Can a Jerusalem divided stand?
...[some] proponents of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ...would drive an international border through the Old City [of Jerusalem], dividing it—and the rest of Jerusalem—between the two sides. As divided cities around the world have shown, such a plan would be unlikely to work. ...it could wreak lasting damage on a city beloved by both peoples.
Before 1948, Jerusalem had a Jewish majority. But in May of that year, the British Mandate in Palestine expired, Israel declared its independence, and the new country was promptly invaded by Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. The war lasted until the following year, when Israel signed separate armistice agreements with each of the aggressors. The Jordanian-Israeli armistice line, drawn where each army happened to be standing at the time of the cease-fire, slashed right through the center of Jerusalem, with the Jordanians controlling the eastern, northern, and southern sectors (what today is generally called “East Jerusalem”) and the Israelis controlling western Jerusalem and an enclave in the east on Mount Scopus. The line became known as the Green Line. Neither Israel nor Jordan ever declared it a border; each side hoped that it was temporary and that Jerusalem’s final status would be decided later, either by negotiation or by conquest.
Israel’s toehold in western Jerusalem was surrounded on three sides and connected to the rest of the country by a narrow strip of land just a few miles wide. Jordanian soldiers held the high ground overlooking that corridor and the rest of the city, and despite the armistice, they frequently fired artillery shells, mortars, and sniper rounds at Jewish civilians on the Israeli side of the Green Line.
Jews caught on the Jordanian side were even less fortunate; those who weren’t expelled were killed or taken to prison camps, and their property was confiscated or destroyed. The Jordanians ravaged Jewish cultural and holy sites in East Jerusalem—bulldozing an enormous 2,000-year-old cemetery on the Mount of Olives, razing the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and reducing synagogues to rubble. Abdullah el Tell, a Jordanian commander and later the military governor of the Old City, even boasted about it. “For the first time in 1,000 years, not a single Jew remains in the Jewish Quarter,” he said. “Not a single building remains intact. This makes the Jews’ return here impossible.”
Jordan, Egypt, and Syria launched their second war of annihilation in 1967. This time, the Israelis defeated all three armies in six days and pushed the 1949 armistice lines outward, taking the Golan Heights from Syria; the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt; and the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem, from Jordan. Egypt and Jordan later relinquished their claims to Gaza and the West Bank, and Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt. Israel never formally annexed those territories because adding millions of Palestinian Arabs to its population would threaten its Jewish majority over the long term.
But East Jerusalem was another story. Israel did annex that—partly because Israelis yearned to reunite their capital but also because they had vowed never again to let a hostile army surround them on high ground. And one of the first things the government did was to build Jewish neighborhoods in empty areas formerly used by the Jordanian army. (Some of the new neighborhoods, in fact, were in places that had been Jewish before the Jordanians destroyed them after 1948.)
Today, about 200,000 Israeli Jews live in East Jerusalem, in neighborhoods like French Hill, Ramat Shlomo, and Gilo, on what was once the Jordanian side of the Green Line. Residents can look down the dizzying heights into the heart of the city from hilltops once occupied by snipers and artillery crews.
“Annexing East Jerusalem was a dramatic event,” says Orly Noy of the Ir Amim organization, an Israeli center-left, human rights nonprofit. “That meant that, at least according to Israel, all of Jerusalem became a part of the sovereign state of Israel.” She unfolds a map of Jerusalem that her organization has produced. It shows the Green Line and another line, this one blue, which marks the edge of Jerusalem since annexation. The blue line, dividing Jerusalem from the West Bank, is what Israel now considers its national border.
The Green Line is invisible in Jerusalem. You’d have no idea where it was just by looking. “After annexation, it became a national task to erase the Green Line,” Noy says. “We didn’t want anything to remind us that the city was ever divided.” The blue line on Ir Amim’s map, though, can’t be missed. During the Second Intifada, in the 2000s, the Israeli government built an imposing concrete wall along the border to keep Palestinian suicide bombers from the West Bank out of Israel. “Most of us don’t expect a real peace any time soon,” says Israeli historian Yaacov Lozowick, author of the books Hitler’s Bureaucrats and Right to Exist. “So we suspect that the reality of that barrier after several decades will become the border.”
That, of course, is where Jerusalem’s history becomes relevant to Israelis’ and Palestinians’ future. Palestinian negotiators say that they will refuse to sign a treaty unless East Jerusalem is ceded to them for their capital. That is, they want the border between Israel and a Palestinian state to be the old Green Line. (I’m referring to those Palestinians who say that they’re willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist. The terrorist organization Hamas insists that Israel must cease to exist inside any borders; and even Fatah, the more moderate organization that currently controls the West Bank, only in 2010 changed its charter to avoid mentioning the elimination of Israel.)
