When the Six Day War ended on June 10, 1967, Israel found itself at a miraculous crossroads. On the one hand, it had just emerged victorious from a war that many thought would end in the destruction of the Jewish state. On the other hand, it had more than doubled its territory, conquering the Golan Heights from Syria, the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, and the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan. The question now was what to do.
On June 11, prime minister Levi Eshkol convened his cabinet. It was the first of eight meetings the cabinet would hold over the next two weeks. It was during these meetings that the “new Jerusalem” was born, a city that had never been planned except in the fantasies of a handful of Zionist dreamers.
The main issue on the agenda was what to do with the city. There was pretty much consensus that Israel would reunite Jerusalem, but to what extent? Two factions emerged – the maximalists, led by Maj.-Gen. Rehavam Ze’evi – then in the IDF Operations Directorate – and the minimalists, led by several of the ministers.
Ze’evi pushed for a massive expansion of the city. He wanted to annex territory from the outskirts of Ramallah in the north, all the way to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in the south. Some of the ministers though voiced caution and preferred a minimalistic approach based on a simple principle – maximum territory with minimum Arabs.
These ministers had different ideas.
Some thought that the Arabs would leave on their own volition now that Israel has won the war. When that didn’t immediately happen, other ministers claimed that once Jews moved in, the Arabs would move out. In subsequent meetings, Eshkol led the way to a compromise that culminated in a cabinet decision on June 27, a little over two weeks after the war ended, to annex 70 square kilometers to the city.
The final vote though came after some rookie mistakes Eshkol and his cabinet made. They had good intentions – trying to minimize diplomatic fallout once the annexation went through the legislative process in the Knesset and was official. Justice minister Ya’akov Shapira, for example, met with newspaper editors and updated them on the government’s annexation plans. Most were sympathetic and seemingly agreed not to make too much noise with the annexation news in their reporting, but in the end the story came out in a big way. Until today, foreign countries still do not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Eshkol and his cabinet were motivated by three primary considerations. The first was protecting Israel in the event of another war. There was the possibility that Israel would be attacked once again from the east and by Jordan. By expanding the capital, Israel was defining borders that would be easier to defend.
The second consideration was ensuring that Israel retained sovereignty over the Old City. As a result, it annexed the Arab areas surrounding the Old City from every direction.
The third consideration was that some of the ministers did not think Israel would be able to hold on to the West Bank and would ultimately have to withdraw.
For them, the annexation of Jerusalem was essentially the drawing of the state’s future borders.
But that was all in 1967. On Sunday, Israel will celebrate Jerusalem Day and the country’s amazing victory in the Six Day War. Sunday will signify the beginning of Israel’s 50th year with a united capital, although depending on where you stand politically, it will be either to celebrate 50 years of reunification and liberation or to look back on half a century of failed policies and occupation.
A tour of east Jerusalem leaves an impression that had Eshkol known in 1967 what the reality of 2016 would be like, he would have pushed toward a different decision in the cabinet meeting on June 27. The inclusion of places like Shuafat, Kafr Aqab, Jebl Mukaber and others, are difficult to understand in today’s political and demographic reality.
Why should Israel continue holding on to these Arab parts of Jerusalem, many people wonder. Others can’t explain why – in 2016 – with a wall splitting some of these villages, Israel doesn’t simply hand over the keys – to the parts on the other side of the barrier – to the Palestinian Authority. It is also difficult to understand what politicians mean when they say “Jerusalem will remain united forever” or when Yair Lapid says that Jerusalem will remain united because it is “an idea.” What exactly does he mean? Is Shuafat part of that so-called “idea,” or Isawiya? Most Israelis have never been to these places and would probably not know where they are on a map, and even if they could find them, they would be too afraid to walk through their streets. In at-Tur, for example, some of the locals express caution when turning onto the neighborhood’s narrower, back alleyways.
Jerusalem today is a metropolis and with 870,000 residents, is the largest city in the country. That is a far cry from the 200,000 Jews and 66,000 Arabs who lived here in 1967. Today, we have a light rail that has transformed the capital, connecting the north of the city with the south. A photo of Jerusalem’s downtown could pass for a European capital with its bustling streets and passing train cars. As a city looking from the outside, it appears like a celebration of diversity.
But in reality, it is a city that remains not just divided, but undecided. Arabs who live in east Jerusalem – 37 percent of the city’s population – feel caught in limbo. For that reason, for example, the Interior Ministry has seen a steady rise in recent years in the number of Arabs asking to convert their “resident” status for full Israeli citizenship. As outside polls have shown, many of them would prefer to remain in Israel if the city were ever divided under a peace deal with the Palestinians.
The government and successive mayors have yet to decide what they want to do with the Arabs of east Jerusalem.
Yes, the municipality can declare that it is investing unprecedented amounts of money in infrastructure and schools, but when large parts of east Jerusalem lack regular public transportation or services as basic as garbage collection, it prefers to not make decisions. While the city can celebrate the 900 street signs it has posted throughout east Jerusalem in recent years as a demonstration of Israeli sovereignty, that message does not filter down to Arab youth who are inundated by the drug dealers of Shuafat who, for some reason, are left to themselves by the Jerusalem Police.
What should be done with east Jerusalem? There is no one answer. Nadav Shragai, a veteran journalist and author of several books on Jerusalem, believes that the government should not relinquish any municipal territory to the Palestinians. Instead, he says, it should establish a local council for the Arab villages it anyhow has barely any connection to.
“This way, the villages make decisions independently and take care of themselves like other local councils in Israel do on their own,” he explains.
Another plan, recently unveiled by former Labor Party minister Haim Ramon, calls to exclude most of the Arab neighborhoods annexed to Jerusalem in 1967 from the municipal borders. Ramon wants to finish construction of a continuous security barrier between the Arab villages and the more Jewish Jerusalem and to then let the residency cards held by the Arabs on the other side expire.
The problem, as Shragai points out, is that most east Jerusalem Arabs view themselves as Israeli Arabs more than as Palestinians from the West Bank. “Seventy percent of them were born into a reality of a united Jerusalem,” he says.
Mahmoud, a resident of Shuafat and a tourist guide for what he calls “alternative- political” tours, says over bitter Turkish coffee near Damascus Gate this week that the original mistake was Eshkol’s decision not to force citizenship on Jerusalem’s Arab population in 1967, as was done with the Arabs who found themselves within Israel’s borders after the War of Independence in 1949.
“Israel annexed our land, but not us as a people,” he says. “The situation would have been different had Israel given citizenship right away. We would be more like Israeli Arabs.”
What Mahmoud is ignoring is the east Jerusalem Arabs’ decision not to ask for citizenship, and to sit out every mayoral election and to largely refuse to be integrated into the city and the state.
But if Mahmoud and his fellow residents want to feel like Israeli Arabs, they first need to be treated like them. For that to happen, Israel would need to decide to provide east Jerusalem with municipal services like Israeli Arabs receive and the police would need to enforce law and order in east Jerusalem neighborhoods just as they do in the rest of the country.
Law and order is a key piece of sovereignty.
If municipal inspectors and policemen stay away from a neighborhood where residents get away with petty crime, building violations and without paying property tax, we shouldn’t be surprised if some of them go out one day and take the law into their own hands. If people feel that they live in a lawless area, it could be the start of a slippery slope.
For 49 years, consecutive governments have decided not to make decisions when it comes to Jerusalem. Ahead of our capital’s 50th birthday, it is time to decide.