Study Tour with Ir Amim

tent-ir-amimOn Friday, I took a tour of the outskirts of Jerusalem with Ir Amim, with whose representatives I had met on Wednesday. Recall that this is the organization whose mission it is to promote a “stable and equitable Jerusalem with an agreed political future.”

Practically, this refers to a number of policies and political programmes, many of which I detailed in my previous post and more of which I will detail here. Primary among them is to oppose developments which shift the demographic distribution of Jews and Arabs within neighborhoods in the city. Having previously taken a tour of the city with Ateret Cohanim, whose mission it is to buy up and back Jewish property, I thought it would be interesting and valuable to see a tour from the opposite perspective. Gird yourself; this will be a long post.

The bus tour began from Gan HaPa’amon, a public park near the German Colony at 9:30 am. From what I could ascertain from speaking with the other participants and listening to their interactions with the tour guide, most were European tourists with a minority of liberal American Jews. The importance of the demographics of our group will be clear later. The tour was given entirely in English, although Ir Amim conducts them in both languages: at least one English and one Hebrew tour each per month and often more. See their upcoming schedule here.

Our tour circled counterclockwise around the expanded eastern envelope of the city from the south beginning in Gilo to the northeast in Pisgat Ze’ev hitting Har Homa, Sur Bahir, East Talpiot, Jabul Mukabar, Abu Tor, Ras al-‘Amud, Har Zeitim/Jabal Zeitun, French Hill, Issawiyya, and nearing Shu’afat Refugee Camp along the way, and then back around with a quick stop in Sheikh Jarrah. If these place names, particularly the Arab towns, are unfamiliar to you, don’t be embarrassed. Even few Israelis have spent time in these places, although they ring the city and are included in its post-1967 municipal boundaries.

Driving to Gilo, our guide explained that this would be a tour focused on the “geopolitical” aspects of Jerusalem, rather than its ancient history or religious significance. This meant that we would be going far off the beaten tourist path and, as I mentioned, see things that few Israelis encounter on a day to day basis. First he related to us the modern history of Jerusalem prior to its reunification (he did use this term) as a result of the 1967 Six Day War. He noted that over the 19 years between 1948 and 1967, Israel made West Jerusalem its capital while Jordan made East Jerusalem its secondary capital. For both fiscal and political reasons, however, Amman did little to develop, assist, or otherwise support its half of the city. While the Jewish population doubled from 100 thousand to 200 thousand over these years, East Jerusalem’s population “stagnated” at 65 thousand Palestinians. Both halves, he contended, were backwaters throughout the period.

In 1967, when Israel conquered East Jerusalem and the West Bank, he noted the contrast between Israeli policy towards the two spaces. Although Israel built roads and small settlements in the West Bank, there was no consensus in the country as to what should be done with the territory. By contrast, Israel worked quickly to extend direct state control over East Jerusalem, effectively annexing it (although apparently there is some nuance even in this). More problematic is that the annexed “East Jerusalem” was in fact an area 12x the size of the Jordanian occupied municipality at some 70 square kilometres. Overnight, according to the guide, the city tripled in size making bigger than Tel Aviv, even bigger than Paris.

How could the new municipal borders of Jerusalem be understood? He asserted that those who determined the borders were not urban planners but rather military and political figures. Therefore, “planning” proceeded accordingly. Our guide gave four criteria:

1) The northern finger of Jerusalem that reaches up to the Atarot or Qalandiya air field, used by the British and then the Jordanians before 1967. It was the belief of the planners that Jerusalem, as a major city, needed a major airport. However, because of international political pressures and successive Palestinian intifadas, the field has remained undeveloped and unused.

2) Commanding ridges: Highland territories surrounding the city from which Jordanians often shot directly into Jewish West Jerusalem were annexed as an obvious security measure. Visiting such neighborhoods as Gilo, French Hill, and Ramot, it is clear to see how controlling these hilltops allows one to control the security perimeter of the city.

