Israel is experiencing a sizzling summer: the relentless heat — coupled with multiple fires, drownings, traffic accidents, instances of child abuse in day care centers, gang rapes (at home and abroad), and venomous previews of another draining election season — provides no shade (and little respite) to Israel’s weary population. Far away from the spotlight, beneath this physical and existential intensity, Jerusalem has been simmering steadily. It is just a pace away from boiling over.
Since the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel just over a year ago, the current government has made every conceivable effort to tighten Israeli control over the city and its inhabitants. New Jewish housing construction and grandiose tourist attractions around the holy sites are everywhere apparent — condoned by an American government oblivious to the consequences of its inaction. And ongoing indignities, large and small, are the lot of the city’s Palestinian residents, devoid of any citizenship and its associated rights.
The Israeli stranglehold over the city has brought neither greater unity within its boundaries nor legitimacy internationally. While Palestinians are indispensable to the maintenance of the hospitals, transportation system, pharmacies, shopping malls and streets of Jewish Jerusalem, their daily existence is precarious at best. Jerusalem is more divided now — physically, socially, economically, religiously and politically — than ever before. Should this pattern continue, Israel may find itself overseeing an increasingly fractured and tense city, instead of celebrating its historical, symbolic and human majesty. The alternative, sharing the city in all its diversity, is still possible: but only if all sides exhibit the honesty and responsibility needed to acknowledge that no one group can exclusively control the city or alone dictate its character alone over time. For Jerusalem to develop and thrive, it must embrace all its residents and mirror their different backgrounds and aspirations.
Jerusalem, with its population of over 900,000, is the biggest metropolis in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River: it is by far the largest Jewish city (over 580,000 residents; 62% of the population) and the largest Palestinian city on the land (about 320,000 residents, 38.5% of the city’s population). It is noteworthy that since the beginning of Israeli overrule in 1967, despite massive efforts to increase Israel’s presence throughout the city, the percentage of Palestinians has actually risen exponentially over the years.
Israeli attempts to increase control over the city have focused, first and foremost, on housing. Construction of new Jewish neighborhoods around East Jerusalem commenced immediately after the Six-Day War to the east, north and south of the city, leading to the creation of a Jewish ring surrounding the traditional Palestinian quarters of Ras el-Amud, Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. Just a few months ago, after a brief hiatus, Israel issued tenders for new construction in Ramot and Pisgat Zeev; extensive construction to expand Ramat Shlomo, Har Homa and Gilo is now in full swing. In effect, the Palestinian sections of Jerusalem are entirely ringed by new Israeli ones.
At the same time, few construction permits have been extended to Palestinians, who have been allowed to build in 15% of municipal Jerusalem (and effectively only in 8.5% of East Jerusalem). As the Palestinian population has grown, housing has become prohibitive and over-crowded. Given the bureaucracy involved in gaining permissions for additions or new construction, initiatives were undertaken without Israeli authorization. These are now the object of systematic demolitions: in the past six months alone, 141 units have been torn down (up from 113 during the same period in 2018). Some of these are self-demolitions, carried out to avoid substantial fines as a result of new legislation passed by the Knesset last year. The most notable have taken place in Wadi Hilwe, at the edge of the sensitive neighborhood of Silwan, and in Wadi Hummus, on the Palestinian side of Sur Baher but within the Jerusalem side of the security barrier (the last appeal against these latter demolitions was denied just yesterday; the destruction of tens of houses at dawn began this morning).
Another element of the quest for Israeli control over the city has centered on the purposeful settlement of Jews in Palestinians areas in and around the Old City. Special assistance — in money, support and government backing — has been given to organizations seeking to create a Jewish presence in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and to inhabit parts of Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. Over the years, both Ateret Cohanim and El-Ad — the key actors in this process — have settled Jews in these neighborhoods — as well as in Ras el-Amud/ the Mount of Olives — usually after the forcible eviction of Palestinian residents. Just last week this was the lot of the Siam family in Silwan, whose appeals were turned down after the property they lived in was questionably expropriated and handed over to representatives of El-Ad.
Often, these activities have also been associated with tourist initiatives designed to highlight the historic roots of Jewish claims to sovereignty over Jerusalem. El-Ad’s spinoff, The City of David, which has been granted an official stamp of approval by the Nature and Parks Authority, is in the midst of consolidating a major tourist center at the foot of the Old City walls, which includes a visitor’s center, a museum, a promenade, a park, “A House in the Valley – the Center for Music and Culture,” and, as of two weeks ago, a planned cable car that will run aerial tours of the Old City. Ateret Cohanim was given control over the Petra and Imperial hotels at the entrance to the Jaffa Gate (procured in a questionable deal with elements in the Greek Orthodox church and denounced by its leaders). Last month, representatives of the Trump administration including Ambassador David Friedman, Middle East emissary Jason Greenblatt, along with Senator Lindsey Graham, backed these projects by participating in a ceremony that opened the “Pilgrims’ Way” tunnel excavated under sections of Silwan connecting the outskirts of the Old City to the Western Wall. Their move was applauded by evangelical leaders attending the Christians United for Israel convention recently held in Jerusalem.
There is nothing seemingly new about these recent developments. Yet on closer scrutiny, it is impossible not to note their increased pace and the extent to which the legitimacy provided by American officials — in stark contrast to the condemnation heaped upon them by the international community — have boosted government efforts (including plans to redesign the boundaries of the city in order to alter the composition of its population).
But have these high-profile moves done much to secure Israeli control over the city? Propelled as they are by a drive to Judaize Jerusalem, in truth they have yielded little but ongoing resentment, animosity and friction. Indeed, nary a day passes without several incidents of harassment of Palestinians (the virtual enclosure of Issawiya, a Palestinian neighborhood bordering on Mount Scopus, for several weeks is a case in point), not to speak of the daily misery of living in filthy conditions with limited access to municipal services. Even the much-hailed 2018 government decision No. 3790, which allots NIS 2.1 billion for improvements in East Jerusalem over a five-year period, has barely made a dent in closing the immense gaps between Jewish and Palestinian parts of the city. At the same time, as the summer drags on, tensions are rising: on the Temple Mount, in the Old City, in East Jerusalem and throughout the outlying areas of municipal Jerusalem. If nothing changes, these skirmishes will only get worse, enveloping larger and larger portions of the city.
The results, then, of recent steps to secure Israeli control over Jerusalem are as ironic as they are tragic. The city is splintered into a series of often impassable enclaves, both literally and figuratively, as claims to sovereignty are increasingly contested. The atmosphere hanging over the city is — with few exceptions — oppressive. It is increasingly evident that — efforts to revive the economy and cultural life in the city notwithstanding — the city is declining as its best (Jewish, Muslim and Christian) sons and daughters flee to pursue their futures elsewhere.
The consequences of this situation can be averted and the process that set it in motion may be reversed. But this can happen only if the quest for one-sided control be replaced by a long-overdue realization that Jerusalem can neither be expropriated nor divided — it must be shared. So, as the summer drags on, the elections heat up, more violence and irresponsibility grab headlines, people wilt in the scorching heat, and as Jerusalem continues to simmer, it might behoove anybody who really cares about the city and its destiny to begin to think of concrete ways to make it a more equitable, welcoming and decent for all its citizens.