Reality Check: The decline of east Jerusalem's stature

The rhetoric at the Fatah convention surrounding Jerusalem should be treated in the same way as Israeli claims of the city as an undivided, eternal capital.

August 9, 2009 20:55
4 minute read.
Reality Check: The decline of east Jerusalem's stature

Sheikh Jarrah eviction protest 248.88 ap. (photo credit: AP)

Jerusalem is a great place to be in the summer. The weather, compared to Tel Aviv, is livable, and there is no shortage of happenings to make each summer month special. Numerous festivals - the Jerusalem Film Festival , the Wine Festival, the Beer Festival - as well as the Hutzot Hayotzer fair (International Arts and Crafts Festival) all help to restore the image of a city badly damaged by haredi riots protesting the Saturday opening of a municipal parking lot. A similar summer buzz is taking place to the north of Jerusalem, in Ramallah. Restaurants are full to capacity, alcohol is freely available and the cappuccino is said to be as good as it gets outside of Italy. The economy of this West Bank town is booming and is being held up as an example of what could lie ahead for the Palestinians. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, noting the impressive seven percent growth rate in the Palestinian economy in the West Bank, talked in a speech to the National Defense College of imagining when "the skylines of Ramallah, Jenin and Hebron start to fill up with skyscrapers, when malls, cinemas and restaurants open, and Palestinian youths know they have a future." BUT JUST as the feel-good atmosphere generated by the festivals in Jerusalem can only temporarily mask the tensions and problems of the country's capital, the Ramallah restaurant boom is also a bubble, floating above the more depressing reality of life in the West Bank, where it will take more than the recent lifting of a number of IDF roadblocks to restore a true sense of normalcy. Meanwhile, Ramallah's ascendancy as the de facto center of Palestinian life in the West Bank has come at a cost: the decline in stature of east Jerusalem. Just as Jerusalem, the summer festivals aside, plays second fiddle in reality to Tel Aviv in terms of Israel's cultural and business activities, the same is true of east Jerusalem in terms of Ramallah, but even more so. The vision of an Israeli-Palestinian peace in which east Jerusalem can be the functioning capital of the Palestinian state is, at present, particularly hard to imagine. The reasons for this are numerous and complex, and certainly not all Israel's fault. During the Jordanian rule of the West Bank between 1948 and 1967, the status of east Jerusalem was deliberately downgraded. Jordan's Hashemite rulers wanted to stress the primacy of Amman, the center of their power, over the more Palestinian east Jerusalem. In its character and socioeconomic standing, east Jerusalem is also more a collection of villages than an urban conurbation, which has also seriously hampered its development. This weekend's rhetoric at the Fatah convention in Bethlehem surrounding Jerusalem should be treated in the same way as Israeli claims of present-day Jerusalem as one, undivided city and eternal capital. A quick tour of east Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Jebl Mukaber or Umm Tuba, for example, is enough to disabuse anyone except the most ideologically blinded of visitors of the absurdity of such Israeli claims. JUST AS removed from reality are the Palestinian demands of dismantling the Jerusalem neighborhoods (officially regarded as settlements by the rest of the world) built over the Green Line over the past four decades. Gilo, Pisgat Ze'ev and Neveh Ya'acov are not going to disappear should peace be achieved. At the same time, one has to recognize the Palestinian sense of grievance concerning these areas. The Jewish neighborhoods across the Green Line in Jerusalem were constructed for purely political or military reasons and not to meet any sensible urban planning requirements. The ridge on which Gilo is situated, for example, was earlier home to the Jordanian army, which had a clear line of fire from there to the Knesset. Har Homa, controversially built during Netanyahu's first premiership, aims to cut off any possibility of the Palestinians achieving territorial contiguity between Bethlehem, Beit Sahur and east Jerusalem. But neither Gilo nor Har Homa make much sense in terms of rational urban development. And what makes even less sense, if the government is sincere in its statements that it wants to go ahead with the peace process, are the two recent "land grabs" inside east Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood: the authorization for the Shepherd Hotel development plan and the disturbing eviction of 53 Palestinians, with their belongings thrown out into the street, from their home of over half-a-century. The argument in the latter case, that the property was Jewish-owned before 1948, sounds particularly weak, given the vast amounts of pre-1948 Arab-owned property in west Jerusalem. It is hard to imagine Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, for example, being turfed out of his handsome Talbiyeh mansion, with his belongings thrown onto the road, in favor of the descendants of the property's original Arab owners. Jerusalem is a complex city on a myriad of planes, not just in terms of Israel-Palestinian relations. Solving its problems within the framework of a peace agreement will be far from easy and these recent events in Sheikh Jarrah just make it harder. For those looking for something to do in Jerusalem this summer, alongside the numerous festivals, let me recommend a four-hour guided tour of east Jerusalem run by Ir Amim (, an Israeli nonprofit organization, just to see for yourself the difference between the two sides of the city and how difficult it will be to realize the dream of one city, but two capitals. The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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