The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Dr. David Koren, Advisor to the Mayor of Jerusalem, and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, talks about the struggle between Israelization and Islamization in eastern Jerusalem.

By Nadav Shragai

“A great drama is taking place in East Jerusalem,” says Dr. David Koren, Advisor to the Mayor of Jerusalem for Arab and East Jerusalem affairs, just before he finishes one of the less routine posts in the public service and retires. Koren says that the saga of 400,000 Arabs in East Jerusalem is reaching a peak right now. He calls it “a historic watershed. Nationalism there is in full retreat. It is giving way to two main contradictory alternative allegiances that are gaining strength in East Jerusalem and competing with each other: Israelization on the one hand and Islamization on the other. The fateful choice between these two identities is now becoming clear,” he says.

Koren, 41, a former head of the Middle East branch in the National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office, bases his assessments on thousands of hours of talks with the residents and their leadership – parents’ committees, educators, and local committees – and on the mileage he accumulated in eight years in his job at the side of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

He is the first advisor in this job to publicly recommend (in this interview) that Israel move to another stage – to grant the growing demand among the East Jerusalem public to become citizens instead of residents. “It’s more honorable,” he says, but also predicts that it will “encourage at least some of them to get off the fence and choose what he believes is the right allegiance option: Israelization.

Q: How does Israelization look in practice?

Koren: “Go to the Damascus Gate and see the ocean of signs there inviting the Arab public to learn Hebrew. These aren’t the municipality’s signs; they belong to private institutes. It’s the most Israelization I can imagine. See what’s happening in the education system: only a few years ago, only hundreds were studying for an Israeli matriculation exam, and now – 7,000. That’s only a few of the 110,000 students, but the annual growth rate is enormous – the number is tripling every year. Parents are thinking about their children’s future, and this future consists of knowing the language and education, which are the key to success in life. Besides this, we’re also seeing thousands of requests from residents who want to become Israeli citizens.”

Q: What is their motive? They certainly won’t become Zionists

“Of course not. It’s the practical dimension. The desire to integrate in Israeli society outweighs the threats of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The national narrative, which shaped the Palestinian street until early in the 21st century, is receding, and two alternatives provided by the street are being pulled into the vacuum.”

Q: Is there no longer a national factor in East Jerusalem?

“There is, but it is much weaker than in the past. For example, there are many threats and much intimidation by the PA, Hamas, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) against parents registering their children for the Israeli curriculum. There is a harsh religious ruling by the Mufti on the matter, but in general, the discourse in the villages is, ‘I am willing to contain these threats, provided that my son is better educated and more successful and gets ahead in life.'”

Q: What does the Israeli curriculum have that the Palestinian curriculum lacks?

“Everything. It tells about the Zionist movement, it strengthens the study of Hebrew, and it teaches civics according to the Israeli model and the history of Israel, which is completely absent from the PA curriculum: both the country and its history. The PA doesn’t recognize us. For a Palestinian boy from East Jerusalem who grew up with this Palestinian national narrative, this is a fundamental change, which is why the PA’s struggle on this point is so desperate and belligerent. Parents who choose an Israeli education are denounced, threated, and persecuted.”

Q: Do you have a dialogue with Islamists competing with Israelization?

Yes. It is easier to talk to them. They think in the long term and are not constantly bothered like Fatah and those like it by the fact that they are conducting a dialogue with the Jerusalem Municipality. The nationalistic groups, which have never conducted a dialogue with us, have also never brought anything positive to the neighborhoods and the villages. The Islamist groups, on the other hand, even if they don’t say it explicitly, are telling themselves, and also us, unofficially, that there is an Israeli government here at the moment. ‘As we perceive it, it will end one day. Until that happens, we will engage in dialogue with it about realizing our rights.'”

Q: Doesn’t this dialogue empower the Islamists?

“Strategically, strengthening the Islamic movements is not good for Israel, because at the end of their circle is a connection to terrorism, but in practice, I have to talk with everyone; they are present there. I won’t ignore them. I always make sure to conduct our formal communications as the Municipality with the pro-Israel groups working with us.

