Three weeks after the Six Day War, the two Jerusalems became one again, when the Knesset annexed some 79 square km. across the former armistice line and incorporated them within the municipal boundaries of Israel’s capital.
Overnight, Israeli Jerusalem was tripled in size and Jordanian Jerusalem ceased to exist. The annexed area included not only Jordanian Jerusalem (just 6% of the area) but a large rural hinterland. In delineating the new border, a panel consisting of senior civil servants and a general, Rehavam Ze’evi, was guided by history – not Jerusalem’s ancient history, but the kind they had lived through themselves just a few weeks before.
Jerusalem had gone to war with itself twice in one generation and the expanded area was seen as a security buffer. It incorporated high ground, from Gilo in the south to Pisgat Ze’ev in the northeast near Hizme, where Jordanian artillery had bombarded the city for two days in June. It attempted to avoid areas heavily populated by Arabs. The annexation included parts, or all, of 28 villages.
Only a small fraction of the annexed area was connected to biblical Jerusalem, principally the kilometersquare Old City itself.
THE DAY before annexation was to go into effect, defense minister Moshe Dayan invited security and municipal officials to a meeting on the terrace of the King David Hotel, overlooking the Old City walls. Tomorrow, he said, the border between the two halves of the city will be opened and residents will be free to cross – Arabs as well as Jews.
Virtually everybody present objected.
It was too soon, they said; enemies who had just fought a war cannot become peaceful neighbors overnight – pent-up passions would inevitably explode. But Dayan was unmoved. “East Jerusalem is Israeli,” he said. “Open the city.”
The next morning, Arabs and Jews, generally in family groups, passed through the crossing points with profound curiosity and a sense of awe to explore streets they had not seen for two decades and which most believed they never would see again, an area that for 19 years had been as inaccessible as the far side of the moon.
Israelis headed first for the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall. Many Arabs went to see homes they lived in before fleeing the 1948 war. Sometimes, they knocked and asked whether they could see the house. One Arab woman could not restrain herself when she saw the condition of the garden and asked the Jewish resident why she hadn’t looked after it better.
The day turned out to be one of the most peaceful Jerusalem had known in modern times: the police received not a single complaint from the public. Some Jerusalemites crossed the border in search of old friends. Menashe Eliachar, whose family has lived in Jerusalem for 500 years and whose father had had Arab business partners, entered the Old City through the Jaffa Gate and immediately ran into a rug dealer who had worked for his father.
Eliachar was head of the chamber of commerce on the Jewish side of the city and had been asked by mayor Teddy Kollek to make contact with business leaders in the Arab sector whom he had known, in order to begin reviving commercial life in the reunited city.
It took Eliachar two hours to walk the short distance to the Arab Chamber of Commerce at the Damascus Gate, as acquaintances along the way embraced him and wanted to talk.
Within days, the Old City marketplace was flooded with Israeli shoppers.
In Jewish Jerusalem, Arabs seeking employment began inquiring at businesses and workshops. Within a short time, thousands would be working there.
Businessmen from both sides crossed the old border to explore opportunities.
By midsummer, many of the enrollees in Hebrew language courses in west Jerusalem, intended for new immigrants, were Arabs from across town.
Almost forgotten were the calls over loudspeakers just a few weeks before by preachers in east Jerusalem mosques to slaughter the Jews, and as a frenzied mob carried PLO leader Ahmad Shukeiry aloft after he pledged that there would be “few [Israeli] survivors” in the coming war.
On June 19 – one week after the war’s end – the government agreed on a proposal for peace treaties with Egypt and Syria, under which Israel would give up Sinai and the Golan in return for their demilitarization and Israel’s right of passage through the Suez Canal and Tiran Straits. The offer was rejected.
Israel had made no offer with regard to the West Bank, because the political leadership was divided over whether a deal should be sought with Jordan or whether the territory should be earmarked for a Palestinian entity.
Meanwhile, the physical unification of the two Jerusalems proceeded swiftly.
Some 90,000 mines in and around the city were removed, but not before a dozen army sappers and 70 Jewish and Arab civilians venturing into no-man’sland had their feet blown off. Utility lines were laid across from the Jewish side and east Jerusalem residents, who previously received water in their taps twice a week, now had it round the clock. Outlying villages were linked to an electricity grid for the first time.
Within months, the government began rebuilding the Jewish Quarter and drawing up plans for a housing development, Ramot Eshkol, linking Mount Scopus with west Jerusalem to ensure that Scopus would not be cut off again.
The international community rejected the annexation, but without the whiff of ultimatums that had forced Israel out of Sinai in 1956. Israel’s three weeks of restraint in the prewar “waiting period,” despite Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser’s provocations, gave Jerusalem political capital with which to maneuver.
So did the Arab rejection of Israel’s postwar peace offer. Seeking to ensure continued Jewish demographic dominance in the expanded city, the government expropriated a third of the land in east Jerusalem – almost all of it rocky, uninhabited hills – for Israeli housing developments. Built along the outer edge of the annexed territory, these developments constituted, in effect, a new city wall.
