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This was the day of the Greater Jerusalem tour. We had two guides, Kifah (from Fatah) and Inbar (from the Israeli peace movement), who undertook their roles in a mild spirit of peaceful rivalry. The tour was organised under the auspices of ICAHD, and anyone travelling to the area would be well advised to get in touch and go on one of their tours. On one level it is a mainstream tourist trip, on another it lifts the veil on some of the uglier realities of life in the Jerusalem metropolitan area.
The whole idea of a ‘Greater Jerusalem’ is a politically contested concept, another example of how municipal, national and international politics all overlap and blend together in Israel-Palestine. There is no such thing here as neutral town planning; everything has political and ethnic dimensions. There are basically six components of ‘Greater Jerusalem’:
- Israeli West Jerusalem which is within the 1949 boundaries of Israel. I did not spend a huge amount of time in West Jerusalem, but what I saw of it was a modern, prosperous international business city of office blocks, government institutions, plush hotels, shopping malls and residential suburbs.
- The Old City, an ineradicably multi-faith international zone whoever ends up with sovereign control of the place.
- ‘Arab East Jerusalem’ – the suburbs and inner city neighbourhoods that were the eastern part of the divided city between 1949 and 1967. There is a startling difference in atmosphere between East and West Jerusalem, despite the efforts of the authorities to eradicate it. Contemporary Palestine begins at the Damascus Gate (or perhaps a little way inside the Gate itself in reality) – the area is so obviously in an Arab city of mosques and churches and a loud, cosy chaos of small shops and market stalls. It is also tattier looking with bumpier roads and gets a worse deal from municipal spending than the prosperous West or the tourist-ridden Old City.
- What I might call ‘technical East Jerusalem’. The borders of the city were redrawn extremely widely after 1967, incorporating an arc of sparsely populated hilly territory into the city boundaries and therefore into direct annexation into Israel. This included a number of Palestinian agricultural villages, but the main significance of this is that it created territory for the construction of…
- Jewish settlements built in East Jerusalem.
- Jerusalem outside the Wall. Some suburbs of East Jerusalem have been placed on the far side of the separation barrier and included for administrative purposes in the West Bank. One such is the town of Abu Dis (which has a strong link with my own London Borough of Camden), which was regarded as a part of greater Jerusalem historically and by the UN in 1948 but has been carved out of the current definition of the city.
All of these parts of the Jerusalem area are zones of conflict, except for West Jerusalem, and in our day with ICAHD we had an insight into all of them. The first thing to absorb about the situation in Jerusalem is that it is complicated. Jerusalem inherently generates complexity – how could it not? – but it also seems to this observer that the Israeli state, or those parts of it interested in extending its control as far as possible, deliberately creates complexity. The legal and administrative position of Palestinians within East Jerusalem is Kafkaesque, but because the situation bears a superficial resemblance to normal municipal processes and it is difficult to understand, it becomes confusing to analyse and pronounce and one runs the risk of getting an arcane detail of law wrong. That might involve me in mild embarrassment. But getting slight details wrong, or failing to prove something that is common knowledge, can lose people in East Jerusalem their houses.
Palestinian life in East Jerusalem is a bit like the losing stages of a game of Monopoly. Your opponent controls the Greens and Dark Blues, and has put hotels on them. You can get round the board but you have to be lucky, and if you are unlucky with a roll of the dice then you are clobbered and you may well have to leave the game. You have a few safe havens, but your hold on Old Kent Road will not protect you for long from the hazards you face as you try to survive.
There is a semblance of a legal process before municipal bulldozers move in and flatten someone’s house in East Jerusalem; there are fewer safeguards in Area C of the West Bank, where the Israeli military is responsible. Structures built without a permit have demolition orders served upon them following a legal process, and further notices before the bulldozers move in. So far, this sounds a bit like a regular process, like the Dale Farm evictions in Essex. But beneath the veneer of legality there is a more arbitrary exercise of power going on. Because there have been four administrations in the area in the last century (Ottoman, British Mandate, Jordanian, Israeli) and three wars, proving ownership even of old-established structures is sometimes not easy. The documents for older property could be in the archives in Istanbul. You might have the money and connections to search for them, but let’s face it, the chances are you won’t. A building is guilty unless proven innocent. With newer structures, the municipal authority in Jerusalem is very slow to grant building permits (ICAHD estimates 50-100 a year to Palestinians in East Jerusalem), and given the natural increase in population this tends to result in people chancing it and building without a permit.
