areas confined on the Israeli side of the fence that are not under the responsibility of the municipality.”
The security barrier around Jerusalem is mostly finished, except for the area around Ma’aleh Adumim and other, smaller, areas. The path of the barrier does not follow the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem.
Approximately 60,000 Jerusalem residents live on the PA side of the barrier in municipal Jerusalem, in five major neighborhoods of Kafr Aqab, the Shuafat refugee camp, Semiramis, Zughayer and Atarot.
Additionally, around 20,000 Palestinians live in small pockets of land on the Israeli side of the barrier in land in “Area B,” under Israeli security and PA civilian control.
The idea is to annex the Area B parts, and give up the parts of Jerusalem outside the barrier. According to a municipal source familiar with the project, the exchange would result in a very small territorial gain for Jerusalem, with a loss of approximately 40,000 Arab residents.
“This is a vision for a defensible and sovereign border,” said the source, who explained that the mayor recognized the difficulty in providing services to those areas and wanted to manage the city “as efficiently as possible.”
“It is a very serious strategic challenge the mayor has been thinking about and learning about,” said the source. “It is a net gain, we are not dividing the city, we are changing parts of the border,” he added.
However, it is the first time the mayor, who has frequently vowed that Jerusalem will never be divided, has modified that position. The mayor has not formally presented the plan to the Defense Ministry or the prime minister or any other authority.
The 60,000 Arabs who live in Jerusalem neighborhoods on the eastern side of the security barrier are supposed to receive the same services – including trash, sewage, and water – as the rest of the city, though the reality is very different.
These neighborhoods are under the responsibility of the Israeli police, but the police barely enter these neighborhoods due to security concerns. PA security forces are forbidden from entering the neighborhoods under the Oslo Accords.
The PA is also forbidden from funding any projects, including schools or road paving. The resulting situation is a lawless no-man’s-land strewn with trash, and severely lacking in city services.
Municipal employees who want to enter the area, to collect trash, install sewage or water pipes, or check for illegal construction, must be accompanied by police. In most cases, the police must be accompanied by soldiers.
Consequently, municipal officials rarely step foot in these areas. Most of the services have been contracted out to private companies. But since the municipality has no oversight or way to confirm that the contracts are being fulfilled, trash often sits in overflowing dumpsters for weeks, and roads are rarely fixed or paved.
Barkat isn’t the first to put forward the idea of a Jerusalem land exchange. Former mayor Ehud Olmert had floated the idea during discussions about the barrier’s route. And in August of last year, City Councilor Yakir Segev of Barkat’s Jerusalem Will Succeed Party – who at the time held the portfolio for east Jerusalem – made a similar suggestion.
“These neighborhoods are located outside of the area of authority of the State of Israel, and obviously the municipality as well,” Segev told reporters after a conference about Jerusalem’s municipal responsibilities in east Jerusalem in August 2010. “For all intents and purposes, it’s Ramallah. Except for the crazy rightists, I don’t know anyone who is really trying to implement Israeli sovereignty in these areas.”
But the mayor’s vision doesn’t take into account the wishes of the residents. The majority of Jerusalem Arabs on the outside want to stay part of Jerusalem, and most Palestinians on the inside of the fence want to stay part of the PA.
Many Jerusalem residents on the eastern side of the fence work and send their children to school inside Jerusalem. Their doctors are in Jerusalem, and they have Israeli insurance.
The Association for Rights in Israel called on Barkat to clarify his remarks from last week, and accused him of trying to shirk his duties to residents in these neighborhoods.
City Councilor Meir Margalit (Meretz), who now holds the east Jerusalem portfolio, welcomed the mayor taking a public stance toward changing the border as a significant ideological step.
“I’m happy Barkat understands that he needs to divide the city,” Margalit told The Jerusalem Post on Friday. “I would rather it be divided in a different place, but it changes the argument [about dividing the city] from ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ to ‘how much.’
“But the moment you start dividing, you don’t know where you’ll end, and the dynamic of returning land [to the PA] is a good thing,” he said.
Margalit said that the amount of land that would change hands was “not meaningful or serious.”
“It has no demographic meaning, it’s a cosmetic issue,” he said.
However, any change in Jerusalem’s borders would produce a mass immigration of Israeli residents living east of the fence back into Jerusalem, in order to keep their residency and rights, he said.