Tag Archive | "Jerusalem"

Settler house in Sheikh Jarrah

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Monopoly, Jerusalem style (Tuesday 7 February)

Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin

PREVIOUS: Maps and numbers: meeting OCHA

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’:

  1. 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.
  2. The Old City, an ineradicably multi-faith international zone whoever ends up with sovereign control of the place.
  3. ‘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.
  4. 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,[1] but the main significance of this is that it created territory for the construction of…
  5. Jewish settlements built in East Jerusalem.
  6. 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

[1] 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’.

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CONSCIENCE AND POWER (Monday 6 February)

Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin

PREVIOUS: Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)

We met councillor Meir Margalit for an early evening coffee back in West Jerusalem, not far from the ICAHD offices and the municipal government buildings. Like many progressive councillors back in the UK, he is having to implement policies he dislikes and run a kind of harm reduction strategy, but under pressures and constraints that few of us can imagine. After a political shake-up in the Jerusalem municipal government in July 2011, his party Meretz, which is on the far left of Israeli politics, has joined the municipal coalition and he has ended up with the responsibility for East Jerusalem. The dilemma of participating in government is to what extent the values of peace, justice and equality can be furthered by doing so; the active consciences of Meretz members ask them every day whether being within the coalition enables them to do good or merely makes them accomplices. Since joining the coalition, Meretz has tried to reform planning policy to make it fairer, more in accordance with the better Israeli traditions of rationality and more humane, rather as it was under the legendary Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem before 1991.

Policy on demolitions obviously causes a great deal of pain. Knowing the process from the inside is necessary to rationalise it and allow more opportunity for appeals and legal challenges, but it is a hard thing to live with. Jerusalem, as Meir confirmed, is unequal. East Jerusalem gets much less than its fair share of municipal spending – about 8-9 per cent compared to around 37 per cent of population and a rather higher (we were quoted the figure 43 per cent elsewhere) contribution to the city’s revenues. East Jerusalem Palestinians pay their municipal taxes assiduously, as it is a good way of providing evidence of residency and thereby keeping the bulldozers from one’s door (see MONOPOLY JERUSALEM STYLE). The differential treatment of parts of the city is obvious from a casual inspection of the state of the streets and public services in East (outside the Old City) and West. Priority is given to connecting settlements to clean water and decent roads above any considerations shown to Palestinian neighbourhoods. There is an ideological and political purpose behind this, but it is less successful – says Margalit – than most Palestinians believe – far from driving them down to 22 per cent, the demographic planners seem to think that limiting the Palestinian share to 40 per cent is the maximum achievable restriction.

Meir Margalit’s own story is a revealing one. He grew up in Argentina, the son of Holocaust survivors, and his family wanted him to move to Israel once he had finished school; their fear of persecution had understandably come with them to the Argentina of Peron and the generals. Meir was injured in the October 1973 war and dates his political shift and his conclusion that the price of the Zionist vision was too high to that time, and he has been active with the peace movement and the political left through the 1990s. Peace-making Israelis – Rabin above all – have often come to their position via their deep understanding of the nature and meaning of war, not from armchair idealism. His political relationship with the religious element is interesting; while a secular party Meretz has been able to find some common ground on their scepticism about the Israeli state as it is constituted today, and about social issues. Finding unexpected points of contact with apparently hostile political forces is essential for a creative politician of the Israeli left. The Jerusalem coalition at least has at its head a Mayor, Nir Barkat, who is right-wing in terms of having a private sector business background rather than extreme religious views or a love of the security-industrial complex. He defeated an Orthodox candidate in the 2008 elections. Jerusalem depends on tourism and pilgrimage, and therefore on peace and co-existence, and it is a poorer city than Tel Aviv because of its much larger Palestinian population (with its high unemployment levels) and Orthodox community (because of their non-participation in the labour market and the state).

There is a common interest in peace, development and balancing the budget. Demolishing houses can be expensive, while legalising them is pretty cheap.  Jerusalem’s mayor has more in common with the embattled but creative Palestinian mayor of Hebron  than he may imagine. The linkage between justice for each community, peace and social justice is inescapable in Jerusalem, in a way that may not appear obvious in the less problematic, more superficially liberal city of Tel Aviv. It is also in Israel’s interests. Meir’s parents wanted him to live somewhere he would be safe as a Jew. But, as he says, “the paradox is that the only place where Jews are in danger is here.”

