A city divided

Israel cannot expect its assertion that Jerusalem is a unified city to be taken seriously when it continues to redefine its boundaries.

Arabic language signs in east Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Arabic language signs in east Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and in opposition to the near unanimous legal interpretation of the international community, Israeli officials have maintained that Jerusalem is the unified capital of Israel. By leaving Israel’s capital city blank on its Olympic country profile web page – and denoting East Jerusalem as the “intended capital” of a future Palestinian state – the BBC challenged this inviolable tenet of Israeli policy in the most spectacular way possible: by simply ignoring it.
In doing so, it focused world attention on the enduring tension between Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its united capital and its persistent failure to acknowledge the Palestinian people’s equally legitimate and historic claim to the city.
The BBC has since changed its website to satisfy Israel’s demand, a decision that may pacify Israel but does little to bridge the gap between its self-image and how the rest of the world judges its unilateral definition of Jerusalem.
Israel’s 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem only inflamed the original dispute about the city’s legal status and now two decades after Oslo, Jerusalem remains, arguably, the most intractable of the final-status issues on the table.
It is a pulsing symbol to the three monotheistic religions whose narratives vie for space within this fiercely lionized city, with all of the attendant visceral behaviors that symbols inspire, acted out on a still biblically epic scale.
For both the Jews and Palestinians of Jerusalem, to lose the city would be to lose one’s history and one’s inextricably bound religious national identity – in other words, to be erased.
Those who believe that a two-state solution is still the most viable option for a resolution to the conflict – despite the unabated pace of settlement building swallowing up land for a future Palestinian state – embrace the idea that Jerusalem must be the capital city of two nations and that until such a reality is possible, Israel’s management of the city must reflect this moral and political imperative.
Certainly Israel’s bold defense of Jerusalem as a unified capital must be called into question when its Palestinian population – now numbering more than 300,000 – has been relegated to the class of permanent residents for the past 45 years, never granted collective citizenship, nor the most fundamental rights of a democratic state.
A full 78 percent of Palestinians in East Jerusalem live below the poverty line. Their neighborhoods lack basic infrastructures, green spaces and playgrounds. Children walk in the streets in the absence of sidewalks and many homes are not connected to sewage lines.
As the summer beats down unforgivingly onto the city, many neighborhoods are experiencing an acute water shortage. Half the children in these communities are not served by the municipal school system due to a dearth of 1,000 classrooms – a condition the state has been court ordered to remedy, but has barely begun to address.
Perhaps the most grievous situation can be found in the eight neighborhoods, including Kafr’Aqab and Shuafat, located within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, but effectively abandoned when the route of the separation barrier left them on the other side of the wall.
Despite the city all but completely abnegating its responsibility to service these areas, their residents hold on, terrified to lose their residency rights should they move. Several days ago Jerusalem’s Mayor, Nir Barkat, proposed transferring responsibility for servicing these enclaves from the municipality to the military authorities.
Israel cannot expect its assertion that Jerusalem is a unified city to be taken seriously when it continues to redefine its boundaries, forcing its Palestinian residents out of the city.
The BBC does not have the legal authority to recognize the capital of Israel; it does however, have the informal authority to exert significant influence over public opinion.
We who love Jerusalem should use this moment to question if a city that denies the right to vote in national elections to more than one third of its residents can legitimately call itself the “only democracy in the Middle East.”
Is our vision one of a city that has encircled whole communities by a wall – effectively choking them off from their political, cultural and economic center? Only when the status of Jerusalem has been resolved through a negotiated political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that recognizes the rights of both people to the city can the rest of the world – including the BBC – be expected to acknowledge it as Israel’s capital.

The writer is the director of International Relations & Advocacy at Ir Amim (“City of Nations”).