Spontaneous Fission

I noticed it the first time one day when I took a cab
downtown. I avoid buses; they blow up on occasion. Next to the Old City walls,
the taxi turned left off King Solomon Street. And there, at the start of Jaffa
Road (West Jerusalem's main street), a police van was parked at an angle across
the asphalt and a metal police barricade left just one lane open. A cop with an
M-16 rifle stood eyeballing each car that rolled by. He let us pass without
stopping. Neither the driver nor I looked Palestinian. I glanced back to make
sure: Yes, there was really a checkpoint framed between the stone buildings. A
half-remembered picture flashed in my mind of a downtown street ending in
concrete wall -- a black-and-white photo of divided Jerusalem before the 1967
war. The checkpoint was hardly as substantial as concrete. But it stood -- like a
physical Freudian slip, an unintended reference to nastiness buried in memory --
no more than meters from where the armistice line once sliced the city in two.

The checkpoint made no sense. "Eternally united Jerusalem" has long
been an Israeli principle of faith, and remarking on the erased border between
Jewish and Arab Jerusalem is a civil heresy. The checkpoint also made perfect
sense: A couple of weeks before a Palestinian woman had blown herself up on Jaffa
Road, killing an elderly man and wounding dozens of people. The police and the
army are desperate to intercept people wearing explosives, and the obvious last
line of defense runs between the Jewish and Palestinian sides of the city.

The next time I passed that corner, the checkpoint was gone. But when I rode
my bicycle up the hill from my West Jerusalem home, I found another roadblock --
a police van, a jeep, uniformed men -- on the road to the Palestinian
neighborhood of Sur Bahir, precisely where the Israeli-Jordanian border once
divided the city. They were there to check Palestinians, not me. But simple fear
is enough to keep me from crossing that line. I've entered Sur Bahir just once in
recent months; I went with a Palestinian cabbie and identified myself as an
American journalist, not an Israeli.

Jerusalem is shrinking around me, redividing. True, political borders have not
been marked between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, as then-Prime Minister Ehud
Barak proposed at Camp David two years ago, defying all rules of Israeli
politics. The barbed wire that rent the city for 19 years has certainly not been
restored. The new boundaries are blurred, uncertain, permeable. There are phantom
checkpoints that appear and vanish. The redivision mocks political ideologies.
But there's no doubt: Without negotiation or agreements, my city is contracting
as I watch.

I moved here in 1977, a decade after Israel annexed East Jerusalem. The city
was wide open. It straddled the old border between Israel and Jordan. It also
straddled the boundary between West and Mideast; that was its allure. My mental
map of East Jerusalem was vague, but I felt no trepidation going there. One
midnight on a whim, I led several friends to the Old City, which we
circumnavigated atop the walls in utter darkness, afraid only of dozing in class
the next day. I rode Arab buses; I visited an occasional friend who'd rented a
big house in an Arab neighborhood. I had to notice there were no sidewalks or
streetlamps in those quarters, consistently neglected by the Israeli City Hall. I
shopped at a bookstore called Universal Library on Saladin Street in the Arab
commercial district; the store had a quirky selection in English on Mideast
politics.

When the first Palestinian uprising erupted in 1987, the city contracted just
a bit. Occasionally a Jew was stabbed in Jerusalem. It seemed unwise to end up in
alleyways of the Arab part of town. After the Oslo process began, the Arab side
remained marked on Jews' mental map in a shade of danger. But East Jerusalemites,
who carry the blue ID cards of Israeli residents, still came to work at
restaurants and building sites, even when West Bank Palestinians were barred from
the city.

Gradually, the city and areas beyond it reopened. Bethlehem to the south and
Ramallah to the north were turned over to Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
Israelis ventured into Bethlehem to shop on Saturday, when stores are closed in
Jewish Jerusalem. An intrepid few went to listen to jazz in Ramallah. One day I
returned to Universal Library. The dusty English books all dated from before
1987. I strolled backstreets, only looking over my shoulder a bit, just slightly
ready to jump at shadows.

Even in East Jerusalem, though, I knew I'd crossed a border. My almost-safety
was a payday loan against the expected time of peace when, East Jerusalemites
presumed, they'd be living in the Palestinian capital. On Saladin Street, I was a
foreign correspondent.

