Around the barrier

A tour of the city’s Jewish and Arab neighborhoods reveals the complex issues facing the capital.

Gilo 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Gilo 370
(photo credit: reuters)
From the hilltop of Gilo, a breathtaking view of Jerusalem reveals itself. With the Bridge of Strings to your left and the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus to your right, the capital looks huge yet familiar, its landmarks dotting the scene.
This spectacular view is the first of many on the Ir Amim tour, which seeks to present the complex political situation in Jerusalem through a guided tour of the capital’s Jewish and Arab neighborhoods.
Traveling through Jewish neighborhoods such as Gilo, Homat Shmuel and East Talpiot and the Arab neighborhoods of Umm-Tuba, Jebl Mukaber and Ras el-Amud, the tour shows how interwoven they are and how complicated the nature of any future agreement with the Palestinians regarding the city would be.
Ir Amim is a foundation that was set up in 2000 with the aim of working toward creating conditions for a stable political future for Jerusalem. The foundation believes that the country’s policy of building and expanding Jewish neighborhoods beyond the 1949 armistice lines is harmful for such a future, and works to counteract this through legal action, education and the strengthening of the city’s Arab population.
The tour’s political agenda is clearly left wing; it highlights the difference in the standard of living between the capital’s Jewish and Arab populations, the effects of the security barrier on Arab residents and the issues of building expansion in the city. Yet political views aside, the tour is an excellent opportunity to experience a side of the city that is generally not well known, even to those living in Jerusalem.
The first stop on our tour was a viewpoint of Jerusalem as seen by the Jordanians who ruled the West Bank and the eastern parts of the city. The tour guide, Yaniv, explained that there were strategic advantages to building new Jewish neighborhoods such as Gilo on mountain ridges after the Six Day War: It prevented the Jordanians from having a hilltop view of Jerusalem.
While crossing the neighborhood to another viewpoint, this time of Bethlehem, Yaniv explained the internationally controversial political status of Gilo, which to most Israelis seems like a completely regular residential area. This gap in perception highlights the difference in opinion between the international community and the Israeli public, and is a source of difficulty in the way settlements are viewed.
It is surprising to see how close Bethlehem is to the capital. If not for the security barrier separating Gilo and Bethlehem, one could cross between the two in a matter of minutes. Here Yaniv explained to the group, which consisted mostly of tourists, about the second intifada and the explosive security situation in Jerusalem that led to the building of the barrier.
We also learned that the barrier is not the same throughout: When passing through open spaces, it consists of an electric fence and a patrol road, and when it crosses dense urban areas it is an eight-meter-high cement fence.
Our next stop was Rachel’s Tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem. While we didn’t actually enter the compound, the bus crossed a security checkpoint and traveled in a corridor surrounded by tall cement walls to the tomb, to emphasize the immensity of the security barrier.
From there we traveled to the entrance of Homat Shmuel. This southeastern Jerusalem neighborhood was planned during the Rabin administration and built during Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s first government in 1997, to the disapproval of the opposition at the time. Ir Amim’s purpose in showing this viewpoint is to point out that the building and expansion of Jewish residential areas in east Jerusalem stop the territorial continuity of Palestinian towns and villages, which would make the creation of a Palestinian state difficult.
Afterward, the bus continued through Umm-Tuba, which was under Jordanian sovereignty until 1967. Here Yaniv explained that Jerusalemite Arabs who came under Israeli rule in 1967 are not considered Israeli citizens, but permanent residents. This legal status enables them to enjoy all the services that are offered to citizens, such as health insurance, but does not allow them to vote for the Knesset or carry an Israeli passport.
While the Arab residents of east Jerusalem can vote in the municipal elections, they generally choose not to do so, as an act of protest against what they view as unfair treatment. They do, however, cling to their residential status so they can continue using the services the state provides them, which are usually of a much higher quality than those offered in the West Bank. In order to maintain their legal status, the Arab residents need to stay within the boundaries of the Jerusalem Municipality, despite suffering from an increase in population and housing problems.
The following stop is at Jebl Mukaber. The neighborhood, despite being adjacent to East Talpiot, is somewhere most Jewish Israelis have probably never visited, and in this sense the tour offers a new perspective.
Our bus stopped next to the security barrier, here in the form of a cement wall, and Yaniv spoke about the correlation between the building of the fence and the drop in terrorist activities in the city. He said that while there was a connection between the fence and the decline in violence, one should consider other factors as well to explain the improvement of security in the city. Among those, he said, were a change in the Palestinian leadership, Israeli military operations in the West Bank and cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces.
An explanation of the political, social and economic effects of the security barrier soon followed. These effects are a main theme in the tour, and while they are presented from a left-wing point of view, they can serve as an eye-opener for all. On the political level, Ir Amim notes that the barrier would not be able to serve as the basis for a future sustainable border, since it leaves several Arab neighborhoods on the Israeli side. On the social level, the foundation disputes the way the barrier disrupts the texture of the community.
A particularly salient point was the economic effect of the barrier. The separation of east Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods from the West Bank has had a devastating effect on the commercial activity in the former; the main Arab economic activity has been transferred to Ramallah, leaving the capital’s Arab neighborhoods to grow poorer.
An interesting part of the Jebl Mukaber tour was what Ir Amim brands “urban settlements” – Jewish residential blocks in the midst of Arab areas. One of these blocks, called Nof Zion, stands in the middle of the neighborhood in an attempt – according to the tour guide – to change the facts on the ground and make it more difficult to swap land in any future peace agreement. Other examples of Jewish presence in Arab areas occur in the Old City.
The final stop in the tour was near the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. Here Yaniv pointed out a green area between Isawiya and E-Tur. The local residents wanted to expand their neighborhoods to that area, he explained, but it has since become the controversial site of a national park.
Ir Amim sees the appropriation of land for national parks as an aggressive means of stopping natural Arab expansion in the city, and the group blames right-wing organizations such as the Ir David Foundation (Elad) for exploiting nature and archeology for political ends.
However, the Ir David Foundation rejects such claims. The archeological excavations taking place in Jerusalem “transcend politics of any kind,” says Ze’ev Orenstein, the foundation’s director of international public relations. He dismisses the idea that the findings attempt to create a certain viewpoint, adding that all excavations are conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority and overseen by internationally renowned archeologists from the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University.
While the Ir Amim tour may not suit every political view, it is nevertheless a revealing experience. Going through places in which most Israelis have never set foot and raising questions about the issues pertaining to Jerusalem’s status in any future agreements certainly provokes new thoughts on the matter. The complexity that characterizes Jerusalem as a holy site and as a city of two nations comes to the fore here, and the observations and facts presented on the tour resonate long after it ends.