3) Maximum land: It was argued that Israel needed to annex a wide envelope as a buffer zone for developed West Jerusalem. This would allow both for the city’s security and for its future development. Here, our guide mentioned, many believe Israel crossed the line from security necessity to greed.

4) Minimum Palestinians: Although the new municipal boundaries apparently included some 60 thousand Palestinians, it excluded many more while including in the city useful agricultural and development lands without the towns to which they were presumably attached. This did not present much of a problem up until the construction of the security barrier in that Palestinians who lived in, say Bethlehem, but owned land in Jerusalem, could simply walk across to tend to their fields. Now, with a large concrete barrier or security fence in the way, such access is no longer possible. More on this later.

Driving toward Gilo, our guide pointed out the village of Beit Safafa, the only distinctly Palestinian area included in pre-1967 Jerusalem. The once tiny village was divided between Israeli and Jordanian control after 1948. Reunited in 1967, the neighborhood has grown, developed, and urbanized substantially and been enveloped by the rest of the city. This is all to highlight that the Green Line in Jerusalem has become truly meaningless. Our guide, who has lived in Jerusalem his entire life, never knew the city when it was divided, but told the story that his grandfather no longer can recall where the line once was. So successful has Israel been at obliterating this line, both physical and mental markers have been all but erased, that it can no longer realistically be the basis for a political settlement.

In Gilo, our guide pointed out that this is not the kind of place we think of when talking about settlements. the neighborhood, the third biggest in Jerusalem, has some 35 thousand residents. Almost all the residents are Jewish and it largely serves as a bedroom community for those employed in Jerusalem. The neighborhood was constructed, our guide contended for two reasons. The first is demographics. Post-1967, a census was conducted which found that the city was 75% Jewish and 25% Palestinian. Three years later, the proportions had moved to 72-28 and today the demographics sit at 65-35. In 20-30 years time, it is believed that the population will be 50-50.

It was believed by building Jewish neighborhoods around the city with sharp discounts and subsidies as incentives for people to move in, it would bolster the city’s Jewish demographic majority. Instead, he argued, it encouraged Jewish residents of Jerusalem to move out of the center of the city to enjoy the superior urban planning while Palestinians have remained in their original neighborhoods and maintained a high birthrate. The construction of the Security Barrier, he argued, only accelerated this trend. Palestinians with Permanent Residence status but residing outside of Jerusalem, fearing they would not be able to return once the barrier was constructed, streamed back to their neighborhoods of origin only bolstering Palestinian demography and worsening the problem of overcrowding in Arab neighborhoods.

The second reason was, as previously mentioned, security. Gilo offers a view of a city once surrounded on almost all sides by hostile Jordanian forces. From the hilltop where we stood, we could see right into the heart of Beit Jala and Bethlehem. Across the valley, our guide pointed to a house from which, during the last intifada, Palestinians regularly shot at the Jewish neighborhood, especially the synagogue and day care immediately behind us.  To provide some sense of security, Israel put up concrete barriers along the road side to obscure the view. There have been few incidents in recent years and the city is now removing the barriers.

From our vantage point, we could also clearly see the infamous security barrier. Our guide noted that Jerusalem is a vulnerable symbolic center, and during second intifada especially, it was easy for a Palestinian suicide bomber to wake up in Bethlehem in the morning and blow up a bus in the early afternoon in the heart of Jerusalem. It comes as no surprise then that Jerusalem, at 10% of the Israeli population, suffered 30% of the casualties from terrorist attacks. After the failure of Camp David, the public pressure for the construction of a security barrier was overwhelming and, with the effective erasure of the Green Line in Jerusalem, building on that “border” was no longer an option.

The default option, then, was to build along the established, but not internationally recognized, municipal boundary. Where it deviates from that line (still only 80% built) it does so almost exclusively into the West Bank. Although the barrier conforms almost perfectly to the municipal border near Gilo, two major problems remain: 1) that topography does not mean that snipers will not be able to continue to fire into Jewish neighborhoods and 2) that it cuts off Palestinians who live around Bethlehem from their property in Jerusalem. There have been attempts by the state to expropriate this land now under the Absentee property laws used post 1948 to claim lands from which Palestinians fled, but the judicial system has largely blocked its application. The fragile status quo has been preserved, but physical access has clearly grown much more difficult.

