Doha's Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies hosted a one-day academic symposium on the legal and political significance of the decision by the Trump White House to move its Embassy to Israel to Jerusalem on Saturday, 24 February. Although the workshop was motivated by the US announcement in December of last year that it would move its embassy to Israel to Jerusalem, it allowed a select group of scholars the opportunity to discuss a wider pattern of Israeli expansionism, and particularly as it affected the city of Jerusalem. The participants also chose to explore the avenues available for Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation. This was especially relevant given the recent triumph of Jerusalemites' civil disobedience in dismantling electronic checkpoints set up outside the Al-Aqsa compound, which would have prevented Muslim Palestinians from worshipping at the site.
International Law and the Occupation of Jerusalem
The first panel, chaired by Qatar University's Mohammed Al-Khulaifi, including legal experts based in Jerusalem itself, Jordan and the United Kingdom, discussed the limits of international law regarding Israeli policies in occupied Jerusalem. Anis Kassim, a Palestinian-Jordanian international law expert and former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating teams, began by arguing against the right of the United States, or any other national government, to impose its own domestic agenda onto international law. Kassim cited the example of drawing maritime boundaries. He explained how Spain, the former sovereign over Cuba, was not allowed to define for itself the maritime boundaries of Cuba, and was instead forced to resort to arbitration with the United States. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Kassim says, the mechanisms for the implementation of international law are missing. Blasting the Palestinian Authority for not doing more, and specifically for not pursuing the avenues available through the International Criminal Court, Kassim offered the example that "even traffic laws would be meaningless without an implementing police force".
Kassim was followed by British-Palestinian barrister Salma Karmi-Ayoub. Karmi-Ayoub continued in the same vein, suggesting that the Palestinian official leadership has failed to capitalize on the large body of international legal channels to take Israel to task for its policies towards the Palestinians. Specifically, Karmi-Ayoub suggested that the Palestinian leadership could make better use of the international legal concept of "crimes against humanity," first developed in the Nuremburg Trials, which she distinguished from "war crimes". Offering the examples provided by cases of communal conflicts around the globe, the speaker said that the concept of "crimes against humanity" could be applicable to the declared policy of "demographic engineering" of Jerusalem's population. The concept could also be applied to the forced displacement of the Palestinian Bedouin—nominally Israeli citizens—population of the Negev. On the same panel, Jerusalem-based lawyer Alaa Mahajna expanded on the arguments of the previous two speakers, explaining how Israeli government minister Ayelet Shaked continued to espouse a long-standing Israeli ambition for the expansion of Israeli territory. In doing so, said Mahajna, the Israeli authorities had the benefit of a 1950s-era "Absentee Property Law" which allowed the Israeli state to appropriate the property of Palestinians declared "absent" from the city. The same Israeli authorities were the sole arbiters of who was considered "absent" or "present," and have therefore easily been able to achieve their goal of "maximum territories, minimal Palestinians."
Urban Planning as a Tool of Oppression
A second panel during the meeting introduced the audience to on-the-ground concerns from a demographic and urban planning perspective. Some of the main findings of the panelists were summarized by the final speaker, Francesco Chiodelli, an urban planner based at Italy's Gran Sasso Institute, who demonstrated how the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem in 1967 allowed for the "weaponization" of town planning. One notable method of Israel's means to push out the Palestinian population of Jerusalem, the speaker explained, was the Israeli effort to protect what it called the "rural character of Palestinian neighbourhoods" in East Jerusalem. This meant that Palestinian households in Jerusalem, in contrast to Jewish households, could not build vertically, limiting Palestinian housing units to two or three storeys at the most. Given the comparatively higher rates of growth of Palestinian families, this had the effect of forcing Palestinian Jerusalemites out of their hometown.
