Today was another very busy one filled with interviews, reading, and a lot of walking. The first of these I conducted today was with Ir Amim, literally the City of Nations, an Israeli NGO founded in 2004 that focuses on Jerusalem in the framework of supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their slogan is tellingly: “For an Equitable and Stable Jerusalem with an Agreed Political Future.”
From its mission statement, the organization “aspires to a stable Jerusalem, equitably shared by the two peoples; a city that ensures the dignity and welfare of all its residents and that safeguards their holy places, as well as their historical and cultural heritages.” One of their spokespeople, Orly Noy, explained to me that although there are many many organizations in Israel which deal with the broad contours of the conflict, they believe Jerusalem is a core issue that requires special attention.
While many have come to see Jerusalem as an obstacle to resolving the conflict, it is the standpoint of Ir Amim that it can be a key to the solution. Indeed, if the final status of a place as complex and symbolically important as Jerusalem can be decided between the parties, they believe, the rest will fall into place. They see their job as primarily monitoring “dangerous developments” on the ground and promoting those conditions under which they believe a negotiated political solution can be best implemented.
She emphasized to me that Ir Amim is not a human rights organization and not a Palestinian organization, but rather an Israeli organization which promotes Israel’s interests as they understand them. Accepting the framework of a two-state solution, they are of the belief that the city must eventually be divided. They argue that the notion of an “eternally united” Jerusalem has never truly existed, either before or after 1967.
They believe that one of the greatest problems in this respect is that the public discourse surrounding Jerusalem is one of tremendous ignorance, an emotional discourse which is argued without a factual basis. To this effect, they regularly lead tours of eastern Jerusalem to expose Israelis to what they see as the divided reality of the city. Having seen neglected Arab neighborhoods included within the municipality which are almost utterly devoid of a Jewish Israeli population, they believe people will grow to understand that political division is possible.
Asking what she meant by “dangerous developments,” my host pointed to Jewish construction in neighborhoods beyond the Green Line, especially those in the “holy basin,” the area in and around the Old City. She also highlighted the dangers of house demolitions and evictions of Arab residents, whether these actions have been taken by “settlers” or the government itself. These are all steps, the organization believes, which are meant to make Israel’s grasp on East Jerusalem deeper and more difficult to reverse. She included in this category the declaration of national parks, as with Gan HaMelech (The King’s Garden) in the valley between Silwan and Ir David. Everything that happens in terms of municipal development in this part of the city is political, the organization asserts, both in intention and outcome.
All this raised the obvious question of how the organization believes the city should be divided. To this point, Ir Amim does not take a specific stance; rather any agreement to which both sides mutually agree would be the best one. Their broader argument that the whole of East Jerusalem is disputed and its future should be decided by negotiation. To this, the organization includes even those neighborhoods such as French Hill, Ramot, and Pisgat Ze’ev which “everyone” believes will be part of an Israeli Jerusalem in any final settlement. No one in Israel believes that some 200,000 Israelis who now live in the Jerusalem municipality beyond the Green Line can or will be evicted. Yet even if there is a consensus that these neighborhoods will remain in Israel’s hands, without a political solution, Ir Amim asserts that the state should not act as if there is one already in place.
Our discussion then turned to the security barrier. On this, Ir Amim takes no firm stance either supporting or opposing the structure, but does seek to examine its impact from a humanitarian, political, and security point of view. They believe that Israel has a right to protect its citizens but the reality is more complicated than that. Although the barrier more or less conforms to the municipal boundaries of the city, this too is a border dictated not just by security concerns but politics. By including many Arab neighborhoods in the envelope fenced off from the West Bank, rather than separating Arabs from Jews, the barrier separates Palestinians from Palestinians.
Asking why the route has been determined in this way, my host indicated that she believes it has to do with bolstering the demographic balance of Jews vis-a-vis Arabs as well as to physically confirm the municipal boundaries of the city. So why include Arab neighborhoods at all in these boundaries? Perhaps because to entirely exclude Palestinians would be interpreted as actually dividing the city, a political move which Israelis have not embraced.
Here is the paradox of a united Jerusalem, although Israelis are arguably willing to cede Arab majority neighborhoods in which Jews are not historically, religiously, or emotionally interested (and many polls confirm this), the idea of actually dividing the city is unthinkable. This terminology evokes for Israelis images of pre-1967 Israel where a barbed wire fence ran through the city and Israelis were barred access to those parts of the city which were most emotionally and nationally salient like the Old City and Kotel. This, my host asserted, is why it is so difficult to have an “general, educated discussion” about Jerusalem.
As to why the “holy basin” is so contentious, she expectedly answered because it is this area which lies at the heart of the conflict itself. While it would be easy to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of territory alone, in Jerusalem issues of narrative and history come to a head, with its core in the area of the Old City. While East Jerusalem may be dominated by a Palestinian population, the “Jewish” connection to Jerusalem is to precisely this area. For most Israelis, my host asserted, this is where it all began.
Having spoken extensively about the dangers of Jewish development in Jerusalem, I asked her what Ir Amim’s position is on Palestinian development in the area. At first she asserted that there has been “hardly any” Palestinian development or construction, especially since Oslo. Under the accords, the PA was not allowed to operate in East Jerusalem, and Israel was determined to break down any form of local initiatives or leadership, treating each as a challenge to Israeli control of the city. Now, with the security barrier, Palestinian Jerusalemites have no access to the West Bank nor are they integrated with western neighborhoods in the city. As such, they are increasingly isolated.
To clarify this a bit further, I inquired into Ir Amim’s position on Palestinian illegal construction in the Silwan valley. The organization maintains that illegal construction is the direct result of Israeli policies meant to restrain legal Palestinian construction in the city. Since 1967, over 50,000 residential units have been built for Jewish Israelis while apparently less than 5000 permits for Palestinian developments have been approved. At the same time, the Arab population has boomed from 70,000 in 1967 to some 300,000 today. As such, they believe it is hypocritical for Israel to discuss illegal building when the city never provided legal avenues for development nor assisted in proper zoning in Arab neighborhoods.
Turning to the legality or right of Jews to purchase or reclaim property in East Jerusalem lost during and prior to 1948, Ir Amim believes these claims are incredibly problematic. One of the greatest successes of Israel and Zionism, my host asserted, was to shift the focus of Israel’s legitimate territorial existence from 1948 to 1967. While the international community increasingly problematizes Israel’s control of the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, few openly question the legitimacy of Israel in its post 1949 borders. With efforts to reclaim old and acquire new Jewish assets inside the Green Line, my host fears the claimants will take Israel back to the days when its very existence was questioned. This too will open a larger space for Palestinians to make the same kinds of claims inside of non-contested Israeli territory. This, she believes, is not in Israel’s interests.
From here, we wrapped up our interview. Following from our discussion, I will be joining an Ir Amim tour of Jerusalem this Friday morning. I am particularly interested to see how their approach, claims, and narrative contrast with those of Ateret Cohanim’s whose tour I took last week. The tour begins at 9:30 in the morning and should conclude by 2 pm, giving me just enough time to prepare for Shabbat. If I am not rushing, I’m not having fun. 🙂