These developments have led people like those represented by Ir Amim to believe that the security barrier, particularly around Jerusalem, is more a political wall serving a political agenda, with security as an added bonus. Further noted our guide, correlation is not causation. Many things may account for the steep drop in conventional terrorism in Israel: the death of Yasser Arafat, the “ceasefire”, improved intelligence gathering, etc. Since the barrier construction began, tourism is also up substantially, which has been beneficial to Jews and Arabs alike. On the flip side, it has largely severed the points of economic contact between Jerusalem Arabs and those in the West Bank, which were once the lifeblood of the Palestinian economy in Jerusalem. At this point, he argued, it is too early to tell if these developments have been on the balance better or worse for Palestinians residing in Jerusalem. These themes of loss and gain echoed throughout the tour.

On our way to Har Homa, we stopped along the way to see the primary checkpoint from which Arabs leave Bethlehem to visit Jerusalem. As it was the first Friday of Ramadan, the terminal was incredibly busy. Our guide pointed out two places of interest here, the first is the checkpoint through which Palestinian foot traffic must pass. While it may be said that this is a temporary measure, in the Middle East, he said, nothing is more permanent than the temporary. This is the beginnings of a true international border.

Second, he motioned to a special security gate which grants access to the road to Kever Rachel, Rachel’s Tomb, traditionally believed to be the burial place of the biblical matriarch Rachel. He highlighted that this is a “very important site” for Jews; one of a few outside the Jerusalem municipal boundaries. It is “unfathomable” that Jews would not be able to visit this place and it must be a part of any peace settlement. I found this to be particularly interesting given that he was speaking to an audience which likely could not care less about such issues. They would be happy to hear a narrative that this is occupied territory to which the State of Israel has no claim from which it should withdraw immediately. No one would fault him for excluding a mention of this place, yet he did so regardless. Clearly, even in the mind of someone who is firmly on the political activist left, such sites with deep Jewish religious and cultural history still resonate.

Still driving to Har Homa, he pointed out a barren hilltop upon which the state is planning to construct a new “mixed” neighborhood, Givat HaMatos. This neighborhood, like the others we were seeing, will fill in the gaps between the Jewish neighborhoods with the purpose of laying a stronger claim to the Jerusalem Envelope as a whole. In Har Homa itself, there are now some 25 thousand residents and is the most active construction site in Israel.

From Har Homa, it is easy to see the growing belt of Arab towns, which like the Jewish ones, are growing ever closer together. Each threaten to sever the other group from their kin; each seek to determine a new demographic reality for the city; and both tendencies are making it harder and harder to determine how a new boundary between the two can be drawn. Our guide pointed out that although Israeli and diaspora Jewish money is pouring in to support the construction of these neighborhoods, so too are the Arab Gulf States and others pouring in money to finance the expansion of Arab towns and villages throughout the West Bank. It is a war over inches which both sides, according to Ir Amim, are losing.

Driving from Har Homa across the road into the Palestinian neighborhood of Umm Tuba, our guide discussed the origin and precarious status of Permanent Residence held by most Arabs in Jerusalem, as well as the poor physical condition of these outlying Arab neighborhoods. Soon following the capture of East Jerusalem, Israel offered Palestinian residents full citizenship, which almost without exception, they rejected. Having done so, they are not entitled to purchase property on Israeli state lands nor can they vote for Knesset (Israeli Parliament). They can, however, vote in municipal elections but have chose consistently to boycott. Those who have voted or attempted to run for office have been subject to severe harassment by their own community.

