by Meir Margalit
The disturbances that have raged in East Jerusalem in recent years and which sporadically continue to this day are unlikely to surprise anyone following the situation in the city or anyone who is attentive to the voices emanating from it. These disturbances are proof that Jerusalem is a non-city. Without a common foundation for all of its citizens which binds the different communities in West and East Jerusalem together, and without a joint vision for the city, Jerusalem cannot be a normal city; therefore, the only way to define it is as a non-city. Political scientist Jerome Bruner says that there are three things that are necessary to create a functioning social system: 1) shared meanings; 2) shared concepts; and 3) shared modalities. All three conditions are necessary to ensure communication — which, in turn, enables the reconciliation of misunderstandings and different interpretations connected to everyday life.1 None of those three conditions exist today in Jerusalem.
On the contrary, Jerusalem has three incompatible truths that create divisions between its parts: The truth of secular Jews, that of the ultra- Orthodox Jews and that of the Palestinians. The ethics and aesthetics of these three groups are diametrically opposed to one another. This does not mean, however, that these three groups cannot live together in the same shared space; they can. But the question is who determines the laws and holds the power. This is the factor which prevents Jerusalem from being a coherent city.
For Palestinians in East Jerusalem, life under Israeli control has become intolerable. We are aware that they also have access to no small amount of benefits compared to their brothers and sisters in the West Bank, such as social security, medical services, and access to the Muslim holy places as well as to the rest of Israel without a permit. And the employment market in West Jerusalem is much bigger than that of East Jerusalem. While we do not deny these benefits, it is still worth doing an inventory of all of the elements of daily life which have turned life for Palestinians in East Jerusalem into a nightmare.
When Teddy Kollek was Jerusalem’s mayor (1965-93), its Arab citizens were disadvantaged, but their honor was scrupulously defended. They felt that at least they received civilized treatment. However, in recently years their lives have become unbearable, and they feel their dignity is being trodden underfoot.
The 10 Plagues on the Palestinians of East Jerusalem
In the Jewish tradition which is related during the Passover holiday, there is the story of the 10 plagues that God inflicted on the Egyptians in the time of Moses because they mistreated the Jews. When making an inventory of the horrors of daily life experienced by the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, we can speak of the 10 plagues that are inflicted them. This is an arbitrary list; one is not more serious than the other. There is no family in East Jerusalem that does not suffer from a combination of a number of these plagues.
The first plague: The option of lawfully building a home has become almost impossible for the city’s Arab citizens. The difficulties have been accumulating for years: requirements to prove ownership, the absence of infrastructure, low building percentages and the reduction of areas permitted for new construction. Thus, Palestinians have to build without a permit, creating a situation where close to 20,000 buildings, or one out of every three buildings in the area in East Jerusalem, do not have a permit. And they live under the shadow of the threat of demolition orders and heavy fines.
The second plague: The Separation Wall in Jerusalem, built over the last decade, has cut the Arab migrants off from their families, relatives and loved ones. Matters have become highly complicated. A family visit, which in the past entailed a short journey of some minutes, has become a “journey into the unknown,” in which no one can guess how long it will take to reach a destination or to return from it. Everything depends on the mood of the soldier standing at the checkpoint, which they now must cross. And they know that there is a subtle Israeli plan to possibly detach the neighborhoods on the other side of the Wall from Jerusalem and to make it part of the West Bank, in order to reduce the number of Palestinians living in “Jerusalem.” This has led to a wave of migration to the other side of the Wall to preserve their blue Jerusalem residency cards. This has led to a collapse of the basic infrastructure and services such as electricity and water, which do not have the capacity to meet the needs of so many people.
The third plague: With the goal of reducing the number of Palestinians in Jerusalem, the Israeli Interior Ministry has intensified its campaign to revoke the Jerusalem identity cards of people who it maintains are living beyond the municipal borders of Jerusalem. Many Arabs with a “Jerusalemite ID” find that one day their citizenship status has been revoked without their knowledge, and they must retain a lawyer’s services to get it back, which is a long and expensive process, without any guarantee of success. In the meantime, they have become illegal residents in their own home.
The fourth plague: In parallel, the Interior Ministry continues to prevent East Jerusalem residents from uniting with their spouses who hold an ID from the West Bank. Therefore, Palestinian spouses from the West Bank are forced to live in Jerusalem even if they do not have a permit to do so. Such permits are difficult to obtain. The spouses stay at home and live almost underground out of fear of being arrested by Israeli police.
The fifth plague: The Jewish settlers are trying to expand their presence in East Jerusalem and to change the character of the Palestinian neighborhoods. While they have not succeeded so far in most areas, there are two neighborhoods, Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, where Jewish settlers are succeeding in making serious inroads. The right-wing NGO Elad’s website claims that most of the Wadi Hilweh area is in their hands, which includes the area controlled by the Israeli archeological authorities. Driven by rumors that U.S. President Barack Obama was going to become involved in the fate of the city, they have become more aggressive in their attempts to infiltrate areas of East Jerusalem. Very recently, and without any qualms, they have removed entire Arab families from their homes, imposing fear everywhere they go.