The Israelis, meanwhile, regard the blue line, which is near where the concrete barrier stands, as the de facto border already and the starting point for a negotiated border in the future. “Around 200,000 Jews live in neighborhoods built on the other side of the 1967 [Green] line,” Deputy Mayor Yakir Segev tells me. “These neighborhoods have always been considered parts of Israel that will remain under Israeli sovereignty in any agreement. No one will dream of evacuating these big Jewish neighborhoods in the name of anything. All Israelis, and even the Palestinian Authority, understand that we’re going to keep these neighborhoods ...
... the “Holy Basin,” [is] an area surrounded on all sides by hills that includes the Old City of Jerusalem and its holy sites—above all, the Western Wall of the ancient Jewish temple, al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Most proposals for dividing the Basin would give the Old City’s Muslim, Christian, and Armenian Quarters to a Palestinian state, along with holy and historic sites outside the walls of the Old City, such as the Mount of Olives and the City of David. “Most Israelis,” [Israeli historian Yaacov ] Lozowick says, “are very uneager to have that area go to the Palestinians.”
Opposition to such a division isn’t limited to Israeli Jews. An increasing number of Jerusalem’s Arabs are also uneager to be shoved over to a Palestinian state. Back in 1967, after Israel annexed East Jerusalem, it offered the Arab locals citizenship. Few accepted it at the time, so Israel declared the locals residents of Jerusalem, issued them the same identification cards that Israeli citizens used, and gave them all the legal rights of citizenship except for eligibility to vote for members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. (They can vote in local elections, though most choose not to.) Since then, they’ve enjoyed the substantial benefits of living in Israel, and they’ve developed a unique political culture. Hardly any participated in the Second Intifada, for instance. Hillel Cohen, author of The Rise and Fall of Arab Jerusalem, tells me that in Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods, “the mainstream is against armed struggle.”
And over the last few years, thousands have finally accepted the offer of citizenship. “They feel threatened by the fact that they might be forced to become citizens of Palestine,” Lozowick says, “so 12,000 to 15,000 of them have recently filed citizenship papers. And about 20,000 of them were already Israeli citizens. The number is growing all the time. There is tremendous social and political pressure on them from the Palestinians in the West Bank not to do that, because everybody recognizes that if the number of Arabs in East Jerusalem reaches a critical mass of Israeli citizens, then Israel will not be able to divide Jerusalem. The entire city will be made up of Israeli citizens.”...
...I become still more dubious about partition as Lozowick and I take a walking tour of the Old City and the Holy Basin, following the Green Line with the help of the Geneva Initiative’s map. It looks a lot less plausible on the ground than it does in satellite photographs, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that dividing the Holy Basin might be impossible. Take the neighborhood of Abu Tor, on a hill just south of the Old City. The eastern side is Arab, and the western side is Jewish. The Green Line runs through its center. It would be easy enough, theoretically, to make the Green Line the border between Israel and a Palestinian state.
But that border would go right down the middle of a street where Jews live on one side and Arabs live on the other. If a wall or a fence were erected on that border, residents wouldn’t be able to drive down their own street. And if there were no wall or a fence, anyone could cross the border without passing through customs or security: tourists, spies, job-seekers, and suicide bombers. A Palestinian could throw a hand grenade into Israel from inside his living room, and vice versa. What would happen if Hamas took over the West Bank, as it already has the Gaza Strip, and placed terrorist nests mere feet from houses in the center of Israel’s capital? For that matter, how would the Palestinians feel if their neighbors across the street lived in a democracy with social security, health care, and high wages, while they lived in a corrupt authoritarian system without any rights? “No one here is a settler,” Lozowick reminds me. “This is the pre-1967 border. No one can say, ‘The Israelis shouldn’t be here so close to the Arabs.’ This is where the original line was. There are a lot of places like this in Jerusalem.”
Drawing a new border would be even harder inside the walls of the Old City. On a street near the Armenian Quarter, a house that the Geneva Initiative has slated for Israel is wedged between two houses that would go to a Palestinian state. Houses in the Old City are ancient. They lean on one another. It is physically impossible to weave a border between them. Only a European Union–style non-border without a fence, wall, customs booth, or security checkpoint could exist inside the Old City. Things are even stranger where the Muslim Quarter abuts the Jewish Quarter. Arabs own shops at street level, while Jews own apartments upstairs. According to the Geneva Initiative, the ground floor on that street would be Palestinian and the second floor Israeli.
I ask Lozowick if the people who drew this theoretical border have walked around the Old City and actually looked at their proposal. “I asked them that,” he says, “and they wouldn’t answer. They wave their hands.”
...Many people still say, ‘We all know what the final settlement is going to look like, so we just need to get the two sides together and work it out...’ Israeli political analyst Jonathan Spyer tells me. “To that I say: ‘No, you don’t know what the final status is going to look like. The final status you have in mind is what you came up with by negotiating with yourself.’ ”
It has been years since I’ve managed to find an optimist who lives in the region and believes that the conflict will end soon. Hillel Cohen sums up this grim realism when I ask him what he expects for Jerusalem 50 years from now. “Some war,” he says, shrugging. “Some peace. Some negotiations. The usual stuff.”
*Michael J. Totten is a new City Journal contributing editor and the author of The Road to Fatima Gate.