“The achievements that we as the Municipality are bringing to the neighborhoods – another kindergarten, another mother and child clinic, a school building, a paved road, I will always make sure to attribute and give credit for to the pro-Israeli groups, whether it is a community manager or a committee. In the end, however, inside the village they know that the Islamists are also involved.”

Q: Do Israeli governability and sovereignty exist in East Jerusalem?

“There is a substantial narrowing of the enormous gaps in infrastructure and services that have been created over the year. The government recently decided to allocate a budget of NIS 2.1 billion for East Jerusalem Arabs. There has never been anything like this. It’s not all simple. For example, take the story of the community administration in Sur Baher headed by Ramadan Dabash, who also ran in the elections. We constructed a building for the administration and the people there at a cost of NIS 11 million, and a moment after we inaugurated it, it was set on fire by nationalistic and Islamic groups. We had to rebuild it.

“I’m obsessive about paving another road and building another school. In the end, those are people living there, and we have to be as fair and professional as possible with them. Beyond that, on the tactical level also, the struggle for sovereignty in Jerusalem has passed from the heavenly Jerusalem, from the diplomatic summits in the days of Oslo and Annapolis, to the earthly Jerusalem, to the day-to-day life in the city. The border of control and sovereignty is not determined in secret talks; it is set by delineating the area of activity for the municipal cleaning worker, the youth counselor in a community center, the building inspector, the road paver, the policeman, and the social worker giving service to the resident.

“When the welfare budget for East Jerusalem grew from NIS 46 million in 2008 to NIS 125 million in 2016; when we give names for the first time to 2,000 streets and over 160,000 residents receive a precise address – this is part of the new governability. It is being both sovereign and a human being.”

Loyalty versus Identity

Asked whether the Arabs of East Jerusalem are closer today to the Arabs of the West Bank or to Israeli Arabs, Koren answers, “They’re on the borderline. They’re still more similar to the Palestinian Arab from Judea and Samaria, but movement is in the direction of a model that is much closer to that of the Arabs in the north. 15,000 Arabs from the north have moved to East Jerusalem. In effect, they are agents of change. On the one hand, there is intense competition between them and the residents of East Jerusalem. On the other hand, they constitute an object of jealousy and imitation. The northerners’ success is pushing the East Jerusalemites in the direction of education and matriculation and studying Hebrew.”

Q: Now that you have said all of that, we are still freezing them in a resident status after 51 years, which is inferior to the status of citizenship. We annexed them, but we didn’t annex them. Not only do they face us in a state of one foot in each camp, we’re facing them in the same situation.

“That’s true, and so there is movement aimed at changing this; see the recent budgets we allocated to them.”

Q: You’re talking about money, but a minute ago you mentioned “allegiance options.” Many of them want to become citizens and we have been wearying them with years of bureaucracy.

“It all comes from the macro question – where do you want to see the East Jerusalem Arabs? If we adopt the view of Nir Barkat that Jerusalem is united and indivisible, and this is definitely also my view, we have to make things substantially easier for those who want to become citizens; it has to be allowed for many more people than it is now. If the State of Israel wants to go all the way with unification, it has to make it much easier for those who want citizenship. On the one hand, bureaucratic solutions must be found for this terrible foot-dragging, while on the other hand making no compromises on security classification and loyalty to the state.”

Koren makes it clear that “The security problem is important, because in the end, residence can be taken away, but citizenship can’t be taken away. It requires an element of loyalty. Loyalty is also intertwined with identity. In practice, I see people like Daoud Siam from Silwan, who voices the attitude of many people in East Jerusalem who say, ‘Listen – the PA isn’t here. I’m part of the Israeli society. Let me be part of your fair play.’ In practice, I also see a considerable number of Arab girls doing civilian service, even in a village classified as hostile, such as Isawiya. In the end, these things also involve matter of identity.”

