Jerusalem First

by Laura Wharton

Laura Wharton, a member of the Jerusalem City Council since 2008, teaches political science at Hebrew University.

JERUSALEM – Jerusalem is not one city, but two. Nearly 50 years after Israel captured East Jerusalem, the city remains as divided as ever. As its neighborhoods suffer from a new wave of violence, acknowledging this reality is becoming increasingly urgent. Settling the status of Jerusalem – as two cities, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians – must be made a priority if peace between the two sides is ever to be achieved.

The 1947 United Nations Partition Plan called for the division of British-controlled Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, but it set aside Jerusalem as an independent enclave under international administration. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, however, the city was divided. West Jerusalem fell under Israeli control, and East Jerusalem – including the ancient Old City – was occupied by the Kingdom of Jordan.

The division endured until the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel rebuffed an attack by Jordan on the headquarters of the UN observers in West Jerusalem, and then invaded the rest of the city, along with the entire West Bank. After the war, Israel declared united Jerusalem as its capital, annexing more than 30 Arab villages to the municipality.

Both halves of the city have since remained under Israeli control, but neither has been internationally recognized as being legally part of the Jewish state. And no country acknowledges Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Not a single embassy sits within the city limits; even the United States maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv.

Similarly, no matter how loudly Israel proclaims that the city is united, it is anything but so. With the exception of the Old City, Israelis, even city residents, rarely venture into East Jerusalem, where most of the signs are in Arabic. The Palestinian half of the city suffers from a lack of infrastructure, including roads, sewage, and schools. Nearly 85% of its children live below the poverty line. Fewer than 2% of East Jerusalem’s residents vote in municipal elections, as most believe that participating would lend legitimacy to the Israeli occupation. Thus although Palestinians comprise 37% of Jerusalem’s population, not a single Palestinian sits on the city council.

Meanwhile, approximately 3,000 Israeli extremists have bought houses in East Jerusalem, where they are protected by security forces and have their children transported to school in armored vehicles – part of services provided to the settlers that cost the Israeli government more than 100 million shekels ($25 million) in 2014. The settlers’ presence, usually marked by giant Israeli flags, is viewed by most Palestinians as a provocation and is a source of constant tension.

The two sides of the city are united only in mutual economic dependence – the result of a policy that encouraged bringing Palestinian workers into Israel in the hope that jobs – and the fear of losing them – would make them reluctant to rebel. Decades later, the dependence has become mutual. Some 3,500 of the 5,500 employees in Jerusalem’s hotel industry are Palestinians, as are approximately half of public bus drivers (a short strike by Arab drivers in November wreaked havoc on the city’s transportation network).

Jerusalem’s contested status has implications for the entire region, and has been one of the main obstacles in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. While early proposals for a settlement called for Jerusalem to be made independent, as per the UN Partition Plan, more recently a consensus on the broad outlines of a peace agreement has emerged.

Most proposals for Jerusalem (including the so-called Clinton Parameters in 2000, which the Israeli government approved) share many common features. The most important is the principle that Palestinian neighborhoods (in which 99% of the Palestinian population lives) will be under Palestinian control, and Israeli neighborhoods (in which 99% of the Israeli population lives) will remain under Israeli control. Responsibility for the city’s holy places will remain unchanged, with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre under Christian management, the Islamic Waqf administering the Temple Mount, and a rabbi in charge of the Western Wall.

And yet efforts to finalize an agreement have been repeatedly postponed. Details regarding the management of the Old City, the administration of Jerusalem as a whole, and the relocation of settlers have been considered too sensitive to tackle, and would-be peacemakers have thought it better first to build trust by starting with easier topics.

That approach has proved to be a failure, and in the intervening years the city’s divide has continued to fester. A new approach is needed. The pretense that Jerusalem is united can no longer be used to mask discrimination. Palestinians must be given control over their lives, so that the safety of all of Jerusalem’s residents, both in their homes and in public spaces, can be guaranteed.

Israel’s immediate neighbors and other regional powers should make settling the status of Jerusalem a priority, before security in the city deteriorates further. This is important not only for the sake of Jerusalem’s residents; settlement of the city’s status would also provide momentum for addressing other issues. Indeed, anyone interested in bringing calm to the region should focus on Jerusalem.

Only by separating the two Jerusalems now, before things get any bloodier, will we maintain the possibility of one day reuniting it once again – as the international beacon of peace it was meant to be.

Laura Wharton, a Jerusalem city councilor, teaches political science at Hebrew University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.


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