Fakhri Abu Diab lives in east Jerusalem, but everything he knows about Israel’s capital is different from the one that his Jewish neighbors love.
“Anyone who comes to east Jerusalem knows that it is not the same city and not the same language,” said Abu Diab, who is a spokesman for the Silwan neighborhood.
The barrier that once divided Jerusalem prior to 1967 has long since been torn down. Fifty-four years have passed since Israel created a united capital when it wrested control of the eastern part of the city from Jordan during the Six Day War.
Next week, as Israel celebrates Jerusalem Day to mark that victory, few will remember where that barrier really stood, but the scars of the division still resonate in the city.
At issue are not just the cultural and linguistic differences between the Palestinian population that largely lives in east Jerusalem and makes up 39% of the municipality’s 900,000 people.
Geopolitics plays a role. Most of the international community supports a divided Jerusalem, where the eastern part of the city would be the capital of a future Palestinian state. An additional complicating factor is the fact that most of the Palestinians have Jerusalem residency but lack Israeli citizenship.
But over time, for many Jewish Israelis, the differences have almost begun to appear cosmetic. They walked around a city that easily looks united and whose redivision seems unrealistic and unfeasible.
For Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum the city’s unity is obvious.
“Jerusalem is a city comprised of communities. That is the essence of Jerusalem. It is a city of communities, but it is a united city. What makes it united? You have one municipal authority taking care of all of its residents,” she said.
That authority is in charge of transport, health, education and public spaces, she added.
“That municipal authority, especially in the last few years, has made it a point of being an inclusive authority, where everyone has a voice, and where everyone can approach the mayor and the deputy mayor and can advocate for their community and receive resources for that community,” she said.
“On a public level, what we have seen in the last five to 10 years is a city that is more integrated than it has ever been. Ten years ago, you never had a young Arab student working in Fox,” Hassan-Nahoum said, adding that many of the shops throughout the city are staffed by Arab residents.
Today, public space is shared by Jewish and Arab residents of the city, including in coffee shops and gyms.
“Whether people admit it or not, whether the detractors can still point fingers at the divided city – in essence, in the day-to-day experience for most people,” the city is integrated physically, logistically and relationally, she said.
“I don’t think our work is finished,” she said, adding that more needs to be done on issues of equity and job placement, particularly in the hi-tech industry, but that is true with respect to any community that has been marginalized, she said.
For many years the governments of Israel, whether left or right, did not know what to do with the issue of east Jerusalem, Hassan-Nahoum said.
“The Left thinks one day it will be the capital of a Palestinian state, and the right wing is concerned with other issues,” she said.
Partially, she said, the problem lay with the Palestinians themselves.
“We had a hostile community, with little leadership, manipulated by the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. It was difficult. I am not saying it was all their fault, but I believe we are in a different place now. The Arabs in east Jerusalem are realizing that they are getting zero, nothing, from the Palestinian leadership, she said.
She credited Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion and former Jerusalem Affairs minister Ze’ev Elkin, now a New Hope MK, for making strides in closing the equity gaps between Jewish and Arab residents of the city, including the development of partnership with the local Arab leadership.
When riots broke out a few weeks ago, Lion, who is Sabbath observant, walked on Saturday to meet with community leaders to seek a way to calm the situation, she said.
The city’s unity was most clearly apparent, she said, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when everyone banded together to fight a common enemy.
“It was beautiful. It was a difficult time, but we came together as a city and that is the measure of how far we have come,” she said.
“The DNA of Jerusalem is one of diversity,” she said, as she explained that King David chose this space to build this city 3,000 years ago because it did not belong to any one tribe and thus it could be a place where everyone could gather together.
“Our DNA is one of convergence, of east and west, of old and new, of past and future and heaven and earth. We will solve all of the conflicts in our country and in our region from Jerusalem,” she said.
THE EXECUTIVE director of the left-wing NGO Ir Amim, Yudith Oppenheimer, said that, factually speaking, Israel annexed east Jerusalem in 1967 and since then it has been managed by one municipality.