For myself, as a selfish traveller but one with an interest in the welfare of Jerusalem, I thought about the mid-priced hotel market. According to the Palestinian hotel association, the number of Palestinian hotels operating in Jerusalem has halved since 1967, while lavish new international complexes are opened in West Jerusalem. My modest proposal to the city authorities of Jerusalem would be to produce a strategy to develop once more a flourishing East Jerusalem small hotel and tourism sector, get permissive with building and redevelopment permits, and in doing so encourage the growth of an international, pro-peace Palestinian middle class in Jerusalem. Flying to Israel used to be a difficult matter, but now Easyjet go to Tel Aviv from Luton, Jet-2 fly from Manchester and numerous airlines from Eastern Europe also make the trip. Not everyone on cheap flights will just want to go to the beach and the nightclubs of Tel Aviv. How about it?

A complicating element of Jerusalem city politics is that the main Palestinian parties are strongly against participation in city elections, because their view is that it legitimises Israeli control of East Jerusalem and those voting are collaborators with the occupation. I can understand this view, but from my foreign point of view I do not share it. There may yet emerge, in a peaceful and just settlement, a city of Jerusalem authority that has some unique bi-national or international status even if sovereignty over the city is divided. That city government will almost certainly emerge from the existing municipality, so it seems to me that in principle there are grounds for arguing that voting in city elections is not really recognising Israeli control. In terms of raw pragmatism, the argument for voting is that it could make the difference between justice and injustice for the people of East Jerusalem in the short term and between a viable Palestinian state and its failure in the longer term. If people do not vote, then it is hardly surprising that any political system (including the UK’s) does not cater adequately to their interests. Voting would probably make East Jerusalem Palestinians the largest bloc in the city, able to insist on fair treatment in both its municipal and international dimensions. Pluralists only have a narrow majority over their opponents in the city with current voting patterns, and proper political representation for East Jerusalem seems to me would solve a number of problems. And it is an issue which is in the hands of Palestinians to solve, unlike many others where the power of the Israeli state dominates the process.

I confess that I found Meir Margalit extremely likeable, a gentle and wise person with a strong moral code who has been placed in a nearly impossible position. There is still a small space in Israeli politics for people like him, who say that the military-industrial emperor has no clothes. And that, I hope, will be the narrow opening that becomes the gateway to justice and peace.

NEXT: Maps and numbers: meeting OCHA

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Wall at Al Walajah

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Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) (Monday 6 February)

Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin

PREVIOUS: Dystopia in Jerusalem

When I first heard about the Wall, I was fairly relaxed about the idea. After all, a state has the right to police its borders and to protect its citizens. Even if walling itself off from its neighbour is a sign that something is amiss (just like the idea of a US-Mexico wall which is obviously about mass psychology in the US), a state has that right.

However, the ‘Separation Barrier’ does not do that for much of its length. Only about 15 per cent runs along the internationally recognised Green Line, mostly through sparsely populated areas in the far north and south of the West Bank. It is all very well to build a wall, but most of us do it in our own garden rather than our neighbour’s. The Wall, when it is finished, will cordon off 9.4 per cent of the West Bank behind the barrier, an effective annexation of that territory. In some areas, particularly around Jerusalem and in the centre-north near Qalqilya, the Wall takes enormous, looping detours well inside the West Bank to scoop out Israeli settlements. Near Jerusalem and Bethlehem it has a weird cauliflower shape on the map. In the centre-north it forms bizarre fjords, cutting deep into Palestinian territory. What used to be short walks from one Palestinian village to another now involve lengthy detours through the interior along bumpy, rough country roads.

This OCHA map illustrates the problems well.

There are some areas where the Wall itself has sprouted mad complexities. Perhaps it was because I was reading (almost for light relief) Siddhartha Mukherjee’s rather good book about cancer, The Emperor of All  Maladies, that these bits of the Wall remind me of a tumour, growing pointlessly and malignantly and doubling up on itself. I saw probably the maddest bit of the Wall under construction. It slices through a rural area around the village of Al Walajah near Bethlehem.