There are a few more wrinkles here. One is that there is a parallel system of fines for buildings without permits. One might expect that once a fine is paid – they are charged at a pretty high rate of a thousand shekels per square metre – then the illegal status of the building is purged and the landowner then has valid title. Not so. You can still get your house demolished even after paying the fine. Adding insult to injury, householders are charged for the costs of demolitions, leading some people to dismantle their own houses rather than face the municipal machine.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect is that huge numbers (ICAHD estimates 20,000 or so) of demolition orders have been processed and are outstanding in the East Jerusalem area. The threat of demolition therefore hangs over a significant proportion of Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem, causing fear and uncertainty to the general population as well as the immediate hardship to people whose houses actually are demolished. The incidence of the bulldozers going in seems entirely arbitrary and unrelated to the length of time since demolition order or to the proposed alternative uses of the site. The photograph (below) shows a building that was demolished seven years ago. The heap of rubble blights the area, and serves as a warning to others not to take their homes for granted.
Another destabilising feature of life in East Jerusalem is the peculiar administrative status of the resident Palestinian population. Despite the proclaimed annexation of the territory, unlike Palestinians living within Israel proper (‘Israeli Arabs’) they are not citizens of Israel but live instead in a kind of stateless twilight. They have residence permits for East Jerusalem (valid only for East Jerusalem) which give them voting rights in municipal but not national elections. The Israeli authorities feel free to revoke residence permits on fairly sketchy grounds, which results in arbitrary deportation. While young Israelis, rather like Australians and Kiwis, can look at an extended period travelling and working around the world as a rite of passage, a Palestinian fortunate enough to do the same is taking a risk with his or her residence permit. As well as municipally approved snoopers, there are private busybodies motivated by ideology or greed looking out for any evidence that your ‘centre of life’ is not in Jerusalem.
Although probably the bulk of semi-plausible cases have been processed, another threat to property ownership emerges from history. In Israel proper including West Jerusalem the state effectively expropriated houses and farms from their owners under the Absent Property Law if those owners had fled in 1948, hence the number of refugees scattered around the Middle East and the powerful symbolism of the key for those Palestinian refugees. In Jerusalem in the panic and bloodshed of 1948-49 there was a ‘population exchange’ with East Jerusalem’s Jews going westwards and West Jerusalem’s non-Jews heading to the east. After 1967, there was an asymmetrical process by which Palestinian claims in the West were still barred but that Jewish claims in the East from the pre-1949 period would be honoured. Settlers have been adept at navigating the legal channels and have seized a number of houses through this mechanism.
A distressing example of this was in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, a very central area of East Jerusalem. The legal circumstances are complicated but the human consequences are clear and brutal, as I saw personally. The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (www.ochaopt.org), as part of its analysis of the general situation in East Jerusalem focuses on the situation (see its Special Focus report, March 2011), and so do Palestinian and Israeli activists for justice. In most places, anti-social behaviour by young racist louts would be condemned and punished but in Sheikh Jarrah it has the protection of the authorities. Mrs Al-Kurd, a refugee who was housed in the area by the Jordanians, saw part of her family house previously occupied by her son taken over by settlers. These settlers were not a hard-pressed family, but young ideologues who shout abuse, scrawl obscene graffiti and generally harass an elderly woman who has to go past ‘their’ front door to come and go to her house.
Directly across the road, what should in other circumstances be symbols of Jewish religious observance – something spiritual, noble and dignified – have been turned into emblems of conquest and bullying.
The Old Testament is not an infallible guide to compassion and wisdom. But Deuteronomy 27.17: “Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark” does seem appropriate.
NEXT: A Tale of Two Townships
 I am no linguist, but there are some words that seem to translate inexactly between Arabic and English, one of which is ‘village’, which does not have the English associations with small size and rural surroundings but can be used to refer to large urban neighbourhoods like Silwan. Another imperfectly translatable word seems to be ‘martyr’.