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Pollster: East Jerusalem Palestinians feel increasingly alienated from Israel

After steady rise in residents who said they’d prefer Israeli to Palestinian citizenship, last 5 years see that figure plummet as attitudes toward Jewish state sour

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Palestinian children pose for a photo on top of cement blocks placed by the Israeli army in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al Amud, on October 21, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Palestinian children pose for a photo on top of cement blocks placed by the Israeli army in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al Amud, on October 21, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents are feeling increasingly alienated from the State of Israel, with recent years showing plummeting interest in obtaining Israeli citizenship in the context of a two-state solution, a researcher has said.

In 2010, the percentage of East Jerusalem Palestinians who said they would prefer to become citizens of Israel, even after a Palestinian state was established alongside a Jewish state, was at 35 percent. In 2011 it rose to 42% and then to 52% in the beginning of 2015, according to polls conducted by David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But by late 2015, Pollock’s polling showed that a dramatic shift had taken place among East Jerusalem Palestinians, with just 15% saying they’d prefer Israeli citizenship — a 37 point drop from earlier that year. That figure has largely held for the past five years with his latest survey of 650 residents (with a 4% margin of error) this past February producing an identical number. Over two-thirds of respondents said they’d prefer Palestinian citizenship if there were a two-state agreement with Israel.

For the past decade, Pollock has been surveying public opinion among what he described as the capital’s oft-overlooked Arab residents, who number at roughly 350,000. The former senior US State Department official reflected on the polling results and speculated on what they could mean for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during a virtual event last month organized by the Jerusalem Institute For Policy Research.

The security barrier that has cut Kafr Aqab off from the rest of Jerusalem on February 20, 2019. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

Since Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967, it has formally offered Palestinian residents living in that area the option to apply for Israeli citizenship. However, the vast majority have not applied and most who have done so have been denied, with Israel almost entirely halting the process for years. In 2019 though, an unprecedented 1,200 residents were granted citizenship — three times as many as the 2018 figure (though still a minuscule percentage of the total number of residents).

Just some 20,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem have successfully acquired citizenship in total, with the vast majority holding permanent residency status instead, according to the Ir Amim rights group that focuses on the capital.

Speculating as to why so few East Jerusalem Palestinians had applied for citizenship despite warming to the idea in the context of a peace deal in his 2010-2015 polling, Pollock suggested that as permanent residents, they are still able to receive many benefits from the state without having to “endure the social taboos” that would come with applying for citizenship.

As for why a third of East Jerusalem Palestinians would not prefer to be citizens of a Palestinian state if a two-state agreement were to be reached, Pollock said that while a majority of those he polled held strong Palestinian nationalist views as well as negative views on Israel, “when it comes to practical issues, such as access to jobs, social welfare benefits, even access to the beach which they could well lose by becoming citizens of Palestine, they prefer not to lose those practical benefits.”

David Pollock (Washington Institute for Near East Policy )

Pollock went on to give four reasons for the rather stark and rapid alienation to the state that East Jerusalem Palestinians expressed in his polling.

The first was the so-called knife intifada that began in late 2015 and lasted intermittently for roughly a year and a half. ” It inspired nationalist sentiments in the city, but more crucially, it provoked a very harsh Israeli reaction against East Jerusalem Palestinians that saw their freedom of movement limited, in addition to a strong sense of alienation from their Jewish neighbors,” Pollock said.

The second contributing factor has been long-lingering tensions at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound, that climaxed in the summer of 2017 after Israel installed metal detectors at the holy site in response to a deadly attack. Pollock cited the commonly-held Palestinian belief in Israeli encroachment on the Temple Mount, which Jerusalem has repeatedly denied. Regardless of whether or not this is true, a growing number of Palestinians deeply believe that Israel “is a threat to their holy sites,” he said.

Pollock said the third reason for the alienation has been an increase in negative rhetoric against Israel by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, “which has made the Jewish state even more polarizing among Palestinians.”

The fourth factor, according to Pollock, has been the rapid and disproportionate growth of Palestinian Jerusalemites living outside of the security fence in towns such as Kafr Aqab and Shuafat, which are largely robbed of the municipal services that citizens on the other side of the wall receive. Some 150,000 Palestinians currently live beyond the security barrier — roughly double the amount from a decade ago, Pollack said.

“If the Israeli government sees that Palestinians are more alienated from it, it may consider trying to take certain steps to improve the relationship.”

But he added that Israel would likely need to do more than improve infrastructure in order to better its relations with local residents.

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