Unlimited debate

Wave of activity has been promoting or protesting division of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem old city 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jerusalem old city 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"We want east Jerusalem to be our capital, and to have open relations with west Jerusalem, and to allow all believers from all faiths to practice their rituals and to reach sacred places without unfairness and on the basis of what is guaranteed by international and human laws," Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said at the Annapolis conference this week. Though Palestinian and Israeli leaders had ruled out the possibility of a peace agreement at the summit, it triggered a deluge of protests, counterprotests and municipal initiatives aimed at preventing the city from being divided in an eventual final-status agreement. The latest battle in the war of words began last Wednesday when Mayor Uri Lupolianski announced the NIS 200 million "Marshall Plan" for the eastern part of the city. The urban upgrade scheme has yet to receive municipal or state approval, and must be brought before statutory committees in the coming months. "It is a very good step to take," says Israel Kimchi, director of research at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. "But NIS 200m. is really a drop in the ocean after 40 years of neglect. There are a lot of things to do." Kimchi, who was director of city planning under mayor Teddy Kollek, is quick to point out that Israeli sovereignty was an improvement on Jordanian rule. "Before 1967, there was not running water every day. Many areas were without sewage and electricity. After unification, gradually those infrastructures were established. But still there is a gap between the level of services in east and west Jerusalem." Among other things, Kimchi refers to garbage in the streets, absence of sidewalks and a deficit in the number of classrooms. "The situation is very bad. We as Israelis do not go into these areas generally, to Jebl Mukaber or [Arab parts of] East Talpiot or others. But when you do you can see the tremendous difference between east and west." Focusing on east Jerusalem's central business district on Rehov Salah a-Din, and extending north from the Old City ramparts to Sheikh Jarrah, Lupolianski's new project calls for overhauling obsolete infrastructure including roads, sewage, parking and parks, and the overall appearance in the Arab sector, which comprises a third of Jerusalem's 750,000 citizens. The plan calls for 250 classrooms to be added to the city's Arabic-language school system. Critics have derided the proposals from all sides. Adnan Husseini, the Palestinian Authority's minister for Jerusalem affairs, called Lupolianski's announcement "ridiculous nonsense." "The people are intelligent enough to understand what is going on," he added. Judging from the opinions of Arab shop owners in the Old City, Husseini seems to have a point. All of the east Jerusalemites interviewed expressed disdain and disbelief that anything would change. "We've heard it all before and we respect him," says Youssef of Lupolianski. "But we want to see it in real life and not on the TV. All of this talk is like cooking without salt. You taste nothing." "I don't believe any of it," says another. "We pay for the services and we get nothing. Look at the Jewish section. It's all clean with [people] passing five times a day to clean. I have to clean the sidewalk here each morning myself. I don't believe it." Hassan, a resident of east Jerusalem, probably expressed it best. "They say they will give more money. That's easy. Talk doesn't cost you money." It seemed that none of them had even heard of the new plan. Perhaps this was because the press conference announcing it was conducted in Hebrew, except for a brief speech by the mayor in English. No Arabic was spoken. Israeli politicians likewise attacked the plan. Dovish city councilman Pepe Alalo, who also sits on the municipal planning committee and is chairman of the city's oversight committee, called Lupolianski's proposal "a show for the media" timed for the peace conference. NIS 200 million is only a fraction of what east Jerusalem needs to close the gap with the Jewish parts of the city, he said. Similarly, left-wing Knesset members derided the plan as an effort to use improved municipal services to prevent the eastern side of Jerusalem from becoming the capital of an independent Palestinian state. "They are trying to make political decisions under the guise of dedicating funds," said MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz). "We should be asking ourselves who exactly the mayor is working for. It is clear there are right-wing interests at play here." PUBLIC DEBATE among Israeli Jews has been vigorous and intense about the future of the city. A noisy demonstration of university students calling for "Compromise in Jerusalem - for Jerusalem" took place Saturday night near Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Rehov Balfour residence as he was preparing to leave for Annapolis. The day before, students delivered the Arabic-language daily Al-Quds to residents of Rehavia, and copies of the Hebrew-language newspapers Yediot Aharonot, Maariv and Haaretz in Shuafat. "The