Instead of peace, though, came the collapse. In Israeli visual memory, the new
Palestinian uprising essentially began with the TV picture of a Palestinian man
showing a Ramallah mob his hands, covered in the blood of two lynched Israeli
soldiers. In East Jerusalem, nothing similar has happened. That doesn't mean I'd
go alone to neighborhoods where I once felt nearly comfortable. Even city garbage
trucks won't enter Kafr Aqab, at Jerusalem's northern tip. After trash piled up
for months, Jerusalem's city hall agreed to give a local community center
director funds to pay Palestinian garbage collectors. On a municipal level, this
is the equivalent of a retreating empire: Vassals rule what once were provinces.

Palestinians have fought this war with the human bomb, the poor man's cruise
missile. One Israeli answer is the checkpoint. A "Roadblock Ahead" sign once
signaled the line between sovereign Israel and the occupied territories, or
between Israeli and Palestinian-administered pieces of the territories. Today
there are checkpoints everywhere on West Bank roads, virtually shutting off
Palestinian traffic. Palestinians call them collective punishment; official
Israel says they are intended only to stop terrorists.

Yet there are also checkpoints inside Jerusalem, marking boundaries that
aren't supposed to exist. North of the Old City, along the "seam" -- a way to
avoid saying "border" -- between East and West Jerusalem, runs an Israeli-built
thoroughfare. Walking along it one morning, I found the same sight repeated at
several cross streets leading into the Jewish city: a metal barricade, a
policeman stopping cars, a couple of paramilitary border police. Daring myself, I
turned the other way, down a commercial street leading to the Old City. I was the
only Jew there. A stream of people flowed through the gate into the walled town.
I imagined a knife in my back, and flagged a taxi for the very relative safety of
Jaffa Road. Two weeks later, a policeman at one of the checkpoints on the seam
stopped a suspicious looking car. I could hear the explosion several kilometers
across town. The cop died in the blast, but the suicide bomber hadn't reached
downtown.

Another day a friend I'll call Jibril, an East Jerusalem cabbie, took me to
explore a second border. We drove to the Mount of Olives, east of the Old City.
On the main road a sign announced "roadblock ahead." A metal watchtower on
spindly legs stood next to the road. On the ground, two border policemen stood
behind chest-high concrete barriers while another stopped cars. It looked like
the standard military checkpoint on the Jerusalem-West Bank line -- except that
we were a mile inside the city. The boundary had unofficially moved in. For East
Jerusalemites living beyond it, that means waiting at the checkpoint even to
reach the hospital closer to the city center.

We drove down another street. It ended in a wide mound of dirt and hunks of
concrete, dumped there to force cars to take the single road leading to the
checkpoint. Instead, minibuses pull up beyond the barricade; passengers walk
around the mound and continue on foot into the city. For stopping human bombs,
the checkpoint is a door without a wall. When we got out to look around, Jibril
told a cluster of young men that I was aBritish sahafi, a journalist. This
was no place for an Israeli.

I went to see a friend, an Israeli lawyer named Daniel Seidemann. Pro bono, he
has filed suit on behalf of East Jerusalemites against roadblocks that isolate
their neighborhoods. He also represents 900 East Jerusalem children denied places
in city-run schools. His office window looks out on downtown streets where
strikingly few people were walking around. It doesn't fit, Danny, I told him. You
support a politically divided Jerusalem and you're representing Palestinians, yet
you're suing to get their children into Israeli schools. And you're fighting Ehud
Olmert, Jerusalem's mayor who proclaims that the city will never be divided, and
a police minister who is yet more nationalist.

He laughed without smiling. "An army lawyer told me I should be ideologically
delighted," he recounted. "I said, 'Yes, but that doesn't justify human
suffering.'"

In fact, Jerusalem's roadblocks are a reminder that everyone is losing this
war. In a survey last December by Palestinian Khalil Shikaki, 85 percent of the
Palestinians polled said a two-state solution should include open borders.
Palestinians want an end to the occupation but they're hungry for jobs in Israel,
and the last thing they've sought is a closed line between Israel and Palestine

"Jerusalem," Seidemann told me, "is not waiting for the political leadership"
to implement the peace parameters that Bill Clinton laid out January 2001, under
which Jewish areas of Jerusalem would be under Israeli rule and Arab areas under
Palestinian rule. "In its wisdom, Jerusalem is implementing them on its own."

Here's the difference: Clinton spoke of a city that would be politically split
but physically open. Today, in wartime, it's officially united but progressively
more divided for those who live here. Though they may repress the thought, how
many Israelis would rather see barbed wire run through the city so they can walk
downtown without fear? How many Palestinians who favor partition actually want
barricades to rise along the borders?

There is no end to Jerusalem's dark ironies.

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