Speaking earlier on the same panel, Palestinian Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist and cartographer Khalil Toufakji offered a detailed history of how the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem have shifted since Israel occupied the previously Jordanian-controlled districts of the city in 1967. According to Toufakji, the construction of Israel's "Separation Wall" on privately owned Palestinian land, beginning in 2004, was an unbridled attempt to push a further 150,000 Palestinians out of Jerusalem, stripping them of their legal rights to live in their homes. Palestinian households which found themselves on the wrong side of the wall could no longer enter the city without special permission. ACRPS Researcher Dana El-Kurd, the first speaker on this panel, explained that if the Israeli authorities were able to squeeze Palestinian Jerusalemites out of their own city, this was at least partly because the breakdown of Palestinian civil society and community bonds since the early 2000s. El-Kurd explained that municipal policies towards the Palestinians in Jerusalem were not always seamlessly synchronized with the policies of the Israeli government. This breakdown in Palestinian community bonds was the reason that more recent acts of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation were unorganized or sporadic incidents. The resilience of Palestinian society, however, meant that Jerusalemites were still able to spring back. She explained that they continuously defied attempts to impose what another speaker on the same panel, Rassem Khamaisi, described as the "Matrix of Domination". Khamaisi further elaborated the comprehensive system of dominance that allowed the Israeli authorities to define even the terms of how Palestinians envisioned their own reality.
Moving the US Embassy: Explaining the Domestic Motives and Palestinian Response
The third and final panel of the day, chaired by the ACRPS' Abdelfattah Mady, included four speakers who set out to explain the specificity surrounding America's decision to move the US Embassy. The first speaker on the panel was Georgetown University's Clyde Wilcox. Wilcox began by disabusing the audience of some of its preconceived notions; Trump's decision to move the US embassy was not, the US political expert said, the result of successful lobbying by AIPAC and the Christian Right, but rather an attempt by Trump to prove his worthiness to both of these constituencies pre-emptively.
Wilcox, as well as other speakers on the panel, pointed out that the decision by the Trump White House to move the US Embassy to Israel to Jerusalem was in fact the actualization of legislation first adopted by a Republican dominated Congress and intended to embarrass then-President Bill Clinton. Given that the "Jerusalem Embassy Act" allowed the president to postpone the decision to move the American Embassy by six-month windows, Wilcox raised the question of why a legislature gave the president a get-out clause. The answer, the speaker suggested, was that Trump was simply working to appease Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul and major early conservative backer of the Trump presidential bid. The move also presented an opportunity for the president to align himself with the conservative Evangelical Christian right, an important point given the president's dramatic lack of personal piety. The second speaker on the panel, ACRPS Non-Resident Scholar Osama Abu-Irshaid, offered an interpretation which differed from that of Wilcox in some details. According to Abu-Irshaid, domestic pro-Israeli lobbying is what drove Trump to act even against his own foreign policy establishment, with the embassy move outwardly opposed by the US Department of State and Department of Defense and members of the National Security Council.
Speaking on the same panel were the Doha-based scholars Adeeb Ziadeh and Ibrahim Fraihat. While the first two panelists were concerned with understanding the motives of the US Administration, Fraihat and Ziadeh instead turned their attention to the options available to the Palestinian political leadership. Fraihat began his intervention with a widely accepted statement that "since the 1990s, we have been living under the fraud of a peace process," adding that the continued withdrawal of the Arab states from the Arab-Israeli conflict meant that the Palestinians had dwindling options available to them. In contrast, said Fraihat, a threat by Guatemala to move its Israel embassy to Jerusalem was thwarted by diplomatic pressure from the Arab states who threatened "repercussions". For Ziadeh, a scholar on Hamas, the Palestinian political leadership was doing itself a disservice by relying on the United States; "we are kidding ourselves by relying on the US" as he put it.
In a special roundtable devoted to exploring the outcomes of the workshop, ACRPS Director Azmi Bishara poured cold water over the possibility of increased official involvement of the Arab states in the Palestinian struggle. Bishara pointed out that the Foreign Minister of Oman recently visited Jerusalem in conflict with a decades-old official stance against "normalization" of visits to the occupied Palestinian Territory by Arab officials. "If it had been an official of an Arab country involved in one of the ongoing intra-Arab conflicts—Qatar or Egypt for example—we wouldn't have heard the end of it; the fact that Oman is unaligned within the wider Arab alliance politics meant that nobody complained about the visit. This proves that the real question for the Arab governments is not Jerusalem or the Aqsa but of their own intra-Arab conflicts."