The sixth plague: The educational system in East Jerusalem is below all acceptable standards in modern Western societies. There are more than 10,000 children who have no access to any educational framework because of a shortage of classrooms. And dropout rates are extremely high: close to 45% who begin 1st grade do not finish 12 grades of education. It is also very problematic that Israeli authorities do not allow the Palestinian Authority (PA) to have any role in East Jerusalem (according to the Oslo Accords), and the only alternatives available are private education, which is very expensive. Education is a key to advancement in Palestinian society, so it is logical that the state would seek to prevent Palestinians from accessing education, which will lead them to think about human and political rights.
The seventh plague: The economic crisis has caused calamity in East Jerusalem, and according to the Israeli Statistical Bureau, close to 80% of all Palestinian families there are now living below the poverty line. In the absence of any prospects of improving their situation, they have very little to lose. This situation is not a result of any “natural causes” but rather the result of a deliberate policy, since poverty is a tool with which to control populations. This also creates a dependence on Israeli institutions such as the National Insurance.
The eighth plague: In recent years, the attitude of the police, and particularly the border police, has become much more violent than in the past. There are those who claim that this is a reaction to the knifing intifada and other violent actions. The humiliating attitude of the Israeli border police has become unrestrained and ever more violent, gross and hot-headed. The Israeli soldiers disdain everything that appears Arab and insult the deepest sensibilities of Arab citizens.
The ninth plague: The archaeological excavations that the state of Israel is carrying out close to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, both in the Givati parking lot and in El Wad Street, are generating immense concern among those who believe they are intended to cause the collapse of mosques, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It is a belief nurtured by their “intimate” knowledge of the Jewish settlers who are conducting the excavations and the settlers’ nationalist-messianic agenda that impels them. It may not be true, but in East Jerusalem, even a feeling or a rumor can ignite a conflagration.
The tenth plague: There is a low level of municipal services benefiting Arab families, ranging from the collection of garbage to the challenges to the educational system which contributes to their inferior status. This is despite the fact that they pay taxes to the city. Every time Arab citizens cross to the western part of the city and see how great the divide is between their own standard of living and that of their Jewish neighbors, this is seared into their consciousness.
The only means by which we can free the Arab citizens from this nightmare is by dividing Jerusalem. Anyone who seeks to promote peace in the Middle East must insist on bringing this issue to the table. The issue of Jerusalem is, in fact, at the heart of the conflict. Peace will remain unattainable until the city is divided, and within its territorial expanse two capital cities for two nations arise: a West Jerusalem capital of Israel and an East Jerusalem capital of a Palestinian state.
Looking toward division is, in fact, a reflection of the realities on the ground. The city is already divided by invisible walls stretching higher than those erected between Israel and Jordan in 1967. Arab and Jewish residents of the city view one another with apprehension and lack of trust. Despite 49 years of Israeli jurisdiction over both West and East Jerusalem, it is nearly impossible to find instances of cooperation and coexistence between the two communities.
A divided Jerusalem is unavoidable. It is a reality we must face if peace is to be realized. In any case, the city is already politically divided. The international community should pressure Israel to acquiesce to the division of the city, and it must act quickly. It must use all its influence to apply heavy pressure in order to prevent the Israeli government from creating facts on the ground that will severely cripple any possibility for a just resolution to the conflict.
I am advocating a functional, and not a territorial, division. It is clear to me that in the circumstances that have been created over the past 50 years that the two sides of the city have become so tied together that it would be very difficult to formulate a border between them. Therefore, a functional division means that the city would remain united, but the Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhoods would serve as the capital of the future Palestinian state. The Jewish neighborhoods would be under the authority of the Israeli Jerusalem Municipality, and the Palestinian neighborhoods would under the authority of a Palestinian Jerusalem Municipality. In one joint city, there would be two municipalities, and the city would become of the capital of two states.
This is a model which is hard to imagine because there are no precedents in the world, but the Jerusalem question requires a tremendous amount of creativity. And this is the only model that has any chance of success.
Alongside these two municipalities, there will also be a joint authority composed of Israelis, Palestinians and international actors, which would resolve issues of joint concern and would serve as an arbitrator in circumstances of misunderstanding. There will be certain areas, such as water, electricity, transportation and the environment, that will require joint activity. The challenge over time will be to create more and more joint activity, so that eventually it will be possible to have a bi-national municipality, which might even serve as one of the foundations for an overall bi-national state.
There is no time to waste; the international community must take every necessary step to ensure Israel ends the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This is no easy undertaking, but in the end, history will undoubtedly recognize such great efforts.
1Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning, Harvard University Press, 1990.