switch was made in order to shatter the illusion of a united Jerusalem and to remind the Israeli public that the residents of east Jerusalem live in a different reality than the one of the residents in west Jerusalem," according to student spokesperson Rachel Rembrandt. On Sunday, as the Israeli delegation to the Annapolis conference arrived in Washington, a boisterous anti-separation rally led by Natan Sharansky took place at the Haas Promenade in East Talpiot. Attendance may have been hurt by a last-minute change of venue when the police refused to grant permission for the protest on the Mount of Olives. The former Soviet prisoner of Zion drew enthusiastic applause when he recalled his pre-sentence summation in July 1978 in a Moscow courtroom where he had been convicted on charges of treason and espionage for the United States. "I have nothing to say to you, judges. But to the Jewish people I say 'Next year in Jerusalem.'" Among the other speakers at the One Jerusalem rally were former chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (Res.) Moshe Ya'alon, author Naomi Ragen, US Congressman Eric Kantor and Jerusalem city councilor Nir Barkat. Barkat, who narrowly lost out to Lupolianski in the 2004 election for the mayor's office, called for an end to political scheming over Jerusalem's future. Instead he urged that greater efforts be made to improve the economy of the city, which has the highest poverty rate in the country. The protest included a laser show intended to depict the mortar range from various strategic buildings and neighborhoods in Arab neighborhoods which could be ceded to a future Palestinian state. A video clip from 2001 showed Olmert - who served as mayor of Jerusalem between 1993 and 2003 - giving a speech about the city being the indivisible capital of Israel. The footage drew wide derision and laughter. One Jerusalem head Yechiel Leiter garnered heavy applause when he proclaimed, "Before Shuafat was Shuafat, it was Givat Shaul of King Saul. When Jerusalem is in danger, all Israelis are Jerusalemites." Indeed, the rally drew busloads of supporters from across the country. Summing up the rally, Shalom Helman - an organizer for the Likud's Anglo division, said, "This is an important event to demonstrate that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and not a bargaining chip." Commenting on the relatively small gathering of several hundred protesters, Helman noted, "It's clear the organizers were not aiming for a huge crowd for this event, but rather for representatives from all regions of the country to launch the next phase of the campaign for a united Jerusalem. I'm proud we had a substantial delegation of Jerusalem Anglos." Lior Squire, from London, a student at Jerusalem's Aish Hatorah yeshiva, attending the rally with a group of friends, said, "You give them [the Palestinians] an inch and they take a mile. Jerusalem is the holiest place. It belongs to the Jews." More rallies in favor of a united Jerusalem followed Monday night with a prayer gathering at the Kotel succeeded by a demonstration near the prime minister's residence. Both had turnouts in the thousands and the demonstrations caused major traffic jams in the city center as people called for the capital to remain entirely under Israeli sovereignty. Arab residents of Jerusalem have been less publicly vocal about their wishes. But recent surveys show that the majority of Arabs residing in east Jerusalem prefer that the city remain undivided. Some have been voting with their feet; thousands of Palestinians with Jerusalem residence permits living outside the West Bank security fence have returned to live in the crowded Old City in the past year, afraid that they would be left outside Israel by a political deal and forced to live in a potentially unstable Palestinian state. Youssef, the Arab shop owner, expressed a position shared by many in the Old City. "If we separate the city, we kill the city. It is impossible and unnatural to divide the city. It is supposed to be united for all of us. For life. If we separate it, there is no life." Bilal, a Palestinian who spent one and a half years in Israeli jail, says that the city must be divided. "Nobody likes each other here. Jews don't like Arabs and Arabs don't like Jews. It's no good. It must be divided." Kimchi's Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies has recently come to concur with Youssef. The think tank, which formerly was in favor of dividing Jerusalem in order to achieve peace, recently published findings that a unified city would be economically and politically beneficial for both Jews and Arabs. "My personal opinion is that we should share the city," Kimchi says. "It is not a simple act to turn back 40 years of policy aimed at mingling Israeli and Arab neighborhoods. For 40 years we have done everything to keep a united Jerusalem. It was quite easy for the city to be married. It would be very difficult to perform the divorce." In terms of the question of the Holy Basin, Kimchi does what many do with this intractable problem. He looks for divine assistance. "The fate of the Holy Basin is the core of the problem. I would suggest a solution of sharing it and trying to govern it together. Postponing the issue of sovereignty as much as possible. Maybe until the Messiah comes."