Saturday, October 25

The Heart of the Conflict

There is no issue in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict that is more explosive than the status of Jerusalem. Although the topic is often set aside during negotiations because of its contentious nature, there are some who believe that the city which represents “the heart of the conflict" must be the starting point for negotiations. Ir Amim (which means "city of peoples" in Hebrew) is a local Israeli organization that promotes this belief and is working towards creating a stable reality for all the peoples of Jerusalem. Today, I had the opportunity to join Ir Amim on a tour of Jerusalem, revisit the wall which surrounds much of the eastern part of the city, and more closely examine the current realities "on the ground" that are working against a shared future and hopes for a viable Palestinian state. Because most of the tour's participants were Israelis who had never or perhaps infrequently visited this part of the city, it was also an opportunity for me to gain a better understanding of the Israeli perspective.
Following the Second Intifada that occurred in 2002, construction on the "separation barrier" began for the alleged purpose of providing security to the Israeli population. Yet the current route of the wall grabs undeveloped West Bank territory for the purpose of Israeli development, includes the major settlement blocks of Gush Etzion, Maale Adumiim, and Pisgat Ze'ev (some of which are quite some distance from the city center) and excludes Palestinian neighborhoods like Abu Dis and Azaryia which had traditionally been considered suburbs of the city.
The Wall as a Tool for Land Confiscation. Hailed as Jerusalem's fastest growing neighborhood, Har Homa offers Israelis "all the staples anyone could ask for: health services, supermarket (with many American foods), pizza, and falafel stores plus regular bus service throughout the day are easily available. Residents are friendly and eager to welcome newcomers. Sitting atop a mountain overlooking Ramat Rachel and Bethlehem, residents enjoy breathtaking views and breathe fresh mountain air daily. There are playgrounds and greenery scattered throughout and many more on the way. All the homes are new and more are planned to meet the growing demand." Subsidized housing makes this settlement appealing to many Israeli Jerusalemites. What developers don't mention is the fact that this land was once West Bank territory--a forested area that provided an open recreational space to the residents of the crowded city of Bethlehem. Confiscation of the area by the Israeli government, development and now adoption into the city of the Jerusalem as a result of the wall insures that Palestinians of Bethlehem and the West Bank will never again be able use the area to hike and picnic.
The Wall as a Tool for Exclusion of Palestinians from East Jerusalem and from One Another. In the Shofat Refugee Camp, an area clearly within the municipal boundary, residents maintain Jerusalem ID status, but the path of the wall now limits access to the city and essentially declares a new municipal boundary. Many Palestinians are moving inside the wall to hold on to their Jerusalem ID card, but this has only added to the East Jerusalem housing shortage, and contributed to overcrowding and economic decline. A similar situation has occured in fringe Palestinian neighborhoods which surround the city like Abu Dis, Azaryia, and Kafr 'Aqb; half of the residents are included in the city and half are cut off. From a security standpoint, there has been no evidence to suggest that those living outside of the wall have engaged in more violent activity than those living on Jerusalem's side of the wall. There is evidence to suggest ulterior motives for the path of the wall.
The Wall as a Tool to Shape Future Borders and Create Irreversible Facts on the Ground. In Abu Dis the wall not only cuts through the community but also runs just in front of the Palestinian Authority's Parliament Building which was to serve as the Palestinian seat of authority of East Jerusalem. Was the path of the wall in this place chosen as a way to prohibit a future Palestinian capitol in East Jerusalem? The question must be asked.
The development of Maale Adumiim, the large settlement block to the east of the city, essentially divides the Northern part of the West Bank from the Southern part making a viable Palestinian state increasingly difficult.
Although these tours are often difficult for anyone, I was encouraged this time by the reactions of some of the tour's participants. Many were disturbed by the obvious lack of social services provided to the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who pay the same taxes as residents of the Western side of the city. Garbage pickup is clearly less frequent, antiquated water and sewage lines are in desperate need of repair, streets are in need of paving, lights and sidewalks are infrequent, and few playgrounds exist. Education is a huge problem as well. Approximately 1500 classrooms are needed in East Jerusalem and although the Ministry of Education has promised to provide these facilities, they have been slow to act. Many Palestinians are forced to provide private educations for their children, yet Israeli children in West Jerusalem receive these services free. Further, the municipality has refused to zone portions of East Jerusalem, making construction for Palestinians on this side of town illegal. Obviously there is a huge disparity between the city's treatment of its Israeli and Palestinian residents. Many of the tour's participants acknowledged that this could not be morally justified.
Some questioned why so many decisions are made between private individuals and the municipality without public debate. "After all, these decisions affect us all," said one participant. A few recognized that the current realities only aggravate strained Palestinian-Israeli relationships and will not lead to a more secure Israeli State. Perhaps tours like this will encourage more Israelis to become better educated about the realities of the current situation and call their own government to accountability for its actions.

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