Jerusalem: City or Symbol?

Jerusalem: City or Symbol?

What is happening in Sheikh Jarrah lies at the heart of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Israeli forces and Palestinians at Damascus Gate on May 10, 2021 (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

It took just a few sparks for the combustible situation in Sheikh Jarrah to blow up. Since May, international attention has been focused on Palestinian protests against housing dispossessions and the police response in the small neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Millions of TikTok users viewed videos made by Palestinian activists, especially those made by Muna El-Kurd. Her family residence is among those slated for eviction, and she was arrested—and then released—by Israeli police last weekend.

What is happening in Sheikh Jarrah, and the larger question of the status of Jerusalem, lies at the heart of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Sheikh Jarrah is named after Hussam al-Din al-Jarrahi, the personal physician of Saladin, the military leader who rid the region of the Crusaders in the twelfth century. Sheikh Jarrah was buried nearby, and the physician’s tomb is a holy site for Muslims. The modern story of the neighborhood dates back to 1876, when Jewish associations purchased land near the grave of Simeon the Just, a Talmudic scholar who lived there during the second century, when Rome ruled Jerusalem. Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that Simeon the Just performed miracles, and he is the icon of those wreaking havoc today. Those pious Jews belong to a small cult of believers, but they are a convenient excuse for Israeli politicians to maintain a stronghold over East Jerusalem. Settling more Jews in Palestinian neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, Isawiya, and Wadi Joz has been a central strategy of various Israeli governments, especially the outgoing Netanyahu administration, to keep East Jerusalem from becoming the capital of a Palestinian state.

The Husseinis, a prominent Palestinian family, began building in the neighborhood in the mid-1800s, around the same time that Jewish associations purchased land and settled Jews there. Like other prominent Palestinian families, after the 1967 capture of East Jerusalem by Israel, the Husseinis sold much of their land to private interests; other land was seized via eminent domain by the Israeli government, though families still reside there. In addition, the neighborhood—which is entirely Palestinian except for some houses where settlers have taken over floors—is home to consular offices and popular hotels like the American Colony and the Ambassador, where diplomats and journalists wine and dine.

The recent neighborhood dispute centers on a group of houses on one side street, where Palestinian refugees were settled after 1948 while Jewish residents were moved by the Israeli government to West Jerusalem. It is these homes that Jewish settlers are claiming. In 1970, the Knesset passed an incendiary law that allowed Jews who had lost property in East Jerusalem in 1948 to reclaim it. The Palestinians were not granted reciprocal rights. This encouraged wealthy right-wing Jewish settler organizations, many fueled by the black money market, to begin eviction lawsuits and land purchases against Palestinians who had lived there for decades.

This is not an isolated case. Dozens of eviction lawsuits concerning properties in East Jerusalem, which have been processing for decades, began to hit the courts in 2020. As these cases are decided, almost a thousand Palestinians could lose their homes.

But it’s not simply that these cases are now coming to their final legal stop—Israel’s highest court—after being tried by lower courts. It’s also that the past decade plus saw the Netanyahu government harden in its approach to settlements (more recently with the approval of the Trump Administration), as well as a political stasis between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. A new generation has emerged with a reality of occupation and inequity, and without hope, especially now that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, has decided to postpone Palestinian elections indefinitely.

On Monday, June 7, the Israeli attorney general announced that he was not going to engage on behalf of the state for or against the pending ruling to evict residents from Sheikh Jarrah. According to a report in Haaretz, he said he felt that the legal case in support of the Palestinian families was too weak. This means the court is even more likely to rule against the families. Because this case—and similar legal cases to come—is based on discriminatory laws written for political purposes, it is nearly impossible to imagine that any of the families will win the right to stay in their homes in Israeli courts. Only public pressure and international diplomacy can stop the evictions.

Hagit Ofran, the head of the Settlement Watch project of Peace Now, explained to me in more detail about why the protests are happening now (I sit on the board of Americans for Peace Now, a sister-organization for Peace Now Israel):

We are talking about one of the basic fears of our conflict—both peoples are refugees. The fear of Palestinians of being kicked out of their homes from another Nakba is very strong. This touched the open wound. Added to that, Jerusalem is a core issue of the conflict. In April, Jewish settlers took over three houses in Silwan [an adjacent neighborhood] that they bought, and this was a big blow for the neighborhood.

Those settlers bought the houses for Ateret Cohanim, a major settler organization that is purchasing property all over East Jerusalem and inside the Holy Basin near the old walled city. Most of these purchases are considered suspicious and illegal by activists both Jewish and Palestinian (there is barely any paper trail, along with a lot of coercion).

Ofran continued:

Then Ramadan came, and unlike previous years, the police decided to block Damascus Gate’s public promenade [the gate for entry to the Muslim Quarter of the Old City], a national symbol for the Palestinians. It is their own free public domain. You go to Al Aqsa to pray and then you go to Bab al-Amud [the Arabic name for Damascus Gate] and hang out.

The police reaction was crazy. In Israel, we talk about the “spirit” of the “commander” directing how any action will be handled. Here, the Netanyahu government is the commander. Someone there believes this is the right way to deal with it. There was an intention to make things blow up due to the political situation. I don’t usually believe conspiracy theories—that Netanyahu wanted it to explode—but now I do think so.

The situation in Sheikh Jarrah will soon be replicated in other parts of East Jerusalem. These disputes reveal a divided city, far from the “united” city that was blessed by the Trump government. It is a city living in too many centuries at once, a city that is dysfunctional in so many critical ways.

