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The Deadlocked City

Their fears soon came painfully true. In the years that followed, Jerusalem was “united” only in theory. Between Palestinians and Jews there was little if any social intercourse, no intermarriage, no economic cooperation to speak of, except, perhaps, in the underworld or between the Israeli security services and their paid collaborators and spies. That there were so many Palestinians informing on one another made some Israelis despise and belittle the Palestinians even more.

The city continued to have two downtown areas, two business centers, two public transport systems, two electric grids, and two systems of social welfare. It was not a “mosaic,” as Kollek often called it; mosaics have a certain harmony of design; here the division reflected only discrimination and a deepening chasm. There was an enormous disparity between the public funds allocated respectively to the Israeli and Palestinian quarters. Israel recognized pre-1948 Jewish property rights across the old demarcation line, in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank; but it refused to recognize the rights of Palestinians to property they owned on the Israeli side of the city before 1948.

Despite repeated warnings that unfair treatment of Palestinian Jerusa-lemites in providing education, housing, sanitation, and other social ser-vices might lead to disaster, the discrimination against them continued, and continues to this day. Kollek often complained about this, but in distributing the taxes he collected in both parts of the city, he himself was as unfair to the Palestinians as the national government. Kollek was considered a “liberal,” but his liberalism was often only a successful public relations ploy aimed at soliciting money abroad for his Jerusalem Foundation. The foundation sponsored some projects for Palestinians, but it was on the whole as discriminatory as the municipality. Palestinians were denied building permits; if they stayed abroad for more than a year or two, their resident permits were arbitrarily canceled. For political as well as for moral reasons Dryden’s lines in Absalom and Achitophel, a parody of English radical Protestants under the Glorious Revolution, became more and more apt:

But when the chosen people grew more strong,
The rightful cause at length became the wrong.

If it were not for Israel’s overpowering military force, the city would have fallen apart. Despite this imbalance, the Palestinian neighborhoods were, in effect, governed by Arafat from Beirut or Tunis until 1994; and since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 they have been governed by the authority’s various security organs. Professor Wasserstein describes well the melancholy failure of the formidable Israeli state to realize in time the limits of its power. He lists the ups and the downs and the many “solutions” for joint government of the city, some of them absolute pipe dreams, that were concocted over the years by well-meaning think tanks and by academics peddling their cures in pleasant locations in Europe and America. A lot of good will on both sides went into these efforts. It was in vain. Among the solutions listed by Wasserstein were outlandish proposals to agree on “functional,” as distinguished from political, sovereignty as well as “residual,” “sliding,” “shared,” “vertical,” or “horizontal” sovereignty, on one occasion even “sovereignty vested in God.”

Some of these solutions might be workable on the Dutch–Belgian border but scarcely among people at the savage climax of a hundred-year war. In Jerusalem alone, over 200,000 Israelis have been planted over the years across the old demarcation line on land confiscated from their Palestinian owners and their removal is considered inconceivable by most Israelis. (200,000 more were settled elsewhere in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.) Barak’s unprecedented generosity at Camp David, when it came to Jerusalem, did not go beyond offering the Palestinians sovereignty over only a few isolated Palestinian enclaves cut off from the Palestinian state and from one another by the new Israeli neighborhoods near the Temple Mount. Barak offered the Palestinians sovereignty over their mosques on the Temple Mount but not over the ground on which they stood; and, allegedly with US support, he demanded a place on the Haram for Jewish prayer services.

For the little he had offered, he was bitterly attacked by Sharon and was even criticized by Peres. Sharon himself owns an Arab house in the heart of the Muslim quarter of the Old City, though he rarely stays there. Throughout the annexed areas beyond the old demarcation line Jews and Palestinians now live in a patchwork of enclaves, and enclaves within enclaves, from which it is hard to imagine them being extricated in order to redivide the city. The oddest proposal I have seen is that the Palestinians should establish their capital in the nearby village of Abu-Dis, rename it, if they so wish, Jerusalem or al-Quds, and live happily ever after. The sad fact is that the city can no longer be partitioned effectively, while only a handful of idealists on both sides are ready to “share” it or be content with “custody” over religious sites in a city whose sovereignty would be left fuzzy.

Wasserstein shows how, despite all restrictive measures against Palestinians from a demographic point of view, the great effort to “Israelize” the city, the “united” city, is failing. He writes clearly and dispassionately on a theme that has been more cliché-ridden than most and long monopolized by propagandists and hucksters. He rightly assumes that even if the Jordanians had not opened hostilities in June 1967, Israel would probably have been unable to resist the temptation to take East Jerusalem. His book is the most sober and in many ways the fairest description I know of official positions and popular sentiments on both sides between 1967 and 1999.


