The more Israel tries to homogenize Jerusalem and harmonize its history, the more divided it becomes. [This article was written before the Gaza War. The conclusion has been updated to address the current situation.]
On May 28, tens of thousands of Jews in Israel celebrated Jerusalem Day by marching through the city waving flags, chanting racist slogans and, in no insignificant proportion, inciting racist violence. Known as the “March of the Flags,” this parade through Jerusalem — which places the Muslim Quarter as the final point on its route — celebrates, according to the Israeli narrative, the “reunification” of the city.
Yet reunification in the context of Jerusalem is unspeak for annexation. To speak of reunification is to imply that this state of affairs is right, just, natural and should always have been so. But Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War — which commenced the occupation at the same stroke as the annexation of East Jerusalem — created a situation of intense abnormality and yawning inequality, which has persisted for almost 50 years. To speak of reunification is to suggest a mutual coming-together on equal terms, but the Israeli government has conceptually absorbed East Jerusalem and physically exerted complete control over the area: In addition to the approval and building of settlements, state-sanctioned house demolitions regularly take place, and the purchase of land and property by Jewish religious organizations in Palestinian areas of Jerusalem is an increasing trend. This distressed vision is the reality created by the nationalist impulses celebrated on Jerusalem Day. As flags fly, lives fall to the floor.
The image of Palestinians tentatively re-emerging from their homes at the end of this year’s parade — during which ultra-nationalist marchers shouted “Death to Arabs” and littered the streets with anti-Muslim leaflets — represents the sharp end of the mixed fortunes of Jerusalem’s Jewish and Palestinian residents. The everyday injustices and dispossessions, transgressions and disenfranchisements, paint a truer picture of occupation and its endless attritions. Due to its status as annexed rather than occupied territory, the situation in East Jerusalem often receives less attention than that of the West Bank, and also suffers regular misinterpretation — whether by accident or by design, such as the Australian government’s recent statement that it does not consider East Jerusalem occupied.
East Jerusalem’s annexation by Israel means it is administered under civil law, rather than being subject to the military rule established in the rest of the Occupied Territories captured in 1967. The annexation has never been recognized internationally. However, that East Jerusalem’s Palestinian inhabitants are ostensibly subject to the same legal and governmental apparatus as Israelis, means the institutionalized discrimination they suffer is frequently overshadowed by the more overtly drastic (and photogenic) problems faced by Palestinians elsewhere in the Occupied Territories. In East Jerusalem, the story is a numbers game.
The basic rights of East Jerusalem’s residents are also gravely affected by the separation wall. Although, given Malcolm X’s assertion that “[s]egregation is that which is forced upon inferiors by superiors and separation is done voluntarily by two equals,” it may be more realistic to call it a segregation wall. Broadly-speaking, the construction of the wall — which serves to cut off East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank — has vastly altered the area’s economy, society and geography.
Two nongovernmental organizations (NGO) — the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which is at the forefront of constant legal battles for the basic and human rights of discriminated-against minorities in Israel and Palestine; and Ir Amim, an organization that monitors and campaigns for equality in Jerusalem — have recently published up-to-date sets of statistics that distil the situation of the city’s Palestinian residents. Starkest of all is Ir Amim’s report on the city’s budgetary divisions: Palestinians make up 36% of Jerusalem’s residents, yet are allocated 9.5% of the municipality’s funds. There may be no clearer sign than this for the status of Palestinians in the eyes of Israeli authorities: they are simply worth less.
When breaking down the figures across various service sectors, as ACRI has done, the impression of a population being distributed leftovers deepens: 18 welfare offices operate in predominantly Jewish western areas of Jerusalem, versus five in eastern neighborhoods. Twenty-five mother-and-baby health centers are found in West Jerusalem, four in East Jerusalem. Nine post offices operate in the east of the city, compared with 42 in the west. Only 14% of East Jerusalem has been allotted for Palestinian residential construction. Sewage treatment and disposal are sorely neglected in the area, with an additional 50 kilometers of pipes required to create an adequate infrastructure.
The Segregation Wall
The basic rights of East Jerusalem’s residents are also gravely affected by the separation wall. Although, given Malcolm X’s assertion that “[s]egregation is that which is forced upon inferiors by superiors and separation is done voluntarily by two equals,” it may be more realistic to call it a segregation wall. Broadly-speaking, the construction of the wall — which serves to cut off East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank — has vastly altered the area’s economy, society and geography. By frequently snaking inside Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, it variously cuts off numerous Palestinian neighborhoods from the city, bifurcates some villages and encircles others, as with the ever-tightening noose around al-Walaja, which straddles the Jerusalem and Bethlehem municipalities.
