East Jerusalem Today

(Helpful maps for this post)

Over the last 40 years, Israel has gradually tried to cut off East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. The premise was to cement Israeli control of a huge, new definition of the area of Jerusalem* and end East Jerusalem’s role as the center of Palestinian life including medical, educational, commercial, and cultural activity. In the last few days I participated in three tours of the political and building map in East Jerusalem and the picture is depressing. (One was the free, four-hour Ir Amim tour.)

By limiting access to Jerusalem for Palestinians from the rest of the West Bank, Israel has gone a long way toward strangling East Jerusalem. In addition, tight building restrictions for Arabs, home demolitions, and disproportionately low municipal Israeli budget allocations weaken the fabric of Palestinian life in East Jerusalem. That Ramallah, once a large village, has grown into a small Palestinian city and the center of the Palestinian Authority is in part a testament to Israeli success in taking East Jerusalem off the table, and forcing Palestinian life to develop elsewhere.

The wall** Israel has built over the last decade strengthens the separation of Jerusalem from most other West Bank Palestinians. Metro Jerusalem institutions on the east of the wall, such as Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, are much harder to get to for Jerusalem Palestinians on the west side of the wall. Or, many West Bank Palestinians who used to reach hospitals like Augusta Victoria on Mount Scopus – now on the west side of the wall – face a longer and more difficult journey.

As the Israel state has created challenges for Palestinian life in East Jerusalem, it has, as is well known, settled Israeli Jews in East Jerusalem. Much of the settlement building in the late 1960s and 1970s started on the outskirts of East Jerusalem in places today known as French Hill, Ramat Eshkol, and Gilo.*** The state built huge apartment blocs, playgrounds, sidewalks, sewer lines, and the like and now each one houses (tens of) thousands of Israelis. In recent years, such building has included controversial projects like Har Homa (to the south; see picture at left) and Nof Zion astride Jabel al-Mukhaber.

But Israeli settlement organizations (such as Ateret Cohanim and EL-AD – more on EL-AD here), with the support of the Israeli state, have also been penetrating the inner core of Arab East Jerusalem. Isolated settlers now live in places like the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, Sheikh Jarrakh, on Mt. Olives, in Silwan, Ras al-Amud (see picture at right), and Abu Dis.

These settlers start to dramatically transform the locale. Many require a constant security presence, whether private security personnel or Israeli police. Israeli-Palestinian friction and fighting is a common result.

Now one could attempt to distinguish between the actions of individuals & private organizations and state actions, but the two are actually intimately linked. First, the state, in a bureaucratic and legal sense, comes in and defends these private efforts. It rarely backs the Palestinian opponents or reverses such settler efforts.

Second, such isolated settler homes act as a wedge. One home becomes two and then three (The City of David settlers in Silwan are a perfect example). At best from the settlers’ perspective, such isolated efforts could be used to justify huge new blocs, as, for example, Ateret Cohanim hope to do with its settlers in Abu Dis (the nearby open space is inviting).

The settler movement and the Israeli government are following the central recipe of the Zionist movement and the Israeli state: relentlessly establish facts on the ground and it will inform and shape the political and territorial reality. For example, Zionist land acquisition, building, and farming affected the lines of the UN partition plan (1947). In the last decade, some Palestinian negotiators, not to mention Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, seemed ready to accept the Israeli annexation of settlement blocks in a two-state solution, a testament to the way in which some Israeli building has affected the (hypothetical) political-territorial map.

Moreover, if the Clinton principle from 2000 (“The general principle is that Arab areas are Palestinian and Jewish ones are Israeli.”) is operational, the Israeli incentive is to build as fast as it can so as to create new areas that would have to be under Israeli sovereignty.

In short, determine the outcome with unilateral action; make it a fait accompli. On one tour a former Israeli official asked rhetorically how could you put a border on the 1949 Israel-Jordan armistice line (as we drove along the hotels and Israeli government institutions on Bar-Lev Blvd). That is exactly the implication of building and blurring and covering over the green line.

One common Israeli justification for settlers is that Jews once lived here in these Arab areas (e.g. Sheik Jarakh). But if that logic is taken seriously, it has deep and likely unwelcome implications: the Israeli people and government will have to take the Palestinian right of return seriously because it is based on exactly the same idea. In short, Palestinians were in Haifa or Ramla or wherever so they have a right to live there now.

One caveat: It is important not to over-state the Israeli impact either. Approximately 250,000 Palestinians are still in east Jerusalem. Though they are restricted, they exist as a counter-weight to designs to judaize even the core of East Jerusalem.

A two-state solution relies on a resolution of the Jerusalem question with the most common answer being a division of sovereignty. Yet the complexity of dividing East Jerusalem is stunning. The situation is a mess and would require dramatic changes in a negotiated resolution.

(Text and photos copyright Jeremy Pressman, 2011)

* Prior to 1967, Jordanian defined East Jerusalem was 2.5 square miles. After the 1967 war, Israel expanded the municipal boundaries to include 27 square miles. (Source: Wikipedia)

** While I understand that the term wall is debated, much of the barrier in Jerusalem is a concrete wall, often nine meters high.

*** Most Israelis call these areas neighborhoods of Jerusalem, not settlements, but they are built on what was territory controlled by Jordan.

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