For our first day on the ground, our delegation tackled one of the central and most emotional issues at the core of peace -making between Israelis and Palestinians: Jerusalem. Both Israelis and Palestinians have a strong emotional connection to this holy city for the 3 Abrahamaic faiths. But it would be a mistake to simply pigeon-hole the conflict over Jerusalem as a petty squabble over holy sites; rather, it is a nationalistic contest for control of the Jerusalem as their capital city. Since1948, the UN’s plan to keep Jerusalem as an international city open to all failed miserably. Fierce fighting between Zionists and Arab forces, divided Jerusalem in two in 1948, rendering a Jewish West Jerusalem and a Jordanian-controlled Arab East Jerusalem. Wealthy Arab neighborhoods in West Jerusalem were summarily emptied of their inhabitants to be replaced by Jewish denizens, as was pointed out by our guide on our bus trip into Jerusalem upon our arrival. However, despite their drive for Jerusalem Zionist forces failed to capture the Old City, home to the holiest sites. The Old City and East Jerusalem remained an Arab populated and controlled city… until 1967, when Israel conquered East Jerusalem and finally laid claim to the Old City, and the West Bank and Gaza to boot. While most peace advocates agree that a shared Jerusalem, with Israel maintaining a capital in West Jerusalem and Palestine maintaining a capital in East Jerusalem and negotiated management of Old City holy sites precious to Israeli Jews and Palestinian Christians and Muslims, Israeli policies since 1967 have not moved in that direction. As explained in a morning briefing from ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions), Israel “annexed” the whole of Jerusalem in 1969, declaring it the “indivisible and eternal” Jewish capital, a change which the international community has not recognized, and embarked on a set of actions to change the character Arab-populated East Jerusalem. For one, the boundaries of this new united Jerusalem were carefully chosen to deliver Maximum Land, Minimum Arabs. Open and sparsely populated spaces far to the East fell within the new boundaries; however, traditional Arab neighborhoods often found themselves divided our outside the newly gerrymandered city limits. Zoning was then implemented to strictly constrain the development of Arab neighborhoods, much of the open land being designated “green zones.” However, instead of reserving this green zones as nature preserves, its seems these green zones became home to several Israeli Jewish settlements, illegal population transfers under international law. While Jewish population growth was encouraged, the Palestinian Arab population of East Jerusalem found themselves under increasingly discriminatory and onerous restrictions through zoning and permit requirements. In fact, it became exceedingly rare for Israel to issue very expensive building permits for Arabs… while many technocratic reasons were given, the gross disparity indicates the true reason for the denial of these building permits was a discriminatory policy towards Jerusalems Arab population. The result has been a severe housing shortage, driving the price beyond the reach of some Arab citizens of Jerusalem and putting heavy economic pressure on the rest. One of Israel’s cruelest policies to displace the Arab population is home demolitions. We circled the hillside around the Silwan neighborhood (named for the ancient pools of Siloam) that the Israelis call the city of David. Under the pretext of archaeological excavation, some seventy homes in this Arab neighborhood have been placed under demolition order. Again, the disparity between illegal Israeli settlements encouraged by the Israeli government and illegal Palestinian Arab homes that are built anyway for the lack of issued permits shows a grossly discriminating policy. Luckily, US diplomatic pressure has given a temporary stay for these homes, but it is uncertain how long this will last.
To make a peace where Israel and Palestine share Jerusalem will require the world community to confront these policies, specifically the settlements which seem to have become “facts on the ground” to divide and fragment an Arab East Jerusalem. Fortuitously, the Obama administration has taken a strong stand against settlements, including in East Jerusalem. Despite calling on Israel to enforce a settlements freeze, the Netanyahu regime in Israel has thumbed its nose at Obama’s challenge, most recently declaring several new settlement projects in East Jerusalem, most recently 20 units in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood. Increasingly, pro-Israeli media have become more shrill on the issue (just Google settlements). Just last Monday a settlers group held a protest at the Israeli Knesset (slandering Obama as antisemitic) and settler youth have taken the offensive creating some twenty new illegal outposts. Obama is right on this issue and it is critical that we support him on this one and not buckle the rabidness and controversy-stirring of the pro-Israeli right.