Rethinking Jerusalem

May 1, 2000
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Danny Seidemann

In the almost 33 years that have passed since Israel physically reunited the city of Jerusalem, virtually all that has transpired in the city has been dictated by the bitter national struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. Jerusalem has been the quintessential arena in which the mutually incompatible claims of each national movement clash frontally–at the location most important to each. This stark reality is nowhere more in evidence than in the almost mythical issues of land, property, and development. Virtually all decisions made by the contesting parties in this regard since 1967 have been largely informed, if not dictated, by the zero-sum calculus of national struggle.

Israel’s actions have almost exclusively focused on achieving one central goal: to consolidate sole Israeli rule over the city by creating irreversible demographic and geographical facts. Since 1967, the Israeli government has expropriated more than 35% of the 70.5 square kilometers that Israel annexed overwhelmingly from the Palestinian population. More than 42,000 residential units have been constructed on these lands for Israelis. And fewer than 600 residential units have been built for the Palestinian sector with any kind of government support, the last of which was more than 20 years ago.

On the land left to the Palestinian population after these expropriations, little development has been allowed. With the exception of the fortunate few, the individual Palestinian is confronted with the following dilemma: to live in highly overcrowded conditions (the density per room in East Jerusalem is twice that of West Jerusalem); to leave the city for the West Bank (thereby risking the right to live and work in the city); or to build illegally and run the risk of having one’s home demolished by Israeli authorities.

The Palestinians have not remained passive in this bitter national struggle. They have elected to avail themselves of the rights and entitlements afforded by Israel only when doing so does not signify acquiescence to the legitimacy of Israeli rule over East Jerusalem. They have, therefore, rejected compen-sation for expropriated property and refused to participate in municipal elections under “Israeli conquest,” thereby “absolving” politicians of factoring in almost one-third of the needs of the city’s population.

Two questions are particularly worth examining as the issue of Jerusalem is placed squarely on the negotiating table. Have Israeli policies been justifiable? And have they worked? The answer to both these issues is far from unequivocal.

It is quite easy, but equally disingenuous, to condemn the discriminatory policies of Israel in East Jerusalem since 1967. At the root of these policies is neither racism nor the discrimination by the powers that be against a minority sharing a common civic society, in spite of the fact that both these phenomena indeed exist. Israelis and Palestinians covet each other’s “space” in Jerusalem but do not aspire to share a community–civic, political, or otherwise–not even in the most tendentious manner.

These policies–which in the context of state-building and in the absence of a political process geared to resolve the national conflict were necessary evils–have become highly counterproductive as the yeasty and painful process of rapprochement begins. In recent years, Israel, who continues even during the peace process to pursue policies of expropriation, developmental stifling, and demolitions, has done much to undermine the political validity of its claims to the unity of the city under its rule. What was justifiable at one time has become political folly today.

Have these policies worked? Yes and no. Today, there are more than 185,000 Israelis living in the new Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, almost attaining numerical parity with the close to 200,000 Palestinian residents in the city. This renders a physical redivision of the city virtually impossible–and indeed, on neither side of the divide does anyone aspire to redivide the city.

Yet on the other hand, Jerusalem clearly remains a deeply divided city. Israelis and Palestinians lead almost entirely separate lives, rarely meeting, never mingling. West Jerusalem is a modern, Western city–while conditions in East Jerusalem often border on those of the third world. Israel’s sovereignty in East Jerusalem remains in large part a virtual reality: no real offer of equal rights, no shared society–and quite often no credible way to enforce the rule of its law.

As each side jockeys for position in anticipation of final status talks over the city’s future, both sides seem bent on implementing the Vietnam War vintage quip: it is necessary to destroy the city in order to save it. Israel contemplates massive development in the forested areas to the west of the city while the Palestinians, not allowed to build legally, are currently engaged in illegal building of such dimensions as to make any future development of the Palestinian sector all the more difficult. Ironically, the excessive and often misdirected “love of Jerusalem” has left in its wake a deeply scarred city.

It is evident that nothing in the respective “mantras” of Israelis and Palestinians have prepared either side to recognize some inevitable truths: there are two national collectives in Jerusalem, both possessing the critical mass necessary to make a firm claim on the city. Each side would love the other to evaporate, but neither seems willing to fulfill the dreams of the other side by doing so. Jerusalem will be viable as a city only if shared by the two collectives who vie for its space. The rules of the previous status quo will not only undermine the peace process but Jerusalem’s very viability as a city.

All of this sounds terribly unromantic in comparison to the “Šeternal undivided Capital of Israel that will never be redivided.” But if Jerusalem is to become the internationally recognized capital of Israel, and a city Jewish not only in dry, fragile demographic statistics but in its values, new interactions between Israelis and Palestinians must emerge.

It is precisely these daunting issues that the town planners now confront at their drawing boards–as must the national leaders of both peoples who are gathering around the negotiating table in order to determine the political future of the city.

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Danny Seidemann, an attorney, specializes in public interest issues focusing on East Jerusalem. He has argued several cases dealing with government policies and practices in East Jerusalem before the Supreme Court. He is legal advisor to and one of the founders of Ir Shalem, an NGO dedicated to the development of Jerusalem for both Israeli and Palestinian residents.

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