An Access Road and a Therapeutic Pool

Koren is sitting on same chair occupied in the past by people like Meron Benvinisti, Morris Zilka, Amir Cheshin, and Shalom Goldstein. His interaction with the Arab residents is high: during days and nights of security tension and stabbings, he spent many hours with the local leadership, both formal and informal, in an attempt to calm people down.

He recalls one candid, trenchant, and sorrowful conversation with the Abu Khdeir family whose son, Mohammed, was murdered by Jews following the kidnapping and murder of the three teenagers from Gush Etzion. He also remembers how he was affected by the suffering of the wards of Bacrieh Elwyn, an institute for special needs children in Wadi Al-Joz, whose managers begged him for an access road and a therapeutic pool. “They threatened to being these unfortunate children, some of whom were severely disabled, to Safra Square. As the father of five children, I told them, ‘Don’t do this.’ With no authority, I signed a letter of commitment that I would fulfill all of their requests. Then we brought the mayor and officials there, and today they have an access road and a therapeutic pool.

“In the end,” Koren says, “East Jerusalem is also a story of people, and you know many who live there a few inches away from you about whom you knew nothing before as human beings, rather than as a political headline.”

In the upcoming municipal elections in late October, the question of participation by the East Jerusalem Arabs will be more relevant than ever. Koren believes that “More Arabs from East Jerusalem will vote than in the past, but not many. He says that there will be islands of voting in places like Wadi Al-Joz, Beit Safafa, and Sur Baher. “I don’t think it will be enough to put someone on the city council.”

Q: What is deterring them?

“They are still threatened and intimidated by terrorism and ultra-nationalism. The PA’s ability to label them as agents and Zionist collaborators still exists. That’s a deterrent. There are also traces of the idea that our office, which works with the mayor, can arrange everything, which is obviously not the case.”

Koren declares, “The number of brave people getting free of the threat is increasing. You also hear the private person in a conversation in a closed room say that he prefers to continue living in one city under Israeli sovereignty, but with equality, which he will never say outside. Voting, however, is a step forward, and I don’t know if there is enough readiness for this on the part of the general public. What’s clear to me is that from a security standpoint – the police and the security forces have to given them a feeling of security to get out and vote, and I think, in view of the conversations I had with the police, that they are completely aware of this.”

Q: Does the Jewish public have any reason to fear Arab representation in the City Council?

“Anyone who wants to see Jerusalem divided with two separate municipalities has no reason to support it. Anyone who really understands in depth what a united city means should know that as part of the citizenship processes that the East Jerusalem Arabs are undergoing, they will become part of the municipal political game in the future.”

“They regard the PA as an unsuccessful entity”

Koren wears a knitted skullcap. He is a graduate of Birkat Moshe religious Zionist yeshiva, holds a PhD in Middle Eastern history from Bar-Ilan University, and recently joined the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS). The institute was founded in order to advance a conservative defense and diplomatic discourse and reflect a realistic strategic outlook. A position paper entitled “East Jerusalem: End of an Intermediate Era,” which Koren is now publishing under the auspices of JISS (headed by President Prof. Efraim Inbar and Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror), also dwells on the temporary element in the world of East Jerusalem Arabs “stemming from the ever-looming possibility of the city’s division as an outcome of political negotiations.”

In an interview with him, Koren assesses the diplomatic feasibility of negotiations leading to a division of the city as low. Furthermore, he reveals for the first time, based on conversations he held with the Palestinian side in the context of his job, that “In contrast to the past, the PA also realizes today that Jerusalem is indivisible, that there is no reasonable scenario for physically dividing the city in which roadblocks and boundaries will again appear in this place.” He discloses, “They are considering a different option there: two separate municipalities, Jewish and Arab, with a roof council coordinating between them, two sovereignties, but no division.