We met a guy called Omar, who had the good fortune to have completely watertight legal documentation of his house (this is unusual, as I’ll explain later). Documents were even extracted from archives in Turkey to prove this, so he could not be turfed out of his house, high on a ridge with a fine view over towards central Jerusalem. It is about 25 minutes’ walk to the Knesset. At the moment it is about 5 minutes’ walk to his son Mohammed’s school, but when the Wall closes it will be a 45 minute hike. Omar will have his own private Wall around his house, with a tunnel under the main Wall to enable him to come and go to Al Walajah.

However, Omar’s house is only a microcosm of Al Walajah . The village itself will be entirely surrounded by Wall (although appeals are still underway to clear a small spit of territory to connect it with the rest of the Palestinian world, but with no great hopes of success) and access entirely controlled by an Israeli military checkpoint.




Al Walajah has already been shunted about a bit by geopolitics – the main part of the village was on the Israeli side of the line in 1949 (now ploughed under and forested-over) and people relocated to the other side of the valley. Under Jordan and Israel things remained stable for a while, until settlements started to intrude in the area and walls started to divide up the farmland. There is a crossroads near the village where, inescapably, people going to the village and the settlement must both pass through, and the Israeli-imposed solution is to seal off the Palestinian village.

People in Al Walajah are stroppy about it, unsurprisingly, but in a non-violent way. Apparently during previous conflicts and intifadas the people of Al Walajah were mocked by others for their lack of militancy and adherence to peaceful methods. This appears to be their reward. While I am temperamentally sceptical about claims about the other side’s “real agenda” it does seem obvious here that the intention is to make Palestinian life in the village unviable and then to take the land to accommodate further settlements. The form of peaceful resistance chosen by activists in Al Walajah is to plan, at least for a while, for it to survive while the majority of its working-age men are elsewhere. One of the things that struck me about my experience with political Palestinians was that some of the most impressive advocates and activists were women, and Sheerin Al  Araj, a community leader in Al Walajah, was very much in that mould. The Palestinian cause would do well to use the talents of its women when talking to the wider world. There is a freshness and immediacy about the way Sheerin speaks about what is happening in her village, and about wider political issues. Palestine is certainly no theocracy; one sees more all-covering burkas on an average day in north London than one does anywhere in Palestine – Palestinian Muslim women wear stylish headscarves and are not afraid of stating their own opinions and taking a lead.

While the intelligence and non-violence of Al Walajah’s campaign is impressive, I was left fearing what would happen given the crushing state power (aided by European construction companies) exercised against the people here. Sheerin commented depressingly in an aside that ten years ago, when the Wall and settlements started to appear, that she used to try to explain things rationally to her children, to be understanding, balanced and dispassionate about it. But now she, and people here, have been trampled on so much that she doesn’t have the energy to rationalise anymore and finds the simplest explanation ‘They are doing it because they are bad people and they hate us’ hard to argue against. Flattening people and communities like this breeds hatred. The ugly mutilation of the landscape in turn breeds ugliness, despair and violence.  The dark, science-fiction futurology of the embattled Israeli left begins to look credible.

NEXT: Conscience and power

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Dystopia in Jerusalem (Monday 6 February)

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Dystopia in Jerusalem (Monday 6 February)

Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin

PREVIOUS: Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)

Israeli and foreign citizens are not obliged to cross between Ramallah and Jerusalem via Qalandia, but Palestinians are. If you can, it is usually worthwhile to drive a little around the perimeter of the Wall and cross at a more relaxed checkpoint at Hisma/ Pisgat Ze’ev. It is a privilege that divides the visitor from ordinary people in the West Bank, but it does save time. It also makes the squalor and delay of Qalandia all the more unnecessary. It did not take me long to work out how militants might get weapons through the barrier if they really wanted, and if the thought has occurred to me, it will have occurred to potential terrorists long ago.


