Political Tour: On whose side?

Ir Amim's tour of east J'lem gives essential info about the city's borders and Arab communities.

Shuafat 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
Shuafat 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
With all the dubious declarations by the government regarding the possible division of Jerusalem, I thought it was time for me to venture out into the territory under question: east Jerusalem. After all, how can anyone form thoughtful and informed statements about the fate of the holy city without crossing the invisible fence separating East and West? So when Ir Amim advertised free "study tours" of east Jerusalem, I decided that's how I would spend one Saturday afternoon in December. On its Web site, Ir Amim (City of Nations) defines itself as an "Israeli non-profit, non-partisan organization founded in order to actively engage in those issues impacting on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and on the political future of the city." Tour leader and executive director Amos Gil warned us that the tour wasn't going to be a fun day trip to the tourist sites of east Jerusalem. We wouldn't be shopping at the Arab markets or eating humous. Even though Gil declared that the tour didn't push a distinct agenda but rather explored the facts on the ground to enable participants to formulate their own opinion, when it came down to it, the tour reflected Ir Amim's vision of a negotiated, two-state solution. But given that European governments fund the tour series, I wasn't expecting impartiality. Right away each participant was given a colored map of Greater Jerusalem, already a considerable service. Many people speak about Jerusalem without even knowing where its major neighborhoods lie - East and West. The map delineated the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, the path of the security fence and blocs of Jewish and Arab population centers. We started off at the southern edge of Gilo overlooking the security barrier (or "separation barrier" as Gil called it) at Beit Jala, where Arabs fired into Gilo homes at the start of the intifada. Here Gil suggested that the fence made sense since it was constructed for security purposes along what would be a logical Jewish-Palestinian border. Next we looped around the checkpoint at Bethlehem and drove through Har Homa, the controversial Jewish neighborhood which interrupts Arab contiguity from Bethlehem to east Jerusalem. Much of the housing, we were told, was built on land taken from Arab and Jewish landowners in the 1990s. Later, the Absentee Property Law, whose legality Gil questioned, was applied to obtain more land. Furthermore, Gil pointed out that additional construction in Har Homa had been criticized by the US. We continued north through the Arab villages of Tzur Baher and Jebl Mukaber. The shops were bustling and the bus could hardly squeeze through the narrow streets. I noticed Palestinian flags hanging along the main thoroughfare and fading flyers of Arafat and other Palestinian Authority leaders on the walls. It seemed like a town already under PA rule. The Arabs living there have permanent Israeli residence, but are not Israeli citizens, and overall their national sympathies lie with the Palestinian cause. The implicit message: Allow Israel to relinquish these territories to the PA. Next we stopped at the Arab neighborhood of Abu Dis. The security fence here, assuming it will act as a future, permanent border that appropriates portions of east Jerusalem for Israel, is a humanitarian and political windfall in the making, Gil warned. Its construction cuts off Arabs from one part of the town from the other, stifling access and creating resentment and unease, he said. The tour's subtle propaganda became less so when we passed relatively new Jewish housing projects in the heart of Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, which Gil referred to as the religious Right's attempt to foil any plans to divide the city. Gil's disapproval of Jewish housing there was immediately signaled by calling these residents "settlers" despite their having largely purchased property independently from Arabs with funding from right-wing sponsors. Jews live there under heavy, private guard, but Gil warned that their presence would likely create debilitating demographic imbalance and religious tension. Throughout the tour I was a little disconcerted by Gil's distinctions between ideological, religious "settlers" and residents who buy in east Jerusalem's Jewish neighborhoods (like Har Homa or Gilo) for non-ideological reasons. Are Israeli residents to be discriminated against because of their politics? I had wanted to raise another question: If east Jerusalem is handed over to the PA, shouldn't the protection of Jewish property and worship in east Jerusalem be the true test of coexistence and the Arabs' peaceful intentions? However, as a free guest of the tour, I didn't feel comfortable initiating arguments; the price for the tour is allowing Ir Amim the microphone. The rest of the tour I anticipated the party line: anti-settlement, pro-division. We continued to Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus, to an observation point overlooking E1, a controversial empty plot of land west of Ma'aleh Adumim. Should Israel construct settlements there, it would create a Jewish cap to east Jerusalem and thwart Palestinian contiguity in the West Bank. Next we followed the northern municipal boundaries through Pisgat Ze'ev along the fence surrounding Shuafat, the only Palestinian refugee camp in Jerusalem, to the defunct Atarot airport. I struggled to make sense of what I admit was a very confusing, longwinded fence route. Despite the political meandering, the tour proved informative. I would have never driven through these areas on my own. Questionable political conclusions aside, I gleaned essential information from the tour about the city's borders and the nature of the Arab communities in east Jerusalem. However, to really achieve true wisdom regarding the fate of the city, it is necessary to drive through more than one side.