“This is a new discourse,” he says, “that one the one hand indicates that even there they are able to recognize reality. Incidentally, this is also the reason that the Ramon plan, which was a dividing plan for all intents and purposes, was abandoned. Anyone who knows the situation in Jerusalem realizes that it cannot be divided. After 51 years here, everything is intertwined and interwoven. On the other hand, this plan is liable to create severe security risks, and especially to cause mass migration from East Jerusalem to the Jewish neighborhoods. This happened in 2004 when the separation fence was built leaving tens of thousands of Jerusalem residents outside. They swarmed into the Arab neighborhoods on the Israeli side of the fence. This is liable to happen again, but this time into the Jewish neighborhoods.

“The opposition to this plan,” Koren believes, “will arise first and foremost from the residents of East Jerusalem themselves. They regard the PA as an unsuccessful and corrupt entity with no commitment whatsoever to providing residents with respectable service. A mass movement of Arabs into the Jewish neighborhoods will therefore definitely be a reasonable scenario.”

Q: There are already Arabs living in Jewish neighborhoods and Jews in Arab neighborhoods now. Do we have information about the extent of this phenomenon?

“About 3,000 Jews are living in Arab neighborhoods, mainly for ideological reasons. This happens in neighborhoods such as Hagai in the Muslim quarter of the Old City and Silwan-City of David. Over 10,000 Arabs are living in Jewish neighborhoods, such as French Hill and Pisgat Zeev, mainly for economic reasons. Incidentally, most of them are Arabs from northern Israel, not East Jerusalemites.”

Q: Is this taking place peacefully?

“Not always. It usually does. Sometimes, even in Silwan, together with conflict, there is cooperation between the residents.”

Q: How many non-Jerusalemites from the West Bank are living in the Jerusalem neighborhoods behind the security fence?

“40,000-45,000 of the 120,000-140,000 residents there.”

Q: There is a problem of illegal weapons in Shuafat beyond the security fence.

“Correct. There are large quantities. We are taking action with the police. I believe that they are addressing the problem. Residents from the camp called us and complained. It disturbs them and threatens them no less than it does us.”

Q: Israel is the sovereign in East Jerusalem, but other parties are active there. Can you sketch for us the map of influence of organizations and countries in East Jerusalem?

“Beyond the fence, there is involvement by Tanzim and Hamas, as well as many gangs. In the north of the city, in Beit Hanina-Shuafat, there is a presence of the DFLP. People from the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, Raed Salah and his men, who were declared illegal, but remained in the hearts of many, are stronger in the Silwan and Wadi Al-Joz. The southern part has a more Islamic orientations, and the ideological core of East Jerusalem consists of areas like Isawiya, Ras al-Amud, and Abu Tor, where there is a presence of Fatah, DFLP, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Q: There are also countries involved.

“Right, Turkey. You in ‘Israel Hayom’ have reported quite a bit about that. There is Turkish influence and visibility through Islamic tourism to the Temple Mount and flags, and activity of purchasing and renovating buildings in the Old City, with budgets and scholarships for students from East Jerusalem, plus meals on Ramadan. All of this is part of Erdogan’s broad sultanate concept; he is trying to deepen his grip on the Temple Mount and in East Jerusalem.”

Q: What is the secret of the admiration for him on the East Jerusalem street?

“The feeling that all of the other Arab leaders have neglected them. Erdogan is being portrayed as the last male, a little like Saddam Hussein, to whom the attitude was far more ambivalent. Sympathy for Erdogan is far broader and deeper. He correctly spotted the vacuum and entered it. He is creating connections that are not good for us with inciting and negative groups like the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement and its leader Raed Salah and with former Mufti Sheikh Ekrima Sabri. The assortment of Turkish activities in Jerusalem is now being assessed. It is by no means sure that it is illegal. Advice is being sought. It would be extremely good for us to invest there instead of Turkish organizations.

“Another country present in East Jerusalem is Jordan, a strategic partner of Israel from any standpoint you can think of, including security. The Jordanian king is also an esteemed figure in East Jerusalem, and there is coordination with the Jordanians with respect to both the Temple Mount and the Old City around the Temple Mount. Jordan and Turkey are now competing with each other for the East Jerusalem street and influence on the Temple Mount.”

Published in Yisrael Hayom, 26.07.2018