There is a good road, built with the assistance of US-AID (Israel is quick to build and maintain good roads that serve settlements but neglects roads that do not), skirting this part of the Wall but further south the alternative roads are very poor and quite dangerous. As soon as one passes through the checkpoint, the environment changes abruptly. On the Palestinian side it is a dry, rocky landscape but on the Israeli side there is a verdant suburb, well-watered shrubbery and lawns among the blocks of flats of Pisgat Ze’ev. This suburb is actually a ‘settlement’ on occupied territory. Settlements, I quickly learned, come in several different shapes and sizes. The most heavily populated are the ones like Pisgat Ze’ev and Ma’ale Adummim, which are designed and built to be as normal and everyday as possible. Were it not for the international dimensions, they would be just like relatively pleasant low-income suburban developments in other Mediterranean countries, such as the vast new sprawls around cities in central and southern Spain. From the ordinary Israeli’s point of view, there is nothing pioneering or strange about living in these places – they are convenient, moderately priced, newly built suburbs to commute from and raise a family in. There is a big difference between these and the heavily politicised, confrontational settlements such as the one in Hebron.


However, counter-intuitively, it is probably the settlement-suburbs of East Jerusalem that are more of a problem for a future treaty based on two states than the outposts of extremists. The Israeli army evicted several thousand politicised settlers when they pulled out of Gaza, and this would be a feasible operation across much of the West Bank. The settlement-suburbs are different in that the numbers of people are so large and the fact that these are not defiant pioneering outposts but suburbs woven into the Jerusalem metropolitan area. The pattern of development of these suburbs poses two threats. One is that they will effectively sever the southern and northern sections of the West Bank from each other, and the other is that by forming a ring around the inner Arab part of East Jerusalem they will prevent any linkage between East Jerusalem and independent Palestine. A viable Palestinian state will have to include at least some of these areas, and the more settlement housing that is built, the harder it will be to get a peace agreement accepted and implemented.


Our first port of call in Jerusalem was at the offices of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) (http://www.icahd.org/), a peace organisation established in 1997. While the late 1990s were springtime for progressives in many European countries, it was a depressing time for the left in Israel. The murder of Yitzhak Rabin and the narrow and surprising victory of Netanyahu in the May 1996 elections (following some cruel Hamas bus bombings earlier in the year) made it seem to Israeli progressives that the peaceful possibilities opened up by the Oslo accords in 1993 were being closed down, and ICAHD was one response, focusing on the large-scale demolitions of Palestinian homes by the Israeli military and the Jerusalem city authorities.


We were met by the energetic, outspoken Jeff Halper, director of ICAHD, who over coffee took us through a rapid history of land, settlement, demolition and abortive peace initiatives. I took from him a sense of the use of complexity as a weapon by the powerful, in this case the Israeli state, against the weak, and a deep pessimism about the long term prospects.


I hope neither Jews nor Muslims will take offence at a porcine metaphor, but it does look a lot like the West Bank is being salami-sliced. East Jerusalem – including some rural areas – is annexed. The Oslo accords divided the rest of the West Bank into three ‘Areas’. Area A (18 per cent of the land area) contains the main West Bank towns and is under Palestinian Authority (PA) civil and security control (although this does not apparently preclude Israeli army operations from taking place periodically), Area B (22 per cent of land area) is under PA civil control but Israeli military, and Area C (60 per cent of land area) is under full Israeli control. Under Oslo this division was supposed to have been temporary, but it has ended up frozen in place. Areas A and B contain most of the population, but these are corralled into 70 islands within the web of Area C which covers main highways, the Jordanian border, settlements and the Jordan valley. The small, urbanised nature of Areas A and B make it difficult to accommodate natural population growth and therefore keeps land expensive in areas where it is permitted to build. Meanwhile, low-cost housing for settlers spreads across an increasing proportion of Area C, while Bedouin villages in the area are bulldozed. Water is an increasingly urgent problem; even in Area A the PA is not permitted to approve digging of wells, while settlements consume water with a western profligacy that defies the desert surroundings.


