On the Eastern side of the Old City of Jerusalem you don’t find many people. There are a few churches, cemeteries, the mount of Olives and the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, but it is rural rather than downtown-it has very much the feel of being the “other side” of the city.
Along the valley that separates the Old City and Mount Moria from the hills behind it, you will find a string of “national parks”. Olive groves, trails, historical sights, all conveniently linked together to make a tourist border around what is sometimes called the “holy basin”. And it is a very pleasant place to Western sensibilities – quite green, much of it lit with streetlights, good walking surfaces, relatively clear of trash. But as so many Israeli projects in East Jerusalem, the parks have a nefarious political purpose – by encircling the old city they intend to prevent the division of Jerusalem and an eventual political settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict by the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
The strange thing is, despite knowing all of this, I feel more comfortable in the national park than in the adjacent Palestinian neighborhood. Walking towards Silwan, I turn back – I don’t want to be that tourist who walks into a contested area pretending not to know where I am. I feel extremely like a tourist here, even though if I were to say that to a police officer it would feel like lying.
At the same time, in places like this it’s where I often think about what this place could look like if Zionism came to an end – if the land were regained, and how if there were a secular democratic organization of peoples on this land, these trails could be enjoyed by everyone. Even today I see Palestinian youth using the trail as a convenient way to travel from the Muslim quarter of the old city, exiting by Lion’s gate, and walking back to Silwan – thereby avoiding the Southern Side of the old city dominated by the Israeli controlled and Palestinian no-go area of Al-Buraq (the “Western Wall”), which otherwise they would have to avoid by traversing the Jewish quarter and Zion gate – technically that would probably be legal, but certainly not a recommended walking route for Palestinians. Could this trail also be enjoyed in a Jerusalem without Colonization, without the domination of one people by another? Could the infrastructure which Israel has built for one purpose be suited to others? Looking at the built reality of apartheid in this way makes one feel a bit more hopeful – thinking perhaps of the way the East and West Berlin subway systems now function in seamless integration, maybe one day trains could again criss-cross this land for the benefit of all its people.
It may be only a dream, but sometimes when I look at the trains here, I imagine them, with their “Israel” logos crossed out, being used to carry the refugees home to Tel-Aviv.