Mayor Kollek reportedly sought to exclude some of the area that became Pisgat Ze’ev from these plans, in order to permit Arab residents of adjacent Shuafat, who owned much of the land, room to expand. Then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin overruled him.
AS THE shock of the war passed and no political settlement appeared on the horizon, the Arab population became increasingly alienated, with periodic acts of civil disobedience and terrorism.
Nevertheless, Arabs continued to work and shop in west Jerusalem and Jews walked and shopped freely almost anywhere in Arab Jerusalem. This would last for some two decades, until the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in 1987. An east Jerusalem businessman would in time refer to those 20 years as “a golden age.”
Relations become more guarded after the intifada, but coexistence still prevailed, even if strained. However, the violent second intifada that broke out in 2000 narrowed the areas of contact significantly.
For some Jerusalem Arabs, the sense of being a conquered people was offset by the substantial economic benefits of Israeli residency. In a 2011 poll cosponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, 35% of Jerusalem Arabs said they would prefer to live as Israeli citizens after the creation of a Palestinian state.
Only 30% said they favored Palestinian citizenship, with the rest declining to answer. A more telling measure of political identity, however, was the fact that only 1% exercised their right as permanent residents to vote in municipal elections. No Arabs ran for city council, lest this be regarded as acceptance of Israeli rule.
In the half century since the Six Day War, only some 12,000 east Jerusalem Arabs (who numbered more than 300,000 by 2015) requested Israeli citizenship and only 5,000 received it.
In a census after the 1967 war, Arabs constituted 26% of the population.
Israeli officials assumed that the massive construction of Jewish housing in east Jerusalem would inevitably dilute that percentage. However, half a century later, the Arab population ratio had risen to 37% and demographers were projecting an Arab majority in the city within a few decades if there were no significant political change.
Unusual close relations A few years after the war, with the removal of the border fence in Abu Tor that had separated them, Haim Machsumi, an immigrant from Iran who worked as a janitor in the Finance Ministry, and his neighbor, Abu Ali, who used to live before the 1967 war on the other side of the fence, developed an unusually close relationship.
I would stop by periodically to reassure myself that a connection of this kind between Jewish and Arab families could survive in a city defined by ethnic and nationalist tensions.
On one visit, Haim was not home and I walked down the slope to Abu Ali’s house. Haim was sitting on a couch in the living room with the old man, drinking mint tea. Haim’s wife, Rachel, sat in a corner with Abu Ali’s daughter, both of them knitting as they chatted in Arabic.
Children from both families were sitting on the floor in front of the television, where American marines were storming ashore at Tarawa behind John Wayne.
“You fellows don’t know what this is all about,” roared Abu Ali, who was then 91, as he gestured at the screen. “I was a soldier in the Turkish army. I fought against the Russians in the Caucasus.”
He was talking to his grandson, Ziad, and to Ziad’s best friend, Avraham, Haim’s 17-year-old son.
Haim’s children plainly adored Abu Ali and he had his favorites among them. Asked if he thought true peace would come, he said, “Only Allah will say. Man without God is nothing.”
When Haim and his family walked back up the hill to their house, accompanied by Ziad, Haim’s five-yearold son, Avner, ran to the Arab youth and clasped him around the knees. Ziad tousled the boy’s hair and Avner gave him his hand as they walked.
“Our relations are stronger than ever,” Haim said, as we watched the scene. “We just don’t discuss politics.”
Every Saturday afternoon, Abu Ali came up the slope with a finjan of hot coffee for Haim and Rachel. “He knows that we don’t boil water on Shabbat, so he insists on bringing us coffee.”
The night that Passover ended, Abu Ali and other Arab neighbors would come to Haim with fresh pita to end the Jewish family’s week-long abstinence from bread. Haim and Rachel made reciprocal visits on Muslim holidays and were invited to weddings in Arab Abu Tor.
When I visited a year later, Avraham was in the army. His father said that when his son came home on leave, the first thing he did was to go down to fetch Ziad for a game of billiards in the café on the Arab side of the hill.
The bonding of the two families was exceptional, but warm relations between Jews and Arabs who came to know each other was not uncommon. The owner of a small printing shop opposite City Hall told me that, during Ramadan, when Muslims do not eat, drink or smoke during daylight hours, he also refrained from doing so in his shop out of deference to his two Arab employees, even though he was a heavy smoker and liked his morning coffee.
He had taken on the workers as youths, attended their family celebrations, given them large bonuses to help them start married life, and left them in charge of the business when he went abroad.
For the most part, however, the Arab and Jewish populations still live separate lives, nurturing grievances and fears regarding one another. “Not talking politics” could work on the individual level; but at the communal level, man remains a political animal.
The passage of decades by itself did not mitigate political differences.
For all its built-in tensions, however, Jerusalem proved resilient enough to permit a tolerable level of accommodation among its diverse populations. Resting on the slopes of a political volcano, it would remain for believing Jews, Muslims and Christians a gateway to heaven.■ The article is an excerpt from the 50th anniversary edition of The Battle for Jerusalem by the writer.