The future suggested by current developments is nightmarish. Abstract out East Jerusalem, and Palestine is divided into four non-viable fragments (‘cantons’) – Gaza, the north around Jenin, the centre around Ramallah and the south around Hebron and Bethlehem – by Area C. It is not hard to imagine separation barriers going up (probably as deep ditches rather than walls, so as not to spoil the view) either side of the main highway linking Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. Without natural resources, without hope of change, the cantons would be social abscesses, with increasingly alienated and badly educated young populations left to fester in poverty and extremism. Meanwhile, the powerful Israeli military-industrial complex could use these essentially captive populations as testing-grounds for military, security and control technologies, and export its expertise to an increasingly violent and divided world. This is not my own despairing vision, but that of some deeply pessimistic Israelis who fear that their situation has nurtured something ugly and sinister.


Mikhal, from ICAHD, then took us on a walking tour of the Old City in Jerusalem. It was somewhat different from what one would find just wandering about, and from the sanitised version that one would get from many tourist expeditions. I had already noticed one particularly striking house in my Sunday’s wanderings – an arched dwelling in the heart of the Muslim Quarter ostentatiously displaying its Israeli identity.



This house, it turns out, is the property of Ariel Sharon, whose interventions in the politics of Jerusalem have more than once involved crude assertion of territorial control (most notably in his 2000 excursion to the Temple Mount). He acquired the property in 1987 .

The Old City is dotted with micro-settlements in this disputed area, often a product of the asymmetrical process of land restitution in Israel in which Palestinian claims in Israel proper including West Jerusalem are disallowed but a Jewish history to a building or land in East Jerusalem can lead to a successful claim.



Everything ends up politicised in Jerusalem, including policing (community police support officers will tend to be settlers policing mainly Palestinian populations), planning control and of course archaeology. Two current projects are particularly worrying to Palestinians and Israeli progressives. One is the excavation of tunnels in the Old City near the Temple Mount, which some fear may undermine the foundations of the mosques on top of the Mount with incalculable consequences for the world political situation. The other, in the shadow of the Temple Mount, is the ‘City of David’, a politico-archaeological project which in turn casts a shadow over the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan.


Silwan is the sort of neighbourhood that in most cities would be gentrified – Jerusalem’s equivalent of Friedrichshain in Berlin or Leith in Edinburgh. It is just south east of the Old City, stretching up and down a valley in a higgledy-piggledy sprawl of houses old and new. But it is a troubled place, an inner city confrontation zone between residents on the one hand and settlers and the authorities on the other. Parts of it are scheduled for demolition in the interests of the City of David and the creation of a park – based apparently on a sketchy claim that King David had enjoyed strolling along the valley. Silwan is a tense place; people have no confidence in the authorities, and with reason – their community facilities seem to end up demolished despite attracting the interest of visitors, such as Jimmy Carter, more illustrious than ourselves. It was also the scene of a nasty, filmed confrontation when a settler drove at some local children. Everything in Jerusalem is politicised, and inner city redevelopment, like provision of parks, is a tool of demographic engineering.

But on the Monday afternoon we went to an unlikely part of ‘Jerusalem’. Under its current peculiar boundaries it stretches out into a rural area to the east, where we gain a deeper acquaintance with The Wall.

NEXT: Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)

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Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin


Jerusalem is a single-industry town. Religion (and therefore politics) suffuses the city and its life. One makes some sort of statement as soon as one says Shalom/ Salaam/ Hello to someone, and from reading a shop sign one can tell more or less where someone stands. The only exception seems to be for sellers of souvenir T-shirts, an ideologically relaxed breed in most places but here capable of selling hero-worshipping Che-style pictures of Yasser Arafat alongside T-shirts depicting machine guns and pro-Israel slogans like ‘IDF- UZI DOES IT!’ and ‘GUNS AND MOSES’.

The souvenir trade here seems to be capable of accommodating the extreme and inconsistent, but not to deal much with the middle ground. The outline map of the area that the world recognises – an Israel vaguely shaped like an old-fashioned telephone, the West Bank between the speaker and the receiver – is a less common one than a map of Israel claiming the entire West Bank, or of the entire area painted in Palestinian colours with old cities like Jaffa present but Tel Aviv not on the map. I am not attracted to the ideological/ demographic implications of either picture, but I guess one should not seek sophisticated political analysis on T-shirts or wooden ornaments. The most attractive T-shirt banality available was Shalom/ Salaam/ Peace in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