The result has been that although Palestinians make up some 30-35% of the city, they do not have a single representative on the City Council. As such, there is no one to advocate for them, to demand better municipal and social services, or to fight for equal access to the city’s resources. Our guide claimed that only 10% of the city’s budget goes to support Palestinian neighborhoods. Contrary to some claims, he said, they do pay their municipal taxes as a way to prove they are still residents (and thereby not lose their permanent residency status) but do not receive the benefits. Such inequities extend to road maintenance, sewage, education, and especially housing permits.

Many have suggested that this is a result of their choosing to boycott the system, but our guide argued that they are still legally entitled to services. These political contradictions are visibly obvious in Palestinian majority areas. New schools are slowly being constructed in these neighborhoods to deal with massive overcrowding, but our guide believes these efforts are too little too late. In terms of building permits, it is so difficult for Palestinians to build legally that they often ignore the law altogether. Conversely, the state has retroactively approved many of these buildings, only demolishing those, argued our guide, which are especially egregious in their visibility.

Although some 50% of Palestinian homes are built illegally (I was surprised the number was so low), only 4-5% of these are demolished by the state. One such demolished site, upon which a symbolic tent sits in the neighborhood of Sahwahra, is pictured above.  Another particularly obvious example of these contractions could be seen passing through Sar Bahir, where we drove past an Israeli state-funded public health clinic with Arabic signage (quite common) plastered with pro-Hamas propaganda and the portraits of Hamas leaders.

Entering Jabal Mukabar, we passed by the rather large Nof Zion development, a private Jewish neighborhood of some 200 units built on land purchased from Palestinians. Here and at several other sites along the way (including Maale Zeitim which I saw on the Ateret Cohanim tour), our guide discussed the issue of such Jewish developments. While he asserted that these deals often appear to be of dubious legality, it is a capital crime enforced by the PA or Palestinian society otherwise, to sell land to Jews. As such, he described how these properties come into Jewish hands by way of middlemen and quiet backroom deals which protect the identity and life of the seller.

It is not the purchases themselves which Ir Amim opposes, but rather the political realities it puts on the ground (However, be sure there was plenty of disgust expressed for “right-wing settlers”). Conversely, as permanent residents and not citizens, Palestinians cannot purchase land nor are they usually able to obtain building permits. As such, there has been a growing influx of Palestinians into primarily Jewish neighborhoods renting property there. By more closely intertwining Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, it becomes more and more difficult to determine a line of separation in any final status negotiations.

Interestingly, when entering the neighborhood around Har Zeitim, our guide expressed how strategically important this high ground is, but also emphasized that the cemetery on the hill is not only the world’s oldest active cemetery, but a “major Jewish site” in the city. Noting how it was repeatedly “desecrated” by Jordanian soldiers during their occupation between 1948-1967, he argued that there can be no political settlement without “full and safe” Jewish access to Har Zeitim. Recall this was an audience that was on the whole either unsympathetic or, at the very least, apathetic to such an argument.

We next stopped in the neighborhood of Ras al-‘Amud at the place where the security barrier has cut off the old main road from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the other side of the barrier sits Abu Dis, designated in informal agreements between Israel and the PA in the early 2000s to be the future capital of Palestinian Jerusalem. Here our guide gave a brief explanation of why Ir Amim believes this main thoroughfare was decided for the route of the barrier, effectively splitting these neighborhoods which had grown together since 1967 in two.

If Israel were to build the wall to the east, he argued, the world would believe that this would be an illegitimate land grab and it would not be the state’s interest to include more Palestinians in the capital. Conversely, if Israel were to build it farther west, it would still have divided Palestinians from Palestinians while placing the barrier even closer to the Old City, heightening the impression that Israel was dividing Jerusalem. Since the former was not politically, strategically, nor demographically preferred and the latter was not psychologically nor politically preferred, sticking to the municipal border was deemed advisable. Unfortunately it is this segment of the wall in particular that people use as evidence that the barrier is little more than a modern-day Berlin Wall, with all the perceived violence and injustice it entailed.

