The “Reality on the Ground” of a United or Partitioned Jerusalem

This morning myself and a few other participants from our OG trip went on a trip of East Jerusalem put on by Ir Amim. The trip was pretty extensive – visiting numerous locations throughout southern and central East Jerusalem over a four hour period. And, pretty significantly, it was free and on a modern air-conditioned bus.

The perspective of the trip organizers was made explicit early on: they are an Israeli organization advancing Israeli interests, but who believe Israel’s interests are in a negotiated and peaceful two state settlement, and the possibility of this is under threat due to official Israeli policy as regards settlements. Explaining why requires extensive discussion of realities on the ground in East Jerusalem, hence the purpose of the free bus tour.

Ir Amim makes a distinction between Israeli Neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and Israeli settlements. This is contentious, but it is in line with their political understanding of the situation. Neighborhoods are Israeli built up areas since ’67. The presence of Israeli neighborhoods is what Obama means when he says “facts on the ground”, and the Clinton-Paramaters suggest that the redefined border in Jerusalem be drawn to divide the Israeli neighborhoods on one side from the Palestinian neigbhorhoods on the other. However, new neighborhood construction is making this solution less and less feasible. An example of this is Har Homa. Har Homa is not a radical settler outpost, populated by Zionist radicals. It is an Israeli government initiative advertised as a normal neighborhood. However, because it is between Beit Safafa from the Bethlehem area, plans for its expansion and eventual continuity with the “neighborhood” of Gilo (also in East Jerusalem) will cut off a Palestinian neighborhood from the rest of the West Bank. This kind of settlement expansion reduces the possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a Palestinian State, which in Ir Amim’s view is the best hope for peace in the region.

Ir Amim applies the term settlement to  “mainly to Jewish construction in the middle of Palestinian areas when the construction is not a direct and open government initiative”. An example of an east jerusalem settlement are the establishment of fenced settlement compounds within Palestinian neighborhoods such as Silwan. These are supported by the state, but their direction and funding comes from right wing ideological zionist organizations. Perhaps not everyone living there is an ideological extreme zionist, but everyone knows that it is contentious to put an Israeli settlement in the middle of a Palestinian area – and if they don’t know it initially they will realize it when they find out they need to be accompanied by armed guards just to put out the trash. These more explicitly contentious settlements are still supported by the state, however, a fact attested to by the quality of the roads and sidewalks (publicly funded, although within a fenced off area), and the establishment of convenient bus service which serves the Israeli enclaves but not the surrounding Palestinian village.

Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are not in a good way. After the war in ’67, Palestinians in the newly created Municipality of Jerusalem were offered citizenship, but they overwhelmingly refused on the grounds that accepting citizenship would be recognizing the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation of Arab lands. So instead they were granted permanent residency status, which includes most rights of a citizen although not the right to vote in an election. More recently the law has been changed so that if they leave their homes for 7 years, their permanent residency is revoked. In practice, it is sometimes revoked much more quickly than this.

It is important to understand what is the municipality of Jerusalem created after ’67 war, in theory and practice, in order to understand the status of Jerusalem and its residents in the current negotiations. After the six day war Jerusalem was “United” and a new municipal boundary was drawn. This boundary, however, did not follow the realities on the ground of East Jerusalem, i.e. tracing around the built up areas. Instead it was drawn with the principle of maximum land with minimum people – so the line passed right through many Palestinian neighborhoods, dividing them in theory although not so much in practice. Residents on the Israeli side of the line had the right to live and work in Jerusalem, those on the other side didn’t. However, in practice it was relatively easy for Palestinians to enter and to work in Jerusalem illegally, and because inside the municipal boundary it was almost impossible to acquire a building permit, much Palestinian development happened outside the municipal boundary. When the security fence was built, largely along the municipal boundary (with several notable and significant exceptions) a line which had been largely theoretical become a reality on the ground – Palestinians who had moved outside the boundary to build found that they could no longer enter Jerusalem, and the Palestinian economy of Jerusalem, which had been the economic centre of the West Bank, ground to a halt. The economic and humanitarian cost of the wall to Palestinians has been huge – a fact attested to by the drastic unemployment in the West Bank, and the number of workers who cross the wall illegally to work in Jerusalem. At Abu Dis we dismounted the bus and saw where the wall literally blocks the road, which used to run from Jerusalem to Jericho. There is a lot of graffiti on this wall, largely in English, presumably for the benefit of the bus tours which stop here.