There is a known psychiatric disorder called ‘Jerusalem syndrome’. The concentration of so many religious buildings and people, and the sense of closeness to the sublime, can trigger weird symptoms in some visitors – delusions that they are the Messiah being the most noted. It is usually temporary. It is an extreme form of a feeling that most visitors with any empathy will have. Jews are at their most Jewish here, Muslims their most Muslim, and Christians their most Christian (in a perhaps rather mystical vein of Christianity). Even so secularised, agnostic and liberal a Church of England Christian as myself feels a bit of a tug. To walk the streets where Jesus trod, to trace the Stations of the Cross, does have its emotional effect. To pray at the place that Christ was crucified (and you do pray there, even if you haven’t done so properly for years)… one does feel connected somehow.

It is not just the history and theology that makes one identify that bit more with one’s religion in Jerusalem. The very architecture of the Old City encourages a tendency to pick a team, as it is divided into the Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian Quarters, and in talking to people it is easier to smooth over the niceties of one’s belief set and accept an identity as a Christian. This was less unusual in past centuries in eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, where religious communities had their own self-governing arrangements for civil law and were arranged into ‘Quarters’ and ghettoes – often Muslim, Orthodox, Armenian and Jewish. The fate of the latter in Europe, of course, has its importance in the broader picture of Israel and Palestine.

Jerusalem life could be made completely impossible for everyone if one tried, and even in Jerusalem nobody quite has the bloody-mindedness to try, so people are left to get on with their worship even if their beliefs completely contradict each other. The fabric of tolerance in Jerusalem frequently wears thin. Make no mistake, ‘tolerance’ does not imply approval (a common error made by visitors about the inhabitants of Amsterdam, for instance).Tolerance and strange extra-territorial arrangements have a long history in Jerusalem, hence the peculiar European war that we call ‘Crimea’ which started ostensibly over the guardianship of the Christian holy places. Ironically, the feuding Christian denominations entrust the key of the holiest site in Christendom, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with local Muslims rather than with any of their rivals. The custodianship of the Temple Mount (Haram ash-Sharif) is also, more predictably, in Muslim hands. Muslims can walk up to the focal point of the religious emotion that swirls around the place, while everyone else goes through an Israeli police security checkpoint. The catch is that unless you are an East Jerusalemite or an Israeli citizen, as a Muslim you will find it difficult to get to Jerusalem at all.

Each of the three religions’ core sites has its own particular atmosphere. The Temple Mount has an austere, geometric beauty, softened by the small formal gardens each side of the Dome of the Rock. My Muslim friends who prayed there and at Al-Aqsa found the experience profoundly moving, but the inner beauty is physically inaccessible to non-Muslims.

The Western Wall, a minimal distance (one must resist the temptation to say ‘a stone’s throw’ in these parts) from Al-Aqsa, is to religious Jews the place where the divine is most manifest on Earth, and the devotion of the faithful is at once public and utterly private and inward.

The Christian church of the Holy Sepulchre lacks any of the unity of the Dome of the Rock; reflecting the many Christian denominations who look to it, it is a melange of Byzantine, Crusader and more modern styles. It is a rambling, confusing building, perhaps a metaphor for the pluralities and contradictions of Christianity. It is the centre, but still point it is not.

The Old City is a honeycomb of a place. Streets and alleyways weave up, down and around, making it ideal for wandering around in and making one’s own discoveries. Everywhere there is something old, strange, beautiful or quirky, from ‘Mr Moustache’s Very Good Food Stand’ near Herod’s Gate, where I acquired a fresh, warm falafel (a love of falafel unites Israelis and Palestinians) to an exquisite display of spices in a Palestinian trader’s shop in the markets.

You really cannot tell where somewhere that looks like a doorway off an alley may lead – it might be another even smaller alley, or stairs up or down, or a small synagogue, a family house, an arched cellar… I looked in one such archway this morning, to see two men, one of them clutching a handgun, calmly discussing something. The number of live cats roaming the Old City suggests that curiosity can be held in check, and it duly was in my case on this occasion. Climb some anonymous-looking metal stairs, and you may find yourself on the roof, looking across the Jerusalem skyline on one side, and on the other peeking down to a main street in a Levantine market over oblivious tour groups, trinket-sellers and money changers.