As we continued northward past Issawiya and Har Hatzofim where Hebrew University sits, our guide discussed Ir Amim’s position on the proposed eastern bubble of the security barrier. Planned to envelop a huge area around the neighborhood of Ma’ale Adumim, which most Israelis see as an extension of Jerusalem. Construction slated to begin in the area known as E-1 between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim would be an enormous boon to the huge and growing neighborhood, but the plan has generated enormous international controversy. It is not difficult to see why. It would physically sever Palestinian neighborhoods to the south of E-1 outside the security barrier from those in the north, and effectively cut the West Bank in two. Ir Amim is of the opinion that this would be a political (not to mention ecological) disaster which would block any hopes of building a Palestinian state in the West Bank.

Driving further north toward Pisgat Ze’ev and Neve Ya’akov, our guide showed us on the map how these two neighborhoods, unlike most Jewish neighborhoods outside the Green Line, are actually to the east of major Palestinian neighborhoods like Beit Hanina and Shu’afat. These neighborhoods, constructed as “wedges” to maintain Israeli control of northern Jerusalem have made clear division in the north physically impossible (clearly a repeating theme). This “Los Angelization” of Jerusalem whereby uncontrolled urban sprawl rather than careful urban planning has dominated, is creating political realities which Ir Amim believes Israelis are not ready to confront.

The most stark of these is the Shu’afat Refugee Camp. Not to be confused with the relatively affluent Arab neighborhood of Shu’afat next door, seeing this camp was probably the one thing that truly shocked me on the tour. Literally, across the valley from Pisgat Ze’ev is a little piece of Gaza right on the doorstep of Jerusalem. Build in 1964 by Jordan and UNRWA, what was originally a population of 10,000 is now 30,000. Another similar neighborhood, Kafr ‘Aqb and the Qalandia Refugee Camp, to the north of the Atarot airfield, are another 25,000. These areas were incorporated into the Jerusalem municipality in 1967 and its residents all have permanent residency status.

However, Israel has decided, in the only two significant places in Jerusalem where the barrier cuts west, to exclude these neighborhoods on the other side of the barrier. This has left both spaces in a kind of legal limbo, not under the jurisdiction of the PA in the West Bank, nor no longer apparently welcome in Jerusalem. That said, as legal Jerusalem residents, they are still theoretically entitled to municipal services and subject to Israeli legal jurisdiction. However, several incidents have occurred in the last few years where ambulances have not been allowed into the neighborhood fearing attack, and police have refused to respond in a timely fashion to armed gangs.

Both have driven the point home that Israel really no longer considers these areas a part of Jerusalem, and that no one is enthusiastic to fill the void. If this is the case, why the reticence to divide the city? Our guide insisted there is nothing holy for Jews in these areas; nothing that makes these spaces culturally, religiously, or nationally important for them to control. Yet there is the fear that if Israel cedes control, “they will start shooting”. As between Gilo and Beit Jala, the security barrier here is deep in a valley and would do nothing to stop residents of the camp from firing directly into the homes of Israelis in Pisgat Ze’ev.

The last stop of our tour was in Sheikh Jarrah, one of the oldest and wealthiest Palestinian neighborhood outside the walls of the old city, between Har Hatzofim and the edge of West Jerusalem. In the middle of the neighborhood lies the Tomb of Shimon HaTzaddik, Simeon the Just, a high priest during the time of the Second Temple. In 1876, a Jewish community bought the tomb and property surrounding it, but were constantly harassed and attacked in the 1920s and 1930s, and finally expelled in 1948.

In the past several years, there have been efforts made to reclaim these properties and in August 2009, two Palestinian families were evicted from the homes they had been occupying/renting since the 1950s under Jordanian absentee property laws and Jewish families moved in. The old Shepherd Hotel, purchased by a wealthy Jewish American entrepreneur in 1985 and who has since made plans to convert the building into a 122 unit apartment building, has generated further controversy. These developments have caused considerable friction in the neighborhood and protests by Arabs and Leftists are held every Friday decrying the Jewish residents and the court’s decision to evict the Palestinian families. A bit more empirical background on property disputes in this neighborhood can be found here.

