Israel quickly passing legislation to ban eastern Jerusalem census

JERUSALEM, Dec. 10 (JTA) — Palestinian plans to conduct a census in eastern Jerusalem have prompted the Knesset to fast-track legislation aimed at stopping them. Bowing to the Israeli government’s wish to race through the legislation, a Knesset committee agreed Wednesday to waive the 24-hour interval required between the introduction of legislation and a first vote. The Knesset plenum then passed by 35-22 the first of three votes, known as readings, to amend the law implementing Israel’s 1995 Interim Agreement with the Palestinians. With the opposition throwing its support behind the bill, it was expected to pass the second and third readings by Thursday. Because of the vague wording of the Interim Agreement, the bill was needed in order to put teeth into Israeli demands that the census not be carried out in any portions of Jerusalem. Only once in Israeli history has a government tried to push through legislation in such lightning fashion. In 1981, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin succeeded in passing legislation in one day to extend Israeli law to the Golan Heights, which was captured in the 1967 Six-Day War along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In recent weeks, Israeli officials warned against Palestinian plans to conduct the census in eastern Jerusalem. Israel maintains that the Interim Agreement prevents the Palestinian Authority from conducting any activities in areas outside its control. The Palestinians contend that the issue of Jerusalem will only be resolved in the final-status talks, and that they therefore have leeway to conduct some activities in mostly Arab eastern Jerusalem. If passed, the law would empower Israeli police to take action against all Palestinian activities in Jerusalem. “We are against any move by the Palestinian Authority that is undermining Israel’s authority in its capital city,” said Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi. “They don’t have any authority to do anything in Jerusalem, and they’d better stop it.” He said he had no doubt the Palestinian Authority was trying to establish its influence in the city. The Palestinian Authority began its census Tuesday, the first in the territories since 1967. Palestinian officials confirmed only that it would include all areas where Palestinians live. Faisal Husseini, the Palestinian Authority official in charge of Jerusalem affairs, rejected Israel’s claims of sovereignty over the city. “They use repression to try to prevent the Palestinians of this city from implementing their rights, including the census,” he said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing the plenum Wednesday, urged coalition and opposition members to unite in passing the measure. “The test of Jerusalem is the test of our people,” he told the Knesset. The opposition Labor Party decided to vote with the government in favor of the amendment. At a stormy party caucus session preceding the vote, Labor leader Ehud Barak argued that regardless of how the party views government policy, Labor must take a firm and unequivocal stand on Jerusalem. “Whenever the problem of Jerusalem comes to the agenda, in spite of our reservations of the behavioral patterns of the government, we will vote” for Jerusalem, Barak later told Israel Radio. On Tuesday, Netanyahu reiterated that any Palestinian attempt to include areas within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries in the census represented a violation of the Oslo accords and of Israel’s sovereignty over the city. He instructed Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani to take every measure to prevent the survey from being carried out in the eastern half of the city. Israeli security officials were then stationed in eastern Jerusalem to block Arab residents from returning the questionnaires to Palestinian Authority officials. The future of Jerusalem is perhaps the most sensitive issue slated to be discussed in the final-status negotiations. The Palestinians want the eastern half of the city as the capital of an independent Palestinian state. Israel counters that Jerusalem must remain as its eternal, indivisible capital. Wednesday’s Knesset vote came as Foreign Minister David Levy met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s deputy, Abu Mazen, to discuss the resumption of talks between joint committees on unresolved issues in the Interim Agreement. They agreed that four of the nine committees would resume talks Thursday. The committees are dealing with security issues, a Palestinian airport in Gaza, a proposed industrial park at the Carni crossing on the Israel- Gaza border, and a safe-passage route for Palestinians traveling between Gaza and the West Bank.

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