With all its problems, the city of Jerusalem has a special charm about it. You feel it when walking into the Old City through the Damascus Gate or when you sit in a restaurant like the Pasha in Sheikh Jarrah.
This charm, however, is being distorted by the fact that one set of people, the Palestinians, are being excluded from deciding the city’s present or future. A simple look at the traffic on the roads in and out of Jerusalem can be the best test as to the status of Palestinians in this holy city.
The entry to Jerusalem is restricted by Israeli military checkpoints in three directions: the north near Ramallah, the east near Beit Hanina, and the south near Bethlehem. Only the western entrance to the city is completely open.
The message is clear: Palestinians can’t enter the city without permission, while the city is open to Israelis and anyone else coming from the west.
For a short time it was said that this procedure was a necessary security precaution. But after seven years of continued closure on east Jerusalem for Palestinians, the real purpose of the checkpoints has become questionable.
Even on the security front, these military points do little to keep out individuals who are intent on getting though them. Most cars driving in go by unchecked and the few soldiers manning these posts can’t possibly stop anyone trying to enter the city simply by walking a few hundred meters around the checkpoints.
The fact that all the check points are in crowded, populated areas mean that short of shooting at everyone in sight, Israeli soldiers can’t possibly prevent people from going across. The result: law-abiding people don’t come unless they want to go through the long humiliating trouble of applying for a permit and waiting for an answer. Permits are given to those with what Israelis consider a legitimate reason (medical, work etc), and no permits are given to people wanting to drive their own cars into the city.
Permits are denied for anyone wishing to sleep in the city. Going to see you friends or relatives or wanting to walk the alleys of the Old City or shop are not considered legitimate reasons.
If these checkpoints do not serve a legitimate security purpose, why do they still exist after all these years?
Opinions vary. Some say that the intention is to humiliate the Palestinians by making them go to the various Israeli liaison offices to obtain the coveted permit that allows them into the city. But the prevailing explanations say that the Israelis want to remind Palestinians that the issue of Jerusalem is not negotiable – even though it is one of five items agreed to be part of the permanent status negotiations.
Surely the Barak government will not say it outright. The Israelis are willing to allow Palestinians to run their own education system in Jerusalem (just like they let the haredim). If Palestinians want to relieve the Israelis of the financial burden of medical care, the Israelis have no problem in letting the Palestinian Authority run the hospitals and clinics. This will save Kupat Holim millions.
But if Palestinians want to control planning, housing, and economic development, then the issue is off-limits. Not that the Israelis are doing much in these areas for Palestinians.
Despite all the talk of a united city, a visitor to Jerusalem today can immediately spot the invisible border between east and west Jerusalem and between Palestinian-populated areas and Jewish settlements in Jerusalem. Just look for street lights, sidewalks, and children’s parks and you know that you are in Jewish areas.
The Israeli decision to trap East Jerusalem from three directions has done nothing to make East Jerusalem part of the state of Israel. Israelis and Palestinians are certainly cooperating in crime, drugs, and other unpleasant projects. But the majority of Palestinian Jerusalemites spend most of their time in the areas under Palestinian control. Restaurants, cinemas, theaters, and night clubs in Ramallah and Bethlehem are making good money by catering to Jerusalem residents whose city has become a ghost town.
The real charm of Jerusalem will return once there is genuine cooperation by the people of the city as to how they want the future of their city to be decided. The lust of Israeli politicians who use power to dictate to a third of the population where to live and how to live will not last forever.
What is needed now more than ever is a sane look at the city and at practical people-based solutions for it. Sovereignty might be a difficult nut to crack at the moment. But news from the negotiations is that Israel wants both sovereignty and control over both sides of the city. They can’t expect 200,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites – as well as the entire Palestinian people – to bow in obedience to Israel’s dictates.
Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.