The status of Jerusalem was disputed between the Zionist movement and the Palestinian Arabs even before Israel came to be. Then, Jewish settlements in Jerusalem tended to fall largely to the west and north of the city, although in the western neighborhoods, Jews and Arabs were gradually mixing. But despite this growing presence, the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan did not give Jerusalem to either Jews or Arabs. (This was not a matter of dispute for Zionist leaders who, unlike the Arabs, officially accepted the plan. David Ben Gurion was reportedly planning a capital somewhere in the Negev.)
But in 1948, at a time when certain forces on both sides seemed to tacitly agree on implementing the Partition Plan through war, Jerusalem was the site of bitter fighting. From the Zionist perspective, the battle over the city was intended to secure a connection between the Jewish settlements in and around Jerusalem and the rest of the Jewish communities in the new Jewish state. The Zionists fought very hard to take the key Latroun junction and after the war was over, the Israeli government expelled the Palestinian residents of Lod and Ramla in July 1948. Left as they were, those towns would have been a fork disrupting Jewish continuity between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Even before the war there had been several Zionist campaigns intended to drive villagers from the areas neighboring Jerusalem. The impetus was on one hand to create Jewish continuity and secure the road to Jerusalem, and on the other to push the Arabs to the east into Transjordanian-held territories or what would have been the Arab state. In April 1948, there were also similar campaigns in the western Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. As a result of this slow dispossession, by mid-1949 following the Transjordan-Israel armistice agreement, the area of Jerusalem falling inside Israel’s boundaries was almost entirely Jewish-composed. There were some Arab villages that remained on the periphery of the Israeli-occupied Jerusalem and along the borders of Jordanian-held territories, but only one or two villages survived between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Historically then, Israel’s policy has been to cleanse the land of Arab presence. If Palestinians must remain, they are to be cut off or hidden so that the average Israeli or European visitor does not notice them and gets the feeling that all of this land is and always has been Israeli.
A similar logic seems to have been in the mind of Israelis after the 1967 War. We cannot say for sure that Israel wanted to keep all of the territories occupied in 1967, but it was clear one day after the war ended that Israel was planning to keep all of Jerusalem under its control. Israel’s very first act was to cleanse the “Jewish Quarter” of Jerusalem from its Palestinian Arab residents. The Arabs were kicked out of the quarter and many of them moved north towards Ramallah, to what is now the topsy-turvy border neighborhood of Al Ram. Israel then demolished the Maghribi Quarter just in front of the Western Wall. It also established Jerusalem’s settlement activities with the building of the settlement on the French Hill that would connect with Mount Scopus to the east, an island of Jewish control, as well as the settlement of Neve Yacov. In a sense, the goal of severing Jerusalem from its Palestinian environs and connecting it with the Jewish communities within Israel, the very same goal that motivated the 1948 attacks on the villages west of Jerusalem, was being implemented.
That marked the beginnings of the creation of a “ring” around Jerusalem. In time, that ring would allow the insertion of more than 200,000 Israeli Jews into occupied Arab Jerusalem. The process was easier on Jerusalem’s Bethlehem flank because there already were Israeli settlements in Bakaa and Talpiot and the only connection between Bethlehem and Jerusalem Arabs were a few mixed villages like Sur Baher. The forested hill of Jabal Abu Gneim lay in this area, and now the once-controversial settlement of Har Homa has been constructed to block Arab access to that.
On the other side of the city, Maale Adumim lies in the middle of nowhere, with a Palestinian population between it and Jerusalem’s Jewish presence. That Palestinian population, through Jericho, is still able to interact with Palestinians in the West Bank, but not–it appears–for long. Gradually, Israel is closing this gap.
Now, with the escalation of violence and closure policies in the last two years, Israel has found an opportune time to completely seal eastern Jerusalem. While Jerusalem has been “closed” in the sense that West Bankers and Gazans are not allowed to travel there without Israeli permission, now there is the opportunity to physically encircle the city with walls. These walls, purportedly to keep the Palestinian West Bank population out of the city and besiege Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Abu Dis, will more importantly completely strangle Arab East Jerusalem. Indeed, the only remaining weak point in this circle is that Palestinians are still able to exit the Old City through its Palestinian-inhabited areas and Ras al-Amud, heading on to Jericho and deeper into the West Bank.
Enter right wing Zionist Irving Moskowitz. More of Moskowitz’s millions made off of the elderly in Florida bingo halls will go to settling the Palestinian village of Ras al-Amud with Jews. Now that negotiations are about to restart (or so we hear), the current Israeli government is doing all it can to excise any final physical connection between Jerusalem and Palestinians who see the city as their geographical, spiritual and economic heart.
Issam Nassar is the associate director of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies and associate editor of the Jerusalem Quarterly File.