All of these developments, explained over the course of this long and rather depressing tour highlight several elements of inter-communal conflict which underlie the dispute over Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole. First there is the conflict over separation versus coexistence. On the side of the Palestinians, there seems to be a clear consensus that they do not see their future as linked to the Jewish state. Their lack of participation in the political process and their refusal of citizenship indicates as much. On the Israeli side, however, it is noticeable that those who are most outspoken about the need for separation today are those on the left, while those advocating co-habitation (coexistence would be too generous a term) are those on the right, which each clearly for their own reasons.

Second is the conflict over resources: if Jews and Arabs are going to live together in any capacity in Jerusalem, clearly the basic needs of both communities must be addressed. This is clearly not happening in the Arab sector. I would venture to say that this in no small part because of the former conflict: the failure to resolve whether Palestinians should be part of the future of a united Jerusalem or embracing a destiny of their own and therefore should be responsible for their own development. Neither changes the reality that today Israel claims these people are under its sovereign control and are entitled to services such a status accord them.

Finally, there is the conflict over borders. Ironically, this is one place where Israelis and Palestinians agree, at least in principle. Neither side, on the majority, wishes to see the city physically divided and no one wishes for a return to the days where barbed wire ran through the city even while they claim competing realms of sovereignty. For Israelis, a return to the 1949 armistice lines would mean being cut off from the most significant sites in their cultural and national history and the prohibitively expensive and likely violent uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Jewish residents of eastern Jerusalem.

For Palestinians, the status quo by which the city is now divided by the security barrier is equally problematic for them. Shut off from their economic base and familial ties in the West Bank and Palestinians in the West Bank shut off from their traditional cultural and economic center in Jerusalem, they are unlikely to accept this state of affairs in final status agreements. How these conflicting interests and values can be fairly reconciled is anyone’s guess.

6 thoughts on “Study Tour with Ir Amim”

  1. a) as for “annexed” and a nuance, as Begin said, you do not annex what is yours. the law of 1967, as Ruth Lapidot wrote, was as follows:

    “the Knesset passed the Law and Administration Ordinance (Amendment No. 11) Law, 1967, authorizing the Government to apply the law, jurisdiction and administration of Israel to any area which was formerly part of Mandatory Palestine. Likewise, the Municipalities Ordinance was amended so as to allow for the extension of the bounds of a municipality where a decision has been made as to the application of Israel’s jurisdiction to a certain area, as referred to above. And indeed, the Government issued an appropriate order as a result of which Israeli law was made to apply to the eastern sector of Jerusalem, which was also included within the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem municipality.”

    b) Irving Moskowitz purchased the Shepherd Hotel plot in 1985.

    c) did the guide actually say: “Sheikh Jarrah, the oldest Palestinian neighborhood outside the walls of the old city”?

    d) in reporting that “two Palestinian families were evicted from the homes they had been occupying since 1949”, an error I think has been made: “After 1948 the neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Shimon HaTzadik came under Jordanian control and the Jewish-owned land was handed over to the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property. In the mid-1950s the Jordanian government settled Arabs there. They took over the homes of the Jews and paid rent to the Jordanian Custodian.” []

    1. Yisrael,
      a) nuance re: annexation, these are the guides words and not mine.
      b) correct and my mistake. I should have said that Moscovitz’s efforts to remodel, etc the property became controversial only recently. I hope you will not frown upon a correction to the text.
      c) yes, or at least one of the oldest. Is this not correct?
      d) yes, this is correct and more nuanced. By the time I got to this point in the post, I neglected these details, which are important from a legal standpoint. I will amend it to read 1950.
      Thank you for your comments and corrections!

  2. a) that’s why you need to double check guides.

    c) i would have like to know how he knew it was the ‘oldest’ and how he differentiated between Arab villages and Arab neighborhoods in the Jerusalem area. For example, is Bet Hanina a village separate from Jerusalem or not a la Ir Amim?

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