Jerusalem's history and future: A tale of two cities

Talk of redividing Jerusalem, once an abomination for most Israelis, is being bandied from Left to Right.

The east Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis and the security barrier that separates it from the rest of the city (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The east Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis and the security barrier that separates it from the rest of the city
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
HAVING BEEN Emperor Claudius’s ally and friend, Judea’s last Jewish king, Agrippa, set out to expand Jerusalem by building a new wall to its north.
Agrippa’s so-called Third Wall was planned to sprawl from today’s City Hall Plaza through the vicinity of the American Colony Hotel to the foothills of the Mount of Olives, where it was to veer back west and arrive at the Antonia Fortress that overlooked the Temple.
Jerusalem was overcrowded and demanded expansion, even if not necessarily as ambitious a plan as Agrippa’s, which would have doubled the city’s area and adorned it with 90 new towers and spires. It was a political gamble indeed, and nosedived soon after takeoff, as the wall’s construction was abruptly halted by the Romans, who became suspicious of their hyperactive vassal.
That was then.
Today, the greater city of which Agrippa dreamed overlaps hardly 2 percent of a municipal Jerusalem that spans more than 100 square kilometers, an urban sprawl that stretches a good 7 km to the north of Agrippa’s planned wall, 8 km to its south, and another six to its west.
Beset by national conflict and urban decay, the greater Jerusalem’s mapping that was originally challenged by the Labor Party is now also being reconsidered on the Right, while the diplomatic commotion suggests that what happened to Judean Jerusalem’s north may soon happen to Israeli Jerusalem’s east.
MODERN JERUSALEM’S expansion began in 1860, when residents from its overcrowded Jewish Quarter moved to a new neighborhood opposite Mount Zion.
It was the beginning of a rapid growth that, following the city’s division in 1948 between Israel and Jordan, added up to 144,000 Jews in western Jerusalem alone, as opposed to fewer than 18,000 residents in all of Jerusalem in 1860.
By the eve of the Six-Day War there were nearly 200,000 Jews in western Jerusalem; nearly 55,000 Muslims on its Jordanian side; and 12,600 Christians, also mostly on the eastern side. Then, while annexing Jordanian Jerusalem and reuniting the city in June 1967, Israel also remapped it.
Jerusalem now stretched south, to the hilltops overlooking Bethlehem; north, to Neve Yaacov, where a Jewish neighborhood existed until 1948; and west, to the slopes north of Jerusalem’s exit to Tel Aviv.
This mapping went far beyond what had been Jordanian Jerusalem, incorporating a 15-km north-south continuum of towns, villages, and also one refugee camp, all of which adds up to a belt stretching from Kafr Aqeb, just south of Ramallah, where some 19,000 Palestinians now live; through Shuafat, at Mount Scopus’s northwestern foothills, which is today inhabited by some 50,000 Palestinians; to Tsur Baher and Um Tuba, which overlook the Judean Desert and are home to some 18,000 Palestinians.
No Arab resident was displaced as Israel expanded Jerusalem. On the contrary, Jerusalem’s Arabs were granted Israeli IDs, permanent-resident status, and the option to become full Israeli citizens if they so chose. At the same time, Israel ringed Jerusalem with new neighborhoods, from Ramot in the north, through Armon Hanatziv in the east, to Gilo in the south, and in the process more than doubled the expanded city’s Jewish population over the past half century, to 542,000.
However, the Arab population also grew, from 25.8% of the overall population in 1967 to 37.4% of the city’s 865,700 inhabitants as of 2015, according to the Statistical Yearbook of Jerusalem.
Arab growth was not only about birthrates, but also about migration, mostly from the West Bank and often through marriage. Arab Jerusalemites have better access to Israeli jobs, and enjoy Israeli health care, social services and National Insurance benefits.
These circumstances might have been happier if not for the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
FACED WITH Israel’s moves following the Six- Day War, the PLO ordered Jerusalem’s Arabs not to accept Israeli citizenship and not to vote in Jerusalem’s mayoral elections.
The orders were generally obeyed – to this day hardly 1% of Jerusalem’s Arabs vote in its mayoral elections – with the telling exception of journalist Hanna Siniora’s mayoral bid in 1987, which he canceled after receiving death threats from militant Palestinians.
The result of this political stifling has been urban alienation and municipal neglect. Israeli politicians had little incentive to spend budgets where they could not expect votes. Consequently, Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods have been underfunded and, therefore, had poorer infrastructure and municipal services: roads were cracking, dirt paths substituted for sidewalks, schools were overcrowded, and playgrounds, infirmaries, libraries and swimming pools were scarce.
For a brief moment in summer 2000, during the Camp David peace talks, this dissonance seemed ready to change, when then-prime minister Ehud Barak proposed to make east Jerusalem the capital of a prospective Palestinian state.
This departure from the previous Israeli consensus on Jerusalem was later adopted by Barak’s successors, including current Labor party leader Avi Gabbay, who said that the historic Jerusalem of David and Herod had nothing to do with places like Shuafat, Tsur Baher or Kafr Aqeb.
In Barak’s configuration, Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods would have been ruled by the Palestinian Authority and run by local residents, much like Bethlehem, Nablus or Ramallah. However, Yasser Arafat rejected Barak’s offers at Camp David, and Jerusalem’s Arab sections remained part of the capital throughout the violence that followed the talks’ collapse.
