Over the past couple of weeks the fate of Jerusalem emerged as the most visible hot spot in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama’s administration has been putting pressure on Israel to stop its construction in East Jerusalem, which is projected as the Palestinian capital in a future two-state solution. Netanhayu, on his part, vows to continue building in Jerusalem, the eternal Jewish capital, “like all Israeli governments since 1967,” and claims not to understand what all the fuss is about.
These seemingly clear-cut statements actually mask much confusion and misinformation. Most people outside Israel/Palestine, and even many Israelis, do not actually understand the often complicated micro-geography of what is happening on the ground. But in this case, the micro matters. It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and thus to a large extent the future of American relations with the Islamic world, depend on the proper understanding of local Jerusalemite geography.
To begin with, what is “Jerusalem”? Not as obvious a question as it sounds. When Israel conquered East Jerusalem from the Jordanians in 1967, it passed a law that unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem and reunited the divided city as its “eternal capital.” Only that what was in fact annexed was a huge, sprawling area – 70 square kilometers! – that took a significant bite from the West Bank (The Jordanian East Jerusalem was only 6.4 square kilometers). Its meandering boundaries made little urban or geographical sense: the only clear logic of the hastily drawn map was to annex maximum land and minimum Palestinians. And yet several villages, and even a large refugee camp, suddenly found themselves part of Jerusalem, to which they had never belonged before. And now, when Israelis are reaffirming their commitment to their eternal capital, much of that outpouring of devotion is actually directed at areas that have absolutely nothing to do with the historic or holy Jerusalem; a fact that is willfully suppressed by some and no longer known to many others.
Furthermore: what is “Israeli construction in East Jerusalem,” the putative bone of contention? Once again, the answer is far from unambiguous. Soon after the Six Day War, Israel began building a series of large neighborhoods beyond the 1948-1967 border (the ‘Green Line’). Some restored a long-standing Jewish presence that was cut short during the war of 1948: the Jewish Quarter in the Old City that was conquered by the Jordanians during the war and destroyed; the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus, which actually remained in Israeli hands throughout this period, but as an isolated lifeless enclave. Some extended Jewish Jerusalem into new areas, which were either adjacent to pre-1967 Jewish neighborhoods or were on unoccupied hills further out: French Hill, Ramat Eshkol, Ramot, Giloh. By the time the peace process began with the Oslo Accords in 1993, these were already substantial neighborhoods with tens of thousands of people living in them, and thus became an inevitable factor in the negotiations. Few, even on the Palestinian side, expected these post-1967 Israeli neighborhoods to be evacuated. This was the so-called “Consensus” – a loaded reified term in Israeli politics – that Netanyahu and the Israeli government now invoke whenever they insist that nothing has changed in 43 years of Israeli government policy in Jerusalem.
Which is, in fact, an utter misrepresentation. Neither of the recent storms about Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is part of the urban reality encompassed in the “Consensus.”
Take Ramat Shlomo, the neighborhood in which an expansion of 1600 units was approved while Joe Biden was in Israel, a public snub that triggered the present storm over Jerusalem. In 1993 this spot was a barren hill. There were no buildings on it, no inhabitants, nothing. It was a hill, moreover, that was part of the contiguous section of East Jerusalem which was likely to revert back to the Palestinian side in any plausible geographic enactment of a two-state solution with Jerusalem as capital to both. Ramat Shlomo, like Har Homa, which was a major project of Netanyahu’s first government in the late 1990s, were last-ditch efforts to alter the map after negotiations had begun. However their fate is decided now, it is at least questionable whether they should unthinkingly merit the same status in negotiations as those neighborhoods that had already been in place in 1993, at the ostensible beginning of the peace process. But since these are neighborhoods in which most Israelis have never set foot, let alone foreigners, they are largely unaware of these distinctions. The Palestinians, on the other hand, are painfully aware of them. Their projected share of the city is a moving target, and one that is continually shrinking,
The second eye of the storm is even more pernicious. To understand the situation in Sheikh Jarrah, you really have to go there. You have to see for yourself these few buildings that have recently been taken over by Jewish settlers in the middle of a dense Palestinian neighborhood. The houses are literally wrapped in Israeli flags. Everything about them cries provocation. The Palestinian families that lived in them until their evacuation several months ago are now living in makeshift encampments opposite their former houses. Israeli police and military are present in large numbers. They ensure the safety of the settlers. They harass – sometimes violently – the weekly demonstrators, Israelis and Palestinians together, who every Friday march to protest this new outrage. But they do little to protect the Palestinian neighbors from the heckling and even violence of the newcomers.
