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Behind the Headlines: Palestinian Security Allowed to Operate in Eastern Jerusalem

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As Israel once again goes through the process of closing Palestinian offices operating in eastern Jerusalem, Palestinian security officers continue to operate there.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in issuing the closure order last week — it has yet to be implemented — echoed previous Israeli leaders by maintaining that the Palestinian Authority has no right to operate in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu also said Palestinian security forces should stop operating in the eastern half of the city.

Israeli officials would not admit it, but the activities of the Palestinian security officials are welcome to some extent.

Palestinian security operatives are able to achieve order among Jerusalem’s Arab population with far fewer difficulties than the Israelis.

As a case in point, Palestinian demonstrations were held the last two weekends at Har Homa, site of a controversial new Jewish neighborhood planned for southeastern Jerusalem. And contrary to initial Israeli concerns, the protests were not violent.

On Saturday, when the second demonstration was held, some 2,000 protesters marched from the neighboring West Bank town of Beit Sahur to Har Homa.

Several hundred Israeli police and soldiers were waiting for them at the proposed construction site.

The situation was tense — but a small force of several dozen plainclothes Palestinian security officers made sure that the demonstrators did not become violent.

Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani recently said that “he had no idea” that Palestinian security officers were operating in eastern Jerusalem.

Just the same, according to several observers, the Palestinians are operating a tourist police force in the Old City with the tacit approval of the Israeli authorities. The move came after tourists complained of pickpockets and other trouble in that part of Jerusalem.

The tourist police receive their salaries — some $700 a month — from the local churches, which allows them to claim that they are not in the service of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

Still, they receive their marching orders from Palestinian Authority officials in the Abu Dis neighborhood, just outside Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries.

Professor Yehoshua Porat of the Hebrew University, one of Israel’s top experts on the Palestinians, claims that the involvement of the Palestinian Authority in eastern Jerusalem goes far beyond the tourist police.

According to Porat, who is a harsh critic of the Israeli-Palestinian accords, the Palestinian Authority has introduced its own set of guidelines for daily matters in eastern Jerusalem.

These guidelines include setting rental rates, controlling educational and medical institutions, and establishing traffic “organizers” who sometimes direct the area’s congested traffic — often ignoring the traffic lights and signs posted by the Israeli authorities.

This, said Porat, was the background for the Israeli determination to build at Har Homa, despite the worldwide criticism the decision engendered.

“Had the government refrained from building in the eastern part of the city,” Porat wrote last week in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, “it would have been perceived by the Palestinians as if they have already gotten what they wanted. The eastern city is already theirs.”

Aryeh Amit, Jerusalem’s outgoing police commander, maintains that Israeli authorities are on the lookout to prevent growing involvement by the Palestinian Authority in the capital.

In interviews he gave prior to his departure from what some say is the most difficult position held by an Israeli police officer, Amit said the Jerusalem police were holding in custody a senior Palestinian police officer who was suspected of kidnapping an Arab resident of eastern Jerusalem.

According to numerous reports, such kidnappings have become a routine part of the way in which Col. Jibril Rajoub, who is in charge of all Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, exercises control over the Arab population in Jerusalem — despite repeated Israeli protests.

Rajoub authorizes his security forces’ activities in Jerusalem not only because they are part of the ongoing struggle over Jerusalem, but because the local population wants him to, said Nadera Shalhoub Kevorkian, a law professor at the Hebrew University.

“For better or worse,” said Kevorkian, “Israel’s police are perceived by the Arab population as the enemy.”

Following this logic, a Palestinian whose car is stolen does not go to the “enemy” for help. Instead, Rajoub’s forces — or local hooligans — are called in.

According to excerpts of a secret police report that was published recently in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, the activities of Rajoub’s forces also include taking protection money from local Arabs, pursuing suspected collaborators with Israel and recruiting operatives to act against Israel if and when the need arises.

Israeli police officials believe that the Palestinian security forces should be removed from Jerusalem before they can be used against Israel in a major clash, the report said.

It also noted that the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, disagrees with the police, seeking to maintain cooperative ties with the Palestinians.

In the meantime, the Israeli government has kept the focus on four Palestinian offices in eastern Jerusalem.

Last week, Israeli officials issued a warning that they would shut the offices in the coming days if the Palestinians did not do so themselves.

Israel has issued closure orders in the past, charging that the Palestinian Authority is specifically prevented from operating in eastern Jerusalem under the terms of the 1995 Interim Agreement.

The latest closure order was issued against the Bureau of National Institutions, the Islamic National Committee for Struggle Against the Settlements, the Palestinian Institute for the Wounded and the Jerusalem Association for Welfare and Development.

Members of the Knesset Interior Committee met Monday with the top Palestinian official in Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini.

The parliamentarians emerged from the meeting with sharp criticism of the closure order.

“They are cheating us all,” said committee Chairman Saleh Tareef, an Israeli Arab member of the Labor Party, referring to the government’s efforts to depict the four offices as a hotbed of Palestinian political activity in eastern Jerusalem.

“Netanyahu is trying to deflect public attention from his troubles at home,” said Labor Knesset Member Ophir Pines.

Whether Israel will proceed with the closure order remains unclear.

Jawad Boulous, a lawyer representing the four Palestinian offices, met Monday with senior Israeli police officials who assured him that they would review the matter before closing the offices.

Kahalani was expected to submit his own decision later this week.

Regardless of whether the closure order is implemented, the Palestinian Authority will continue its operations in eastern Jerusalem — most notably at Orient House, the Palestinian’s de facto headquarters in the city.

Neither the previous government nor the current one dared close Orient House, fearing that the move would touch off international criticism.

Beyond Orient House, numerous minor Palestinian institutions continue to operate in Jerusalem.

The Geographic Bureau, for example, which was ordered closed last summer, continues to operate within the safe confines of Orient House.

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