On the surface, “you can look at Jerusalem and say here is an urban space in which people can move from one place to another, so maybe this is a united city,” Oppenheimer said.
But “when you look deeper into the situation, you see that the city is actually divided in many aspects, and each one portrays a picture of two very unequal societies, in which one controls the other,” Oppenheimer added.
“One side has all the resources and is very dedicated to expressing its hegemony,” and the other side lacks those resources, she said.
The issue, she said, starts with the fact that most of the city’s Palestinian residents lack Israeli citizenship and have only residency rights. Those rights are conditional and can easily be removed, she explained, adding that this insecure status dominates many aspects of their lives, she said.
“Everything is conditional. They may not leave the city; they may lose their residency status. They cannot build in the city, but they have to live in the city, or they lose all their entitlement to the city,” Oppenheimer said.
Palestinians have individual rights in Jerusalem but not collective ones, she said.
Oppenheimer dismissed claims that the Palestinians are to blame for this situation because they refused to take citizenship. “This is an urban legend,” she said. Palestinians were never offered collective citizenship, but rather the right to apply individually and that application is very complicated.
“It takes years and many are denied,” she said.
Those who do not want citizenship should be offered permanent residency that cannot be easily revoked, so that they can live their lives more securely, she said.
The issue of inequity is the main issue, she said, and that issue is separate from the final political status of Jerusalem, which needs to be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians, she explained.
“So is the city united?” she asked. It’s those who speak so highly of unity that seem to want it the least, she said.
“Do they really want for Jerusalem to be united in a meaningful way, in the full meaning of what it means? Because their actions actually say the opposite,” she said.
Her organization, she said, supports a two-state resolution to the conflict in which Jerusalem would be the capital of both an Israeli and a Palestinian state.
“But this doesn’t mean that the city has to be physically divided,” she said. “It is getting more and more difficult to divide the city. If you ask, the majority of the residents actually enjoy the diversity that the city offers and do not want to see the city divided again.”
There are creative ways to create two capitals without physically dividing the city, and the sustainability of a two-state solution depends on the capacity of Israelis and Palestinians to share the municipal public space in the fullest way possible, Oppenheimer said.
The issue is not about dividing the city but about sharing it, she said.
“We are actually working very hard not for a vision of divided or united, but for a vision of shared city,” she said.
Abu Diab said it is clear to him that the city is divided.
“The food is different, even the dreams are different,” he said.
“Here they [Palestinians] know they are living under occupation,” said Abu Diab who does not consider himself unified with the Jewish residents of the city. “We think they are not living with us and that they want to live without us,” he added.
He has never sought Israeli citizenship, nor does he want it. He dreams of being a citizen of a future Palestinian state in which east Jerusalem will be its capital. But this doesn’t mean he imagines that a wall would divide the city, but, rather, that the city would be governed by two different entities, with its citizens walking freely between both.
“Jerusalem belongs to everyone. It should be a city of love and peace and nonviolence. It should be an international city, but allow for everyone to be part of their own people,” he explained.
SARA HAETZNI-COHEN, who chairs the right-wing NGO My Israel Movement, said that obviously Jerusalem is Israel’s united capital and, as such, all effort must be made to ensure that this is true in practice and not just a slogan.
To make that happen, she said, the issue of inequity between the eastern and western parts of the city must be addressed and it must be the Right that leads that charge.
Failure to do that, she said, gives an erroneous message that Israeli sovereignty in east Jerusalem is temporary. There is little reason to invest in neighborhoods that will one day be given away.
Israel has to make a statement of sovereignty by normalizing its treatment of those neighborhoods, including offering Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians who seek it, she said.
Otherwise, Palestinians have the feeling they are temporary here, Haetzni-Cohen said.
From the start, Israel made a decision to apply sovereignty to the city, and now it should shore up that sovereignty, she said.
To not recognize this reality, she said, is to “put one’s head in the sand.”