I found life in Jerusalem sad during those years. Violence was rampant. After each outrage, municipal workers in cars marked JERUSALEM CITY OF PEACE in three languages rushed to the scene with rags and brooms to wash the blood from the flagstones and make the place normal again for the tourists. There were also hopeful moments: in 1990 some 30,000 Israelis and Palestinians joined hands in a long human chain around the walls of the Old City, floating balloons and chanting WE WANT PEACE. But these occasions were rare and far apart; and even the human chain ended badly when the police tried to break up a group of Palestinian youths chanting, as the Israeli police put it, “nationalistic slogans.” Those were still illegal at the time. Some thirty people were wounded and one woman lost an eye.

In the Old City the prevailing tension was nearly always palpable. There was a feeling, sometimes, of being inside a claustrophobic fortress. It seemed ludicrous that this strife-ridden place should ever have become the proverbial city of peace. Much of the Old City was as the Crusaders and the Turks had left it. The Crusaders believed they would be here forever and built impressive walls. The Israelis have also erected enormous structures inside and outside the walls, but they were built more quickly and flimsily and they are considerably less beautiful. Some of the first major Israeli construction projects in East Jerusalem, the new high-rise buildings and the rebuilt university on Mount Scopus, were designed hastily under the influence of the then fashionable brutalist style in architecture. One often wondered at so many ugly buildings being built, so many eyesores and environmental disasters in the name of undying “love” for Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital.

The new university on Mount Scopus is especially disastrous. Tourists often mistake it for a fortress or military installation, with its narrow windows at odd angles like slits cut in the walls to accommodate machine guns. The new buildings have effectively killed campus life. The enormous, cavernous spaces are windy and often deserted. Few professors use their oddly shaped offices. Most rush back to West Jerusalem as soon as their courses are over. Although the university was built on a hill with one of the most magnificent urban views on earth, many of its windows look out on other walls.

If Israel had not annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 and planted 200,000 settlers there, it could have had peace with Jordan in the early 1970s. It chose not to. Ever since, Israel has been unable to resolve the painful paradox of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security. The reasons for this continuing paradox are political: the attempt by one people to rule another against its wish. These reasons will not go away, although in the wake of the horrible terrorist outrages in New York and Washington, the US may be willing to intervene more firmly than in the past.

The sadness of life in Jerusalem during those years was compounded by the scarcity of real human intercourse with the other side. Both sides were cursed by near-absolute self-righteousness. Both swore they were the victims—never the cause of any harm themselves. Among Israelis there was only very rarely a shadow of guilt over the fact that their astounding material, social, and international success had come at the price of rendering millions of Palestinians homeless. If it were not for European anti-Semitism, Israel would probably not have come into being. The Palestinians were not responsible for the collapse of civilization in Europe under the Nazis but in the end they were punished for it. Moral myopia in Israel was facilitated by the fact that Arab states maltreated the Palestinian refugees, exploiting them for their own purposes; and, except in Jordan, they were kept stateless down to the third generation.

The power balance between Israelis and Palestinians was always so overwhelmingly in favor of the Israelis that any potential empathy among Palestinians for the people that vanquished them hardly ever emerged. If it did, it was eventually crushed when missiles from the latest-model jet planes, tanks, and helicopter gunships hit Palestinians, indiscriminately, in frequent, grossly excessive punitive raids for outrages committed by Palestinians in Israeli towns.

Nor have I ever found anyone in the Palestinian camp who was seriously concerned by the fact that the PLO was, as far as I know, the only national liberation movement in history willing to extend its ruthlessness anywhere in the world, to innocent citizens of third countries and to participants in the Olympic games. Palestinians on one occasion blew up a Swiss passenger plane in mid-flight, and they hijacked or blew up other foreign planes, killing Austrians, Americans, Germans, Frenchmen, Turks, and Spaniards. Nor, more recently, have we heard Arafat or any Palestinian human rights group criticize the brainwashing of impressionable teenagers by “holy men” who convince them that they would be revered as martyrs and entertained by beautiful women in paradise if they only blew themselves up in a discothèque full of other young people or in a crowded fast-food restaurant ten minutes from the Haram.

The political deadlock runs parallel to the mutual lack of human empathy. For all its newly found dovishness, an editorial cartoon in the liberal Ha’aretz recently depicted the current Intifada as the infestation of a human body by a pack of vicious vermin. I saw only one letter to the editor protesting this cartoon. It came from one Klement Messerschmidt, a German resident in Jerusalem. He protested the utter dehumanization of the Palestinians implied in the drawing, which was reminiscent of Nazi cartoons. “Has no one on Ha’aretz felt uncomfortable with the use of this loaded metaphor?” The only reaction that seems appropriate now is despair.

—September 19, 2001

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