Residents of the neighborhoods that lie beyond the barrier all pay the same municipal taxes as the rest of the city’s inhabitants; yet according to Ir Amim live in “no man’s lands that are gradually turning into pockets of poverty and neglect, do not receive the most basic services to which every resident is entitled and are required to go through checkpoints every time they wish to enter their own city.” Access to water, in particular, is problematic in East Jerusalem, and is further drastically affected by which side of the wall one is on. Roughly half of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents do not have a legal connection to the water supply, due to access being restricted to those with housing permits, which are extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain.
For those on the Palestinian side of the wall, the situation is dire, and took a catastrophic turn earlier this year. In March, four neighborhoods separated from Jerusalem by the wall — Ras Khamis, Ras Shahadah, Shuafat refugee camp and Dahyat a-Salam — had their regular supply of water stopped by Hagihon, the water utility company in Jerusalem. The 60-80,000 residents of affected homes either stopped receiving water entirely, received it only sporadically, or had a supply of such low pressure that the water could not reach the taps in their dwellings.
Unsuccessful attempts by residents to have their supply restored led to ACRI filing a petition with the High Court of Justice; on April 2, the Court gave the state 60 days to respond, setting the deadline for the first week of June. The state’s 60-day deadline passed without a proposed solution, and various responsible authorities requested a further three-month extension before presenting a resolution, which should be expected in the first week of September. As of the end of August, the situation has improved marginally but many houses remain with minimal or no water supply, and those still affected have been living with a severe water shortage for over five months.
Palestinians make up 36% of Jerusalem’s residents, yet are allocated 9.5% of the municipality’s funds. There may be no clearer sign than this for the status of Palestinians in the eyes of Israeli authorities: they are simply worth less.
The gravity of the water situation in these particular neighborhoods belies how symptomatic it is of the broader situation in Jerusalem and, indeed, wider Israel/Palestine. The willful neglect of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and particularly those cut off by the wall, is not an exception, nor an accident; rather, it is indicative of their second-class status throughout the land. There is a clear historical path leading to the current reality, which becomes visible on zooming out from East Jerusalem geographically, and from Jerusalem Day chronologically.
The Importance of 1948 for Establishing Equality
The physical situation in East Jerusalem may have its roots in the military occupation, but the seedbed for the mentality behind it rests squarely in the nature of the events of 1948, motored as they were by exclusion and dispossession. By an accident of history, the commemorations for these two poles in the path of Israel and Palestine stand within a few weeks of each other: Jerusalem Day follows Israel’s Independence Day and Palestine’s Nakba Day, two sides of the same coin in both their indivisibility from one another, and the fact that they remain back to back, incapable of facing — for each narrative is a negation of the other.
In this month of remembrance and upheaval and contraband memories, flags fly and lives fall to the floor, and yet we persist in misunderstanding what it is that continues to carve out and entrench inequality in this country. The injustices of 1948 are the blind spot in Israel’s view of itself, and the occupation has served to further obscure these buried issues. The lid on what happened in 1948 must be prized open; otherwise, any attempts at peace and repair will be palliative only.
As for the recent conflict, while the situation in Gaza is very different from that in East Jerusalem (itself subject to increasing repression as a result of the unrest that followed the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in July), the underlying principle is the same: understanding and addressing the injustices of 1948 must form the foundation of any resolution. The majority of Gaza’s population is made up of refugees from Israel’s expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948, and many of them have now been internally displaced again due to Israel’s latest assault on the Strip. The situation in Gaza is an extreme example of the Israeli government’s general policy toward Palestinians, which is that they are a homogenous entity to be hemmed in, contained, ignored when possible and restrained when viewed as necessary. The lives of East Jerusalem Palestinians are marked by the same imperatives, simply to a more diluted degree.
Establishing equality in East Jerusalem and beyond can either be something that is forced and fragile, to be unsteadily built on, or it can be the natural conclusion of a long-resisted acceptance of this country’s modern history in its totality, bringing with it a comprehensive shift in attitude that triggers legal restitution and social restoration across the country. The decision as to which it will be rests, as ever, with the Israeli government.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.