For the Israeli Right, Barak’s willingness to redivide Jerusalem became an emblem of what it saw as a combination of political naiveté and diminishing patriotism, in the spirit of Likud’s slogan during the 1999 election, “Barak will divide Jerusalem.”
BARAK WON in 1999, defeating Netanyahu by a landslide, but by 2001, when Ariel Sharon handed Barak the worst electoral defeat in Israeli history, the prospect of Jerusalem’s division seemed no more likely than the trounced Barak’s political resurrection.
Such impressions now prove to have been premature, as Likud politicians like Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin propose to sever from the capital entire swaths of its eastern flank.
UNLIKE LABOR’S attitude, the willingness on the Right to shrink municipal Jerusalem is not meant to end the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, but to contain it.
The second intifada involved more than 170 terrorists from east Jerusalem. That is why Israel left many Arab parts of Jerusalem beyond the security barrier that it constructed last decade along its border with the West Bank.
At the same time, Israel refused to relinquish any part of municipal Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority’s management.
Consequently, east Jerusalem’s already veteran emotional alienation and political disenfranchisement were fueled by a physical barrier that also visibly crowned the city’s municipal dissonance. The barrier has been initially effective from a security viewpoint, but from an urban viewpoint it became a major problem, which soon returned as a security problem as well.
Neighborhoods beyond the barrier became lawless in several ways: the most visible is construction, as a forestation of tall apartment buildings sprouted without licensing, zoning or any urban planning. This is particularly noticeable in Isawiya, where unplanned 12-story houses stare at Hebrew University from across the barrier’s cement wall, north of the Jerusalem-Jericho highway.
Less visibly, but even more dangerously, neighborhoods beyond the barrier fell under the control of street gangs. And finally, on the environmental plane, hygiene deteriorated, as sewage festered untreated and garbage piled uncollected. This is besides the disappearance of police, cable TV installers, parking inspectors, or any other representatives of law and order.
And when all this was animated by new bouts of violence, like repeated rioting on the Temple Mount or the spate of stabbings in 2015-2016 that mostly originated in these areas, politicians from both sides of the aisle concluded that east Jerusalem’s political neglect must somehow end.
This was the setting in which the municipality recently approved construction in Tsur Baher of 14,500 new housing units in several phases. This is also the general backdrop against which lawmakers from Netanyahu’s coalition began seeking formulas for remapping Jerusalem.
ELKIN’S PLAN is to sever four Arab areas from municipal Jerusalem: Kafr Aqeb and parts of Shuafat in the north; part of Jebl Mukaber in the southeast; and Walaja in the southwest.
Populated by an estimated 150,000 Palestinians, these communities would elect their own mayors and town councils, which in turn would raise property taxes and administer planning, education, social services and public order.
If executed, this would introduce an administrative innovation, whereby Israel would create and host local governments whose residents would mostly lack Israeli citizenship, having declined to request it despite their eligibility.
Though Elkin denies this, many suspect that his plan is to gradually expand to other Arab areas of Jerusalem, if this proves successful in its three initial locations.
Another plan, proposed by Likud MK Anat Berko, would integrate northern Jerusalem’s Arabs into the urban fabric of Ramallah, and southern Jerusalem’s into Bethlehem’s.
In both plans, Israel would remain sovereign and retain security oversight, so as to prevent east Jerusalem’s emergence as a launching pad for missile attacks, like those that were waged from the Gaza Strip following Israel’s retreat in 2005.
Elkin’s plan made some suspect it is designed to someday help east Jerusalem’s transfer to the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, the Russian-born minister, who is close to Netanyahu and accompanies him to meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, gives reason to suspect that Elkin’s plan is indeed a trial balloon flown by Netanyahu himself.
Elkin’s own credentials as a settler, who lives with his wife and five children in the West Bank community of Kfar Eldad, southeast of Bethlehem, did little to dispel suspicions on the Right that his plan, whatever its intentions, would ultimately lead parts of Jerusalem to Palestinian rule.
“In practice, this is Jerusalem’s division,” a disapproving Moshe Arens, the former foreign affairs and defense minister who, at 90, is Likud’s elder statesman, wrote in the daily Haaretz.
To dispel such a scenario, the Netanyahu coalition passed in January an amendment to the Jerusalem Law, requiring Knesset approval by a special 66% majority for any future peace deal involving any change in the mapping of the Israeli capital.
That does not mean that some kind of deal involving east Jerusalem is not being concocted, somewhere between the Potomac and the Middle East.
Reports that special Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt told a closed forum that the US will propose a Palestinian capital in Abu Dis – just outside municipal Jerusalem, south of the Mount of Olives – suggest that something is afoot, involving a Saudi-led, pan-Arab imposition on the PA.
Angered by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s insults, some believe that what Trump called “the deal of the century” will involve a shrunken east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, which Netanyahu will then present as part of the best peace deal Israel can ever expect.
Best or not, even if a Palestinian capital would emerge in Abu Dis, it would mean that the Likud has compromised the Greater Jerusalem vision that has been one of its tenets of faith.
Most observers see no sign that such a deal will be struck, or even be seriously discussed, anytime soon. America is far, Trump is busy with his daily scandals, and what happens beyond this or that wall in Jerusalem is pretty much his last worry.
It’s a rational assessment, no doubt, but so was Agrippa’s when he set out to double Jerusalem only to end up with 90 unbuilt towers and a well-intended wall’s remains.