Perhaps the most explicit examples of discrimination we saw on the tour were the differences in city services you can immediately perceive when you enter a Palestinian neighborhood, as opposed to an Israeli neighborhood, all within East Jerusalem. You don’t even half to look out the window to notice you’ve entered a Palastinian neigbhorhood – you can tell from the cracked pavement. You can also tell when the bus gets stuck because the street is too narrow and someone has to back up (when this happened, the guide actually told us “This is part of the tour”). According to Ir Amim there has not been a single new road built in a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem since ’67, and the vast majority of new houses have not been connected to the water or sewage system. These are responsibilities the state itself recognizes it has, and yet they are systematically unmet. Perhaps worse than the neglect of civic infrastructure is the lack of schooling for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem – Ir Amim estimates that the city is short 1500 class rooms, and because of lack of access and the high cost of private education, a huge number of Palestinian children in East Jerusalem are not attending any kind of education at all. There is also a worry about what kind of education is being provided by private schools since they are not accredited by the state.

The last sight we saw on the trip was Shu’fat and Shu’fat Refugee camp. This refugee camp was created in the 60s by the depopulation of arabs who had settled in the Jewish quarter of the old city. Surprisingly, after the six day war, Shu’fat was placed within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, granting its habitants permenent residency status. Today, however, the security fence snakes inside the municiple boundary effectively placing Shu’fat outside Jerusalem. This precarious inside-yet-outside status is actually the case at Shu’fat and at Kafr’Aqb, and it creates an unfortunate situation where there is no authority in the area. Israeli police can not enter because it is outside the security wall, and therefore in the “West Bank” in the Israeli sense of the term. However, the Palestinian Authority can not enter because it is in Israeli territory, and it has no authority there.  This double bind means these places are a sort of no-man’s land, and when mercenaries did attempt to create a kind of police force at Shu’fat they were arrested as terrorists by the army (the army of course has no trouble crossing into what it sees as the West Bank).

Seeing these realities on the ground makes me more certain that the word ‘Apartheid’ is appropriate to describe the problem here.  Apartheid literally means “seperation”, which is actually the name of the security fence. Moreover, the crime of apartheid occurs when one group systematically dominates over another, which is happening here. What exists in Israel/Palestine is a single sovereign entity defended by the Israeli army, which contains enclaves where the oppressed population is granted some measure of autonomy over local affairs. What also exists is the many-faceted precariousness of the native Palestinian population, who are divided from each other by walls and who’s right to work and to move about is dependent on permits and residency statuses which can be revoked.

But what makes me upset about Apartheid-deniers is not some technicality about the use of the term. Rather, it is the fact that those who call Israel apartheid, in my experience, are soaked in facts on the ground, whereas those who deny it refer to nearly empty categories like “Israel is a democracy”. If someone takes the Ir Amim tour, and still doesn’t want to call this situation Apartheid I’m not bothered – because they will still call the situation racist, oppressive, and a block to peace.

It is interesting to be in Israel and get the perspective of moderate zionists, like the ones at Ir Amim and Rabbis for Human Rights. They both legitimize the war of independence, and don’t seem interested in talking about the Nakba or the rights of Palestinian refugees. But they are reasonably honest about the “facts on the ground”, which includes the systematic oppression and repression of Palestinian communities by the army, police, and extreme right, and the way these factors as well as ongoing settlement construction is a block against the two state settlement. I do believe there is still something racist about moderate zionists – they believe in the inherent rightness of a Jewish state, which means they tend to wash over the injustices in the creation of the state of Israel, including the indiscriminate killing of Arabs by Zionist militants, and also the expropriation of refugee Arab land in the 1950 Absentee Property Law. This is a problem because the majority of Palestinians still suffer from those injustices, not just the ones created by the six day war and occupation of the West Bank. This is because most Palestinians are not in their original villages Israel/Palestine, but in refugee camps in the West Bank, in Jordan, in Lebanon, in Egypt, in Syria, in Saudi, or they have re-settled in one of those places or Europe and North America. The two state settlement is no settlement for refugees unless it involves some compensation for them, which might at least help them to re-settle.

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3 thoughts on “The “Reality on the Ground” of a United or Partitioned Jerusalem

  1. Very simple. The birthrate of Palestinians is much higher than that of Jewish Israelis. Already Arabs make a third(!) of Jweusalem’s population. In a few years they’ll be the majority. So the policy to draw lines that keep as many Palestinians out of the borders of Israel is only understandable. Especially since they don’t see themselves as Israelis in the first place, but as Palestinians, so I’m sure they will be happy to be part of a future Palestinian state. The “apartheid” means you mentioned are there due to security issues. period. Before the last intifada – before Palestinian terrorists blew themselves and dozens of innocent people in buses in Jerusalem every few days – there was no wall and no checkpoints. If the Palestinians mind the wall then they should stop trying to kill israelis.

  2. There were plenty of checkpoints before the 2nd intifada. In fact, in some cases there were more – to get from Ramallah at Jerusalem you used to have to pass through 2 checkpoints, and now there is only the Qalandia.

  3. Also, most of Jerusalem is not part of Israel, at least according to any state other than Israel itself. Even radically pro-Israel states like the US and Canada don’t recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem.

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