JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered a review of the status of certain Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, an official confirmed Monday, a decision that could potentially strip tens of thousands of Palestinians of their Israeli residency rights.
Such a move is unlikely to overcome Israeli legal hurdles, but the very prospect has unnerved Palestinians in the city. The review comes after weeks of Israeli-Palestinian violence, much of it concentrated in east Jerusalem, the section of the city claimed by the Palestinians for their future capital. Many of the Palestinian attackers involved in deadly assaults came from east Jerusalem neighborhoods. Any move to change the status of the city's Palestinians would threaten unleashing new unrest and draw international condemnations.
The current round of violence began last month with clashes at Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site, a hilltop compound in the Old City that is revered by Jews and Muslims. The clashes quickly spread to other areas of east Jerusalem, across Israel and into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In all, 10 Israelis have been killed, mostly in stabbings, while 51 Palestinians, including 30 identified by Israel as attackers, have been killed by Israeli fire. Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem have experienced frequent clashes between stone-throwing youths and Israeli security forces.
The Israeli official said that Netanyahu recently ordered a review of Palestinian neighborhoods located outside of Israel's West Bank separate barrier. Roughly-one third of the city's Palestinian population, about 100,000 people, live outside the barrier.
Israel captured east Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. It immediately annexed east Jerusalem as part of its capital in a move that has never been internationally recognized.
Few Palestinians accepted Israeli citizenship, fearing it would recognize Israeli occupation, and the vast majority now holds residency rights.
As residents, they enjoy freedom of movement, the right to work in Israel and access to Israeli social services and health care. But Palestinians claim that this status is fragile, noting that people can be stripped of residency if they leave the city for extended periods of time. Israeli rights groups, citing official Israeli statistics, say a total of about 14,000 Palestinians have lost residency rights since 1967.
Israel's West Bank separation barrier, built a decade ago, slices through Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, leaving about 100,000 city residents on the "West Bank" side of the barrier.
"The separation barrier has fully cut off eight Palestinian neighborhoods from the city. Netanyahu's statement exploits the current emergency situation to further undermine Palestinian existence in east Jerusalem by threatening to expel an estimated 100,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites from the city," said Yudith Oppenheimer, executive director of Ir Amim, an advocacy group that promotes coexistence in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has said the current wave of violence is the result of Palestinian incitement. But Palestinians say it is the result of years of Israeli occupation, failed peace efforts and dwindling hopes of ever gaining independence.
Neighborhoods in east Jerusalem suffer from poor infrastructure, and a lack of classrooms, resources and services when compared to wealthier Jewish neighborhoods. Some 75 percent of the city's Palestinians live in poverty, according to Israeli statistics.
The situation is especially dire in those areas outside the barrier, which suffer from overcrowding and lack of municipal services as Palestinians have fled a housing crunch in Arab neighborhoods inside the barrier. Israeli police often do not venture into these areas, and Israeli utilities offer only limited services.
Netanyahu's plans to review the residency of these Palestinians was first reported by Channel 2 TV.
The Israeli official said no decisions have been made. "The prime minister has asked that there be a discussion on the status" of these areas, he said. Asked whether residency rights were included, he said the matter "deserves a serious discussion."
The issue is front page news on all three major Palestinian newspapers and has sent a shockwave through the Palestinian public.
"If this desire by Netanyahu is translated into a decision, then this will be an act of ethnic cleansing because it targets one-third of the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem," said Adnan Husseini, Palestinian minister of Jerusalem affairs.
He said Israeli officials have been pressuring Palestinians in attempts to reduce their numbers in the city. "They demolish houses and don't give permits for building, they besiege the Palestinian quarters in the city. All of this will only lead to more deterioration in the city," Husseini said.
Mohannad Khaled, a resident of Kufur Aqab, a Jerusalem neighborhood located outside the barrier, said his life is tied to the city.
"I pay city taxes all the time, and also the national insurance fees. My work is in Jerusalem, my kids study in the schools of the city, my parents live in the Old City," said Khaled. "If this decision is implemented ... I will be cut off from my life."
Violence continued in the West Bank Monday. A Palestinian stabbed an Israeli soldier in the neck and severely wounded him near the West Bank city of Hebron, before being shot and killed by forces, the military said. A few hours later, a Palestinian who attempted to stab a soldier was shot near a Hebron holy site revered by Jews and Muslims, the military said.
There have been almost daily Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians and security forces. In the past five weeks, 10 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, mostly stabbings, while 51 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, including 30 said by Israel to be attackers and the rest in clashes.
The latest violence is linked to tensions over a sensitive Jerusalem holy site revered by Jews and Muslims. Palestinians have accused Israel of trying to expand the Jewish presence at the site in violation of decades-old arrangements. Israel adamantly denies such allegations, saying they amount to incitement to violence.
Also Monday, Israeli police blocked Muslim officials from installing security cameras at the city's most sensitive religious site, the officials said, despite a new agreement to place the surveillance equipment there.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced over the weekend an agreement between Israel and Jordan to install security cameras at the hilltop compound that has been at the center of weeks of unrest.
Netanyahu has welcomed the plan, saying the cameras will prove that Israel is not doing anything wrong at the site.
But Azzam Khatib, director of the Islamic authority that oversees Muslim affairs at the site, said Monday that Israeli police prevented work crews from installing cameras at the entrance to the compound.
Israeli police said they "would not permit tampering with the status quo" at the site, and that the arrangement to set up cameras at the site was still being discussed by officials. "When a decision is made it will be implemented with coordination and approval of all the relevant parties," police spokeswoman Luba Samri said.