Today, May 17, 2015, or the 28th Day of Iyyar according to the Hebrew calendar, is Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) in Israel; the day when Israelis mark the reunification of the city and the liberation of the city’s eastern half from Jordanian-Hashemite rule. Before the liberation and reunification, Israelis and Jews were barred from most of the city’s holy places, including the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. My relatives on one side of my family are from Jerusalem. In fact, they have been living there for five or more generations, even before the first Zionist-inspired waves of immigration to what would become the State of Israel began. My father recently told me a story about how his father went to meet his friend, an Arab man living in the Old City, for the first time in nearly two decades, shortly after the reunification. My grandfather himself was actually born in the Old City when it was still under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. I also remember my father telling me about how IDF soldiers visited the Western Wall for the first time. “They were crying like babies,” my father told me. And who can blame them? This was the first time in two thousand years that Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, was entirely in Jewish hands. To divide Jerusalem again would be like tearing the heart out of the Jewish people. Yet this is exactly what a lot of people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are talking about doing in order to meet the demands of the Palestinians to have the eastern part of the city, including the Old City, as the capital of their future state.
Let’s not forget that Jerusalem has never been the capital of any people other than the Jewish people. In fact, even when it was under Jordanian control, the Hashemite regime never made it the capital of their kingdom, setting aside this honour for Amman instead. Furthermore, my father can attest to the fact that under Hashemite rule, the eastern side of Jerusalem was far from prosperous. When he entered the Old City for the first time, there was garbage strewn all over the streets. He even told me a story about how the IDF warned its soldiers and the public not to eat the produce sold in the Old City because it was watered with sewage water. Jerusalem wasn’t treated very well under the previous Ottoman rulers either. Have you ever wondered why the gate that leads to the Old City’s Jewish Quarter is called the Dung Gate? Well, it’s because that part of the Old City, including the site of the Western Wall, was a dumping ground for animal feces. And this is supposed to be Islam’s third holiest city!? I guess the moral of the story is that when tyrannical Muslim rulers control the city, they can do whatever they want with it, which includes making it dirty and reeking of neglect. But if Jews control the city, they are conquerors and occupiers, regardless of the fact that Israeli control of the unified city has brought with it modern infrastructure and economic prosperity. I am uncompromising in my belief that Jerusalem must remain united…at least physically.
In other words, there can never be a physical border separating parts of what constitutes Jerusalem today. But I would not rule out the possibility of a political border, or more specifically a municipal border. What I mean is that it may be prudent to give Arab neighbourhoods in the city municipal autonomy so that the predominantly Jewish neigbhourhoods remain part of the municipality known as Yerushalayim, while Arab neighbourhoods, like Beit Hanina, Shuafat, and Beit Safafa would be part of the new municipality of Al-Quds. This way, Jerusalem would remain the united capitol of Israel, but have a municipal separation between Jewish and Arab majority areas that would not be marked by physical boundaries. This is a model that has already existed in Israel for quite some time in certain areas of the country. For instance, the city of Nazareth is a predominantly Arab city, while next to it is a different city called Nazeret Illit, which is inhabited mostly by Jews. The same thing has also been happening in Judea and Samaria. For example, outside of the city of Jericho, where almost all of the inhabitants are Arabs, there is a small village called Vered Yericho, as well as other nearby Jewish villages. What I’m trying to say is that it is possible to plan the allocation of land so that Jewish and Arab communities can have at least some degree of autonomy that allows them to meet the specific needs of their respective communities.
As the current situation in Jerusalem stands today, the overwhelming majority of the city’s Arabs refuse to participate in Jerusalem’s municipal politics because of threats from Palestinian leaders who consider any participation in Israel’s institutions to be treason. In 1987, for example, Sari Nusseibeh, now the president of the Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, tried to run for mayor of the city, but withdrew his candidacy after his cars were burned and his home was vandalized (see: Tradition of Not Voting Keeps Palestinians Politically Powerless in Jerusalem). Perhaps, however, if the mostly Arab neighbourhoods of the city were put together to make up an autonomous Al-Quds municipality, the Arab residents therein would be more likely to participate in municipal politics, knowing that it would be Arabs and not Jews governing them. Once they are given municipal autonomy, along with adequate funding that could come from both Israeli and Palestinian sources, they would be able to improve their living standards, which lag behind those of the Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem. This municipal autonomy could even be part of a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which I discussed in a past blog (see: My Own Personal Israeli-Palestinian Peace Plan).