Palestinians reject plans to impose Abu Dis as capital

It is not the first time Abu Dis has been floated as a potential capital for Palestinians.
Tuesday 23/10/2018
A general view shows the Israeli barrier at the Palestinian town of Abu Dis in the West Bank east of Jerusalem. (Reuters)
A general view shows the Israeli barrier at the Palestinian town of Abu Dis in the West Bank east of Jerusalem. (Reuters)

TUNIS - As the Trump administration attempts to forge “the deal of the century,” a small, little-known suburb east of Jerusalem has gained new significance.

Abu Dis, a seemingly unremarkable town of 13,000, is being put forward by US negotiators as the capital of a future Palestinian state, Palestinian officials said.

About 4km east of Jerusalem and surrounded by Israel’s border barrier, the town is hardly a natural choice. Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian territories, is more of a cultural and economic hub. And East Jerusalem, part of the holy city long claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians, remains central to Palestinian demands for a future state.

However, the idea of constructing a Palestinian capital on the outskirts of Jerusalem has reportedly gained traction as Israel annexes more of the West Bank. Leaked reports of an early draft of a US peace proposal suggest that Abu Dis would be earmarked as the Palestinian capital and an area of north Sinai would be tacked onto Gaza for a Gulf countries-backed economic development zone.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas indicated in January that US officials had suggested Abu Dis as a Palestinian capital. “That’s what they are offering us now. Abu Dis,” said Abbas, who called the US peace plan the “slap of the century.”

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh also said US officials had offered deals that would include a Palestinian “capital or entity in the Abu Dis area, away from Jerusalem, with a bridge linking to al-Aqsa Mosque allowing for the freedom of prayer.”

It is not the first time Abu Dis, the closest town to the Old City of Jerusalem under even partial Palestinian rule, has been floated as a potential capital. In the 1990s, under the framework of the Oslo Accords, dozens of Palestinian government offices were constructed there, as was a now-abandoned Palestinian parliament building.

However, the plan to elevate Abu Dis to the Palestinians’ administrative and government centre was jettisoned after Israel erected its sprawling barrier in 2003, effectively cutting the town off from the Old City.

“Abu Dis once represented how close the adversaries might be to agreement but today… Abu Dis shows how divided the sides have become,” the New York Times wrote in 2003. “This place that once held the hope of integration and even reconciliation now mourns separation.”

Now, 15 years later, the idea of resurrecting Abu Dis as a Palestinian capital is even more far-fetched, Palestinian officials and citizens said.

“The area of Abu Dis does not exceed 4 sq.km. It is overcrowded… It is not worthy of being called a town, much less a capital,” Hani Halbiya, spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees in Abu Dis, told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency last January.

“The people of Abu Dis strongly reject that their village becomes the capital of the Palestinian state and they were the first to object to the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

“For us, East Jerusalem, which was occupied in 1967, is the capital of the Palestinian state,” Halbiya said.

While Abu Dis has been under Palestinian civil control since 1995, Israel retains security control of the suburb, where it has carried out numerous military raids. In the latest, September 5, dozens of Palestinian students at Al-Quds University’s branch in Abu Dis were injured when Israeli soldiers stormed the campus and fired tear gas.

Abu Dis is also at the centre of Israel’s plans to forcibly relocate hundreds of Bedouin residents of Khan al-Ahmar, a Palestinian village in the West Bank that is to be demolished. The Bedouins’ forced transfer to an area near a landfill in Abu Dis is opposed by rights activists and residents, who say it would be a violation of international law.

The renewed push to pitch Abu Dis as the Palestinians’ future capital tracks with US President Donald Trump’s efforts to keep Jerusalem from being an issue in future negotiations.

“They never got past Jerusalem. We took it off the table. We don’t have to talk about it anymore,” Trump said in February.

Last December, Trump prompted international backlash when he unilaterally recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Deadly protests escalated in May when the United States officially opened its embassy in the city.

On October 15, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reportedly informed Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Australia was considering moving its embassy to Jerusalem, sparking fears among Palestinians that other countries could match the move and jeopardise their claim to East Jerusalem.

Abbas, speaking at the UN General Assembly in September, hit at the US administration and said any just settlement must have Jerusalem in the conversation.

“Jerusalem is not for sale and the Palestinian people’s rights are not up for bargaining,” said Abbas. “I renew my calls to Trump to rescind his decisions and decrees on Jerusalem, refugees and settlements, which contradict international resolutions and the understandings we have reached.”