Jerusalem - A Tale of Two Cities

There is an irony to Jerusalem that seems to escape most Israelis, or at least most Israelis living outside of the holy city in places like cosmopolitan Miami-esque Tel Aviv just 45 minutes away. Jerusalem is celebrated as Israel’s united capital, reunified in 1967 when Israel took control over East Jerusalem after two decades of Jordanian rule that prevented Jews from entering East Jerusalem and the Old City, containing some of Judaism’s holiest sites like the Western Wall. In round after round of negotiations, Jerusalem has repeatedly been a sticking point as both Israelis and Palestinians claim it as their desired capital city; yet in the dominant Jewish narrative Jerusalem is simply indivisible. I admittedly do not remember much from my early Hebrew school days, but the words of “Jerusalem of Gold”, Israel’s Song of the Year in 1967 poignantly predicting the Jewish return to the holy places, come surprisingly easily to my lips as they do for most Jews around the world.

There is a striking disconnect, however, between this narrative and the reality. As I learned on a recent political tour of Jerusalem’s eastern neighborhoods, the story of Jerusalem is a tale of two cities and, unfortunately, a tale of demographic and spatial power plays and inequity.

When Israel took control of East Jerusalem in 1967 it created a new political demographic- Palestinian Jerusalemites. There are currently between 270,000-300,000 Palestinians living in Jerusalem and roughly 500,000 Jews, 200,000 of whom live in post-1967 East Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the 1949 armistice line or “Green Line.” By international law these neighborhoods, which many call settlements, are considered illegal.

Palestinian Jerusalemites inhabit a bizarre no-man’s land, being neither fully integrated into Israel proper as Israeli citizens nor considered West Bank Palestinians. Palestinian Jerusalemites cannot vote in Israeli national elections, though they can vote in the Jerusalem municipal elections but most choose not to. They are permitted to vote in elections for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, despite the fact that the PA has absolutely no jurisdiction in East Jerusalem.

Unlike Palestinians living within Israel proper, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are not accorded Israeli citizenship and do not hold passports but rather are given permanent residency status. This status expires if a resident is shown to be living outside East Jerusalem for more than seven years, even if the relocated residence is but a few miles down the road in the West Bank. In theory residency entitles Palestinian Jerusalemites to similar socioeconomic benefits as citizens, yet in practice social services for the eastern parts of the city remain under-funded in comparison to services in West Jerusalem. There is currently a shortage of 1,000 classrooms in East Jerusalem although by law Israel is required to provide a public education for residents.

As our tour bus drove down a littered street in a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem lined with half finished houses and construction waste, a man on our bus asked, “If they want equal treatment why don’t they start by cleaning up their neighborhoods?”

His words were dripping with condescension but also, I thought, a bit of ignorance and because of that I tried not get too angry. I had heard these words and this attitude before. He could have been speaking about low-income Hispanic or African-American neighborhoods in the U.S., or any other city in the world with division and inequity. Unfortunately these issues are not unique to the Holy City.

Our tour guide, an American-Israeli living in the country since 1980, replied diplomatically- citing the lack of regular garbage pickup service in East Jerusalem and the strict Israeli land registration laws that force many East Jerusalemites to leave homes unfinished. Other times, half-constructed homes are simply demolished at a rate of roughly 80 per year in East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, West Jerusalemites building illegally on unregistered land typically face fines.

Certain Palestinian neighborhoods have been barred from expanding under Israeli law, forcing growing families and communities to flee to the West Bank due to lack of space. Additionally, properties in East Jerusalem proven to be Jewish-owned pre-1948 are fairly easily reclaimed by Jewish owners or buyers while abandoned Arab properties in West Jerusalem remain inaccessible to former Arab landowners.

Our bus drove through East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods alongside newly built Israeli settlements, hilltop white-washed modern apartment complexes surrounded by high-tech security cameras and guards. From the Palestinian neighborhoods, these hilltop complexes look like fortresses. Our guide told us that the cost of guarding an East Jerusalem settlement of some 2,000 Israelis in Silwan totals 70 million shekels annually (about $2.5 million.)

Every Friday for nearly the past year Palestinians in Silwan have protested Israeli encroachment into their neighborhood, typically by throwing rocks and marching. And every Friday for the past year they have been met by tear gas. I can begin to understand, although certainly not agree with, the conviction of a religiously motivated settler seeking to re-inhabit the lands he believes to be Biblical Greater Israel, but I cannot imagine that a life of such threat and constant insecurity is healthy and sustainable- for either Israeli settlers or their Palestinian neighbors.

The settlements of East Jerusalem cut into the Palestinian lands in a way that seems all too strategic, dividing Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem and the West Bank from one another and making the task of mapping a contiguously Arab area of East Jerusalem to be part of a future Palestinian state nearly impossible. The settlement of Har Homa, sandwiched between Bethlehem in the West Bank and Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem, is slated to house up to 30,000 Israelis. Our guide pointed out there were only 7,000 settlers in Gaza when Israeli settlements were dismantled there in 2005 and accomplishing that was a political nightmare, despite the fact that most Israelis had no desire to maintain Gaza. The political battle to maintain a “united” Greater Jerusalem; however, will be fought much more fiercely, especially as more and more settlers populate the Eastern parts of the city and the West Bank.

Our bus snaked along the intimidating “Security Fence”, a man-made barrier of concrete and barbed wire between the West Bank and Jerusalem constructed by Israel in 2002 in response to terrorism attacks on Israeli citizens originating from the West Bank during the Second Intifada, which killed some 1100 Israelis and 5500 Palestinians.

I scanned the colorful graffiti as we drove past.

“Vive la Resistance Palestine”.
“I have a dream. This wall is not part of it.”
“Welcome to the Palestine Ghetto”

The barrier cuts off roughly 12% of the West Bank and includes it, de facto, on the Israeli side of the barrier in Greater Jerusalem. Having lived through the First and Second Intifadas, our guide acknowledged that the wall has inarguably and dramatically reduced terror attacks and improved the security of Israeli citizens. At the same time it has also cut off Palestinians from each other, from their livelihoods, and from their lands. Armed checkpoints block the openings in the wall and only Palestinians with certain hard to obtain permits-medical, religious or occasionally work-related- are allowed through.

At the end of the tour the bus dropped me off back in the heart of West Jerusalem. The pedestrian shopping streets were milling with teenagers and lined with tourists and students sipping iced coffees at outside cafes. How strange, I thought, to be back in this Jerusalem so quickly.

Do these people know of the other Jerusalem I just visited? Do they care? Would they even want to know? And would things be different if they did?

Attempting to leave us with some parting words of hope despite the bleak reality, our tour guide suggested that the best future for Jerusalem might be something akin to an amicable divorce. Yet as long as Israeli neighborhoods in East Jerusalem grow, in places pushing out Palestinians and in others cutting them off from one another, the prospects for a clean break look grimmer and grimmer. Unless something changes, I fear this tale of two cities will not end well.