The politics of Jerusalem

An aerial view of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. (Flash90)

By MORDECHAI NISAN (The Jerusalem Post)

A satisfactory and consensual political resolution of the question of Jerusalem has eluded diplomats and statesmen. The British Peel Commission of 1937 recommended a two-state solution in the land that included a Jewish state and an Arab state, with greater Jerusalem to be administered by the British authorities. In 1947 the United Nations Partition Resolution also proposed that Jerusalem be a separate entity under international trusteeship, thus excluded from the sovereign domain of the Jewish and Arab states as proposed. When the Israeli-Jordanian fighting ended in Jerusalem in late 1948, the city was effectively divided between Jewish west Jerusalem and Arab east Jerusalem. This was a result of war and not a prescription for peace.

The division of the city did not prevent the Israeli government from declaring it the capital of the state, nor obstruct Jewish demographic growth which doubled to 200,000 by 1967. Jordan meanwhile proved to be the serial violator of its obligations under the Armistice Agreement, destroying Jewish synagogues and desecrating the Mount of Olives cemetery, denying Jewish access to the Western Wall while sniping at Jewish residents and buildings adjacent to the Old City in western Jerusalem.

The liberation of east Jerusalem in the Six Day War led to the unification of the city under Israeli sovereignty and subject to Israeli law. To solidify Jewish control and presence across the former armistice lines dividing the city, we can detect two periods in construction projects and Jewish demographic expansion.

Mayor Teddy Kollek, fulfilling a vision of prime minister Levi Eshkol, promoted the reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City and the development of large new Jewish neighborhoods, like Gilo and Armon Hanatziv at the southern end of the city, Ramot Eshkol and French Hill adjacent to the former frontier boundary, and Neveh Ya’akov and Pisgat Ze’ev in the north. This urban planning manifested on the ground the incorporation of the expanded borders of united Jerusalem, but without altering the character of separate Jewish and Arab residential neighborhoods.

Under successive mayors – Olmert, Lupolianski and Barkat – an additional and alternative conception guided the Jewish spread throughout the city, through establishing a Jewish presence in Arab-inhabited areas: facilitating Jewish property acquisition or sometimes reacquisition of former Jewish homes in the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City, developing the City of David in Silwan/Hashiloah, as in Sheikh Jarrah/Shimon Hatzadik, with small groups of Jews in A-Tur/Mount of Olives, Abu Tor, Beit Orot/Mt. Scopus, Ras al-Amud/Ma’aleh Zeitim, and Beit Nissan Beck/Giorgia quarter opposite the Damascus/ Shechem Gate of the Old City.

These and additional locations were designed to have Jews in east Jerusalem politically hinder the possibility of a future Israeli withdrawal from parts of the eastern city areas.

By 2012 the population of Jerusalem approximated three quarters of a million people, some two-thirds of which are Jews and a third Arabs. The Jewish demographic dominance in Jerusalem was paralleled and made more possible by Palestinian political weakness. The Arabs of the city, while enjoying resident status and an array of social benefits and opportunities for a reasonable livelihood, never mounted an effective campaign against what they disingenuously disparage as “Israeli occupation.” As for the Palestinian Authority, the Oslo Accord denied it any political role in east Jerusalem, while the separation wall has effectively cut off Jerusalem’s Arabs from their West Bank hinterland.

Israel’s multi-faceted policy toward Jerusalem and the geo-demographic processes of the last decades have established the city as a single political and administrative unit. The Arab population chooses not to vote in municipal elections for fear of providing legitimacy to Israeli rule, yet this enables Israel to actually imprint its political monopoly over the entire city. This dialectical development affords insight into the subtle dynamic of things. Israel exercises de facto sovereign rule over the city, no less consistent with the 1980 Jerusalem: Basic Law, yet concedes daily authority to the Muslims over the Temple Mount. The Palestinians for their part enjoy the full range of liberty of movement and expression, though they have succumbed to a numbing state of collective de-politicization.

The municipal infrastructure and services, including access roads and the water system, operate in a unified and centralized fashion. The mixing of populations, the proximity of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, Arabs visiting the shopping malls and Biblical Zoo all attest to daily human contact between the two peoples and the air of normalcy which has ascended over the city.

The prospect is therefore one of continued Israeli control for the foreseeable future. For Israel to withdraw from any part of Jerusalem and allow a Palestinian capital in the city would be a depletion of the soul of the Jewish people. Palestinian sovereignty in east Jerusalem, no less any official recognition of Islamic control over the Temple Mount, would spark Muslim militancy and bellicosity throughout the country, and beyond.

For Israel to withdraw from any part of Jerusalem would expose the Jews of the city to grave security threats and terrorism. The physical welfare of Jewish residents, though targeted here and there, depends on Israel’s full police presence throughout Jerusalem, in both the eastern and western sides. If not, Arab shooting from Shuafat to Pisgat Ze’ev, or stone-throwing from Issawiya at Jewish traffic on the road to Ma’aleh Adumim, could not be prevented or contained.

A Palestinian attacker on Jaffa Road could not be apprehended if Israel security forces were not operating in the eastern side of the city, to which the terrorist would flee. The murderer of the eight students in 2008 at the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in west Jerusalem was later arrested in the Jebl Mukaber neighborhood that borders Armon Hanatziv in east Jerusalem. The compelling conclusion is that in order to secure west Jerusalem as the focus of vibrant Jewish life, Israel must maintain its control over east Jerusalem as well.

There is moreover another aspect to the vulnerability of Jewish interests and that concerns ancient religious sites, like the Mount of Olives cemetery. Palestinian vandalism, already insufferable, would in the absence of any Israeli presence turn into a fury of destruction.

The Jewish people has come home to its historic and spiritual capital, and Israel is fulfilling its national mandate in governing and developing Greater Jerusalem. This is a blessing which many curse, but a blessing whose splendor spreads its light to all peoples and faiths – inhabitants, tourists, and pilgrims – to enjoy the freedom and security, prosperity and poetry, of the Holy City.

The writer is a retired lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This article is based on a talk presented at the Begin Heritage Center on March 14 at a conference on the theme of “How Important is Jerusalem to Islam?”