Since 1967, Jerusalem has been intentionally built out by Israeli leaders to become Israel’s largest city. It is about 60 percent Jewish to 40 percent Muslim, with a smattering of Christians.

It is one of the poorest cities in Israel, with a small and extraordinarily complicated tax base that is grounded more in heavenly than in earthly matters. A recent report by the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research found that 77 percent of Jerusalem’s Arab citizens and 25 percent of its Jewish citizens live in poverty. Wages are among the lowest in Israel for both Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites.

More secular Israeli Jews leave Jerusalem than move there. A majority of the Jewish residents in Jerusalem are ultra-Orthodox and more than a third of them live below the poverty line (in part because the men don’t work due to full-time study and the women who do work are paid less than men). They don’t attend public school or take part in any form of public engagement outside of their closed communities.

The wall that Israel built in 2002 to separate itself from Ramallah and its environs created a new divide—some of the Jerusalem municipal area is located on the Palestinian side of the wall. Included in these neighborhoods is the massive refugee camp, Shuafat, which today has a population of nearly 60,000. The only refugee camp within the borders of a major city in Israel, it lacks basic city services; both poverty and crime are significant problems.

Jerusalem has a negligible tax base. Moreover, hundreds of millions of dollars in back taxes are due from the various Christian denominations—nearly $200 million is owed by the Catholic Church along with Anglican, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox institutions. The Vatican also holds impressive real estate tax free, including the landmark Notre Dame complex across from the Old City’s Christian Quarter, which was the demarcation point in a pre-1967 divided Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s 360,000 Palestinians are non-citizens of a non-country, with neither Israeli nor Palestinian passports (though many who were born before 1967 still hold their Jordanian passports). For travel purposes, Palestinian East Jerusalemites must use their laissez-passer, a non-passport that allows them to travel internationally. Those with Jordanian citizenship can travel with their Jordanian passport if they leave via the Allenby Bridge that connects the West Bank to Jordan. While East Jerusalem residents have the same access to healthcare and schooling that all Israelis have, along with the ability to travel freely within Israel proper, they have none of the national advantages of citizenship—like the right to vote in a national election. (Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, giving Palestinian residents citizenship without national rights. They can individually petition to become a citizen with national rights, but few do.)

Though they legally can participate in municipal elections, because nearly all Palestinian residents view East Jerusalem as occupied, they do not. So, they have no representation at City Hall. There are no Palestinians engaged in any of the mechanisms that plan neighborhoods, city services, and housing in East Jerusalem.

The more secular Palestinian population in East Jerusalem has been squeezed. Israel extinguishes any attempts at Palestinian identification like flags or anthems. It also hasn’t allowed local Palestinian leadership to evolve if it is associated with the Palestinian Authority. That’s because Israeli governments have considered any signs of sovereignty by the Palestinian Authority in East Jerusalem as a sign of ownership of half of the city, which they contest. Therefore, increasingly, youth who feel frustrated by their situation are taking to the streets and organizing themselves.

There is also a growing Islamic fundamentalist presence, fueled by the Turkish government and others. It is subdued, but especially since Erdoğan has taken a stronger stance toward asserting his position as an international Islamic leader, there has been growing financial aid sent from Turkey to Jerusalem. Where the Turkish consulate once encouraged support for more secular and open Palestinian cultural and educational offerings in East Jerusalem, today they are more likely to support fundamentalist Islamic activities.

Forty-three years after “reunification,” when Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and redrew the boundaries of the eastern part of the city, the cultural divide is tremendous. Points of reference for daily life are almost completely different on the two sides of the city, even among educated and secular groups. East Jerusalemites read different newspapers, watch different television stations, and follow different social media accounts. Most city notices—like parking tickets—arrive only in Hebrew, which most East Jerusalem Palestinians don’t read.

One friend, a member of a prominent Sheikh Jarrah family with a presence in Jerusalem since the 1800s, told me recently that when she sat with Palestinian friends in downtown West Jerusalem at a cafe, those at the table next to her asked what language she was speaking. When she told them Arabic, they then asked where she lived. When she said Jerusalem, they couldn’t believe it.

There is no common cultural center in the city. Israel systematically tries to weaken the Palestinian arts institutions that hold on in East Jerusalem. In West Jerusalem, the museums and theaters, though they seek out a binational audience, are infrequently populated by Palestinians. Families do sit side by side in public parks, but due to language barriers, the children don’t play together.

Malls, and to some extent a relatively new light rail system, are frequented by both populations. And there are increasing numbers of Palestinian students in Hebrew University and the arts schools in Jerusalem. There is also a joint Jewish-Palestinian network of elementary and high schools anchored in West Jerusalem that serves both populations. But all of these are exceptions to the rule.

For most Jews and Palestinians, there is already effectively a divide between east and west. Jerusalem itself is a sort of seam—standing between forever war and occupation or an end to the conflict.

The Biden administration had hoped to put the seemingly intractable Israel–Palestine situation on the back burner, but as every administration before it discovered, there is no such thing as status quo in this part of the world. Biden is quickly staffing up, doing triage, and trying to undo the significant damage from the Trump administration, which identified so heavily with the agenda of the settlers and against Palestinians.

Ultimately, a resolution to the status of Jerusalem that accommodates both Jews and Palestinians will be the only thing that offers the less holy parts of the city a chance to resolve their social problems—to put out the fires that are still raging.

Jo-Ann Mort is a longtime member of Dissent’s editorial board who writes frequently on issues related to Israel/Palestine. Her Twitter handle is @changecommnyc.

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