Sheikh Jarrah also includes the Shepherd Hotel Compound, where the approval of twenty settler units was announced on the day Netanyahu was in Washington, and thus got some press attention. It is actually but one of several such projects recently gaining ground but not always noticed by the press, including the six-story “Beit Yehonatan” in the large Palestinian village of Silwan, and a new settlement in the Palestinian village E-Tur on top of the Mount of Olives. These are completely different types of construction projects. They are hardly a response to natural urban growth, like Ramat Shlomo or the other large neighborhoods. Rather, they are small Israeli beachheads in the middle of well established and densely built Palestinian neighborhoods. They are ideologically driven and populated by settlers of the most aggressive type, whose behavior grates even many in the broader settler communities (Recently the small settler community in Sheikh Jarrah was filmed singing songs of praise for Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish terrorist who killed dozens of Muslims during prayer in Hebron in 1994; and singing so loudly that their Palestinian neighbors could not but hear every word). The goals of these small settler enclaves is to proclaim Jewish superiority everywhere, while disrupting the tissue of co-existence that depends on leaving Palestinians spaces of their own.
In every case the government and the municipality – currently run by a right-wing mayor, Nir Barkat, who seems all too eager to stoke any fire that comes his way – put forth arguments that supposedly justify the invasion. Some are legal arguments about ownership, sometimes going back eighty years (as in the case of Sheikh Jarrah) and sometimes based on a recent purchase (as in the case of the Shepherd Hotel). Some are historical arguments, mobilizing traditional Jewish associations of those particular spots – partly true, partly invented or stretched – to buttress a claim from times immemorial. But the goal, the methods, and the consequences are always the same: an intrusive encroachment into Palestinian space, eyesore houses emblazoned with Israeli flags, aggressive settlers that often seek confrontation with the neighboring Palestinians, and a permanent disruptive presence of Israeli military and police that inevitably follow the settlers. That the legal argument is but a veneer is demonstrated by the fact that ever since the incongruous high-rise intrusion into the Palestinian village of Silwan, named by the settlers “Yehonatan House,” was declared by Israeli courts illegal and due for immediate demolition, Jerusalem’s mayor has openly defied this ruling.
In terms of sheer damage to co-existence in a complicated city, therefore, twenty units in Sheikh Jarrah sow more immediate hatred than 1600 units in Ramat Shlomo. To present such aggressive acts as a continuation of the policies of Israeli governments over 43 years is simply untrue. Until recently, Israeli governments carefully avoided such conflicts, and thus allowed Jewish-Arab coexistence in the Holy City to remain surprisingly resilient in the face of many challenges during the first generation after 1967. Efforts to disrupt this pattern began by individuals and small groups, often with private American funding. Their intensification over the last decade and a half has largely flown under the radar, despite being a development with momentous consequences (much greater, say, than those of the settlement ‘outposts’ that have received so much attention). Their protestations of innocence notwithstanding, the support for this game-changing policy from Netanyahu’s government together with the zealous mayor of Jerusalem is unprecedented.
I grew up in a divided Jerusalem. I know full well why such an urban reality cannot and should not return. I then spent many years as a tour guide in Jerusalem, and have a deep investment in its 3000 years of history, with its rich cultural and religious associations. Until recently, I have also believed that, despite the overblown rhetoric that Jerusalem inevitably elicits, the actual political problem it posits can lend itself to a reasonable solution. That Jerusalem is not in truth “united” is what makes such a solution possible. It has clearly Jewish parts and clearly Arab parts, and those function well independently of each other. Jews and Arabs mingle but can also retreat to their own space. An operational modus vivendi, in other words, already exists. Jerusalem’s overload of holiness is centered in a very small area in and around the Old City: several reasonable solutions for this “holy basin” have been suggested, combining pragmatic arrangements on the ground with creative fudging of the ultimate sovereignty which can be left in the hands of God. And as for the symbols of real national sovereignty, if you actually mark on a map the Israeli “capitol hill,” that is the hill that houses the Knesset, the main Government Ministries and the Supreme Court, and then the Palestinian projected “capitol hill” in Abu Dis, a township on the Mount of Olives, you will discover that they are more or less equidistant from the holy places in the Old City. A perfect geographic basis for a balanced urban compromise.
Netanyahu’s government is deliberately undermining this balance and rapidly changing the urban circumstances, thus rendering a compromise less and less likely. As it turns out, counter to Netanyahu’s claims, these actions are not in the Israeli vaunted “Consensus.” Even at this juncture when the left in Israel is unprecedently weak, many Israelis (42% according to a recent poll) oppose these new Israeli policies and support a complete freeze of Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. The U.S. should not let manipulative rhetoric about the eternal city and 3000 years of history obfuscate the actual intersection of historical and geographic facts, nor stand in the way of the policy conclusions that must be drawn from them.