After 43 Years, a Divided City

Lest it be said that I never agree with anything that Benjamin Netanyahu says, I actually concur with one clause -- not a whole sentence -- in the speech he gave Tuesday evening. "The struggle for Jerusalem is a struggle for the truth," the prime minister of my country said.

The rest of his speech consisted of the usual quarter-truths and myths that make up most statements about "eternally united" Jerusalem -- by Netanyahu himself, by other Israeli officials, and by often-naive American supporters. Nobel Peace Prize Winner Elie Wiesel's open letter, published as a full-page ad last month in The New York Times and other U.S. papers, is a good example of the art form.

Netanyahu was speaking at the start of the celebrations for Jerusalem Day, the sundown-to-sundown national holiday marking Israel's conquest of East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War of 1967. (The anniversary is set according to the Hebrew date, rather than the civil date of June 7.) The venue was Merkaz Harav yeshivah, the seminary most identified with the stream of religious Zionism that gives metaphysical meaning to Israel's victory in that war. Netanyahu's right-wing ally, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, was admirably more honest speaking both at Merkaz Harav and the next day in Parliament. Rivlin acknowledged, with pain, that Jerusalem is not "bound firmly together" -- the words from Psalm 122:3 so often cited in speeches about "united" Jerusalem.

Rivlin also admitted that outside of religious Zionists, most Israelis now ignore Jerusalem Day. Since East Jerusalem serves as synecdoche for all the conquests of 1967, this says something about wider attitudes toward the occupation. Most religious Zionists, along with politicians of the secular right, are still celebrating Israeli rule over the "Whole Land of Israel." The majority of Jewish Israelis have simply put the occupation out of their minds, as a problem that seems both faraway and beyond solution. Meanwhile, those concerned with the occupation as a threat to Israel's character and future do mark Jerusalem Day, not as a celebration but as the time for some truth-telling.

So a report on East Jerusalem realities, published for Jerusalem Day by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, is a good start for rebutting both Netanyahu and Wiesel. Most of the sources for the ACRI report are official Israeli documents, which apparently get a much more serious reading by civil-rights activists than by the prime minister's staff.

Wiesel's ad, for instance, stated in bold type: "Contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city." Netanyahu asserted: "We are not banishing anyone; we are not removing anyone." Now for a dose of facts: Though the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem has grown by 450 percent since 1967, the ACRI report notes, bureaucratic hurdles have made "the possibility of issuing legal building permits for new construction [for Arabs] in East Jerusalem … practically non-existent for decades." Since 1967, the Israeli government has expropriated about one-third of East Jerusalem's land; more than 50,000 housing units have been built for Jews on that land, and none for Arabs. So East Jerusalem Palestinians often build homes without permits and face a very real threat of demolition.

It's worth adding that when East Jerusalemites move to Palestinian communities outside the city to find homes, they must hide the fact from a bureaucracy constantly seeking reasons to cancel their status as Israeli residents, a status somewhat akin to holding a green card in America. Losing residency means losing the right to enter Jerusalem and Israel, losing access to jobs and schools, losing coverage by the Israeli social-welfare net. It's a subtle but real means of banishment.

Netanyau reflexively referred to Jerusalem as "united." That's true, in the limited sense that barbed wire fences and concrete walls no longer divide the east and west sides. But a new wall, the Israeli separation barrier, slices through East Jerusalem. ACRI reports that more than 100,000 Palestinian East Jerusalemites -- a third of the total -- live in areas of the city outside the barrier. To get to work, classes or clinics, they have to pass through checkpoints where the wait can be an hour or two.

It's also true that the same City Hall has responsibility for Jewish and Arab Jerusalem. But it doesn't fulfill its responsibility for the Arab side. Most municipal forms are only available in Hebrew. Garbage collection is sporadic on some East Jerusalem streets, nonexistent on others, as ACRI reports. Half of East Jerusalem's Palestinians lack legal access to the municipal water lines. The city school system in East Jerusalem lacks 1,000 classrooms needed to educate Palestinian children. This isn't even a pretense of equal services.

Both Netanyahu and Wiesel insist that Israeli rule has insured free access to the Jerusalem's holy sites for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Though the ACRI report doesn't relate to this point, it shouldn't pass without comment. It's true -- and important -- that since 1967, Jews have been able to pray at the Western Wall, a right denied them when Jordan ruled the Old City. In 1999, during the last Ramadan of the Oslo era, hundreds of thousands of Muslims came to Al-Aqsa mosque for Friday prayers, many of them from the West Bank.

Since the second Intifada erupted in 2000, however, Israeli security measures have made it much harder for West Bank residents to enter Jerusalem -- and have therefore reduced access to Al-Aqsa. In another security step, Israel regularly bars entry to the mosque compound to young men, as a way of preventing violent demonstrations. The security issues are very real -- but the restrictions show that occupation, even the gentler form of occupation practiced in East Jerusalem, is no way to maintain free access to holy places.

One of Wiesel's strangest comments is that "Jerusalem is above politics." Politics is the process by which people adjudicate differences through negotiations, votes, compromises, and laws. In Jerusalem, differences are being adjudicated by force, by the imposition of one side's rule on the other. The real problem is that Jerusalem is operating at a level beneath politics.

For most Israeli Jews, as the ACRI report notes, "East Jerusalem is a remote place, unknown and vague." Elie Wiesel, a man for whom I usually have great respect, put his name to a statement about Jerusalem without bothering to find out the facts himself. As for Netanyahu, he was accidentally right when he said that Jerusalem needs a "struggle for truth." The truth is that Jewish and Arab Jerusalem are next to each other, even entangled in each other, but have never been united. To find a political solution that will bring peace to the sacred and blood-stained city, that truth must be acknowledged.

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