NEXT: Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)

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Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin

Immigration officers the world over have a reputation for humourlessness and prickliness and grumpiness, but Israeli border control is often regarded as distilling these qualities to the ultimate degree. My own experience, however, was reasonably straightforward. The only slight glitch was the presence of a Malaysian entry stamp in my passport, about which the Israeli officer questioned me a bit. I completely understand his point of view; Malaysia does not admit Israeli nationals at all and there is a distressing vein of anti-Semitism that is officially permitted and encouraged in Malaysia, so giving a mild grilling to someone who comes and goes freely to hostile territory is hardly unfair. I was awarded an Israeli entry stamp of exceptional clarity in its printing, leaving all subsequent border control officers in no doubt that I’ve come here. My two colleagues on the trip, incidentally, were both Muslim; one was admitted even less problematically than me, but one was held for some sustained questioning.

Travelling in the ‘sherut’ (presumably from the same root as the ubiquitous ‘marshrutka’ in the former Soviet Union) shared minibus taxi from Ben Gurion airport to Jerusalem, despite the darkness, did have its illuminating moments. The landscape of most of Israel and Palestine is a broken one, with rocky hills and steep valleys and this was visible along the main road; while a hospitable place compared to the desert, there is still a harshness to the territory. Israeli modernist architecture is an intriguing response to the land; its rippling, concrete buildings with large open-arched windows built along the hilltops somehow look at home here.

Inadvertently, a couple of fellow passengers provided a bit of insight into the conflict of idealism and pragmatism that is woven into life here. A young man, a convert to Judaism just arrived from Canada and full of religious enthusiasm, was hoping to study at a yeshiva and become an Israeli. He was sat next to another young man, a native-born Israeli, and talked so loudly that one could not help listen. The Canadian explained that he had not made any study arrangements in advance, his former rabbi was in Jerusalem but did not know he was coming, and he had not even made any sleeping arrangements for his first night. The Israeli said calmly but rather bluntly, “You should have come better prepared.” The Canadian was also puzzled by a stop on the way from the airport to Jerusalem. “Where is this place?” he asked the Israeli. “Abu Ghosh. It’s an Arab village.” And yes, it was a modest-looking, tidy place nestling in a valley, and the illuminated minaret of its mosque was the most visible building in the night – well, that and a large number of restaurants with outside signs. The Canadian was obviously puzzled, so the Israeli added, “People often come here from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to go out to eat. A lot of people don’t keep Shabbat or always eat kosher.” The Canadian’s bafflement and disappointment were almost audible, and the conversation drifted to an end. The kindly taxi driver, an older man who spoke with a central European accent, went out of his way figuratively and literally to find a safe place for the Canadian ingenue to stay. There are many kind and hospitable people, and many hustlers and extremists, here. I hope he falls in with the former group; it would be tragic if his faith and innocence were corrupted to ill ends.

The other illumination is one that can be learned by looking at the map, but it does take a visit here to really feel it. The Holy Land is tiny. As my guidebook puts it, Israel is the size of the US state of New Jersey and the West Bank is considerably smaller than that. So much has happened, historically, religiously and in contemporary politics, that the map expands in one’s mind. In strict physical geographical terms, Jerusalem to Ramallah is about as far as Southampton to Winchester.

The end of our journey, for today, was the Azzahra Hotel in East Jerusalem. In coming here we were crossing a line, the old boundary between East and West Jerusalem that from 1949 to 1967 was nearly impenetrable but is now nearly invisible. The old Mandelbaum Gate site is a fairly anonymous spot on a wide road, less prominent than any of Berlin’s old checkpoints. East Jerusalem has a concentration of hotels, from the lavish American Colony to more modest accommodation like the Azzahra, just north of the Herod Gate to the Old City. Despite the lateness of the hour, there was a genuine warmth to our greeting at the hotel. Like many people in conflict-ridden areas (Bosnia and Serbia come to mind in my fairly recent travels, as do the sharply segregated suburbs and city of Detroit), people here seem to treat visitors and new arrivals with a kindness and gentleness that contrasts with the hatred or more often blank indifference with which they treat their neighbours.

NEXT: Introduction to Jerusalem

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