15 January 2004 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

Fortress Jerusalem endangers Palestinians


One decade after the beginning of the Oslo process raised the prospect of Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is implementing a program that aims at undermining not merely the option of a sovereign Palestinian political presence in the city, but also its historical role as the hub of Palestinian civic and economic existence. The creation of a "Fortress Jerusalem" is symbolised not only by burgeoning communities of Israeli settlements, but most starkly by the construction of physical barriers of walls, fences, barbed wire, and trenches that threaten to encircle the city in the north, east, and south.

This new policy marks a crossroads in the extraordinary conceptual transformation that underlies Israel's contemporary approach to East Jerusalem. Israel once viewed its presence in East Jerusalem with confidence and enthusiasm. Fortress Jerusalem, in contrast, envisages a permanent confrontation with and subordination of Palestinian East Jerusalemites that promises a battlefield vision of the future. Despite its vaunted security function, the barriers now being constructed will fail as a security measure and will cause endemic Palestinian poverty, bloodshed, and resistance.

The original architects of Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem shared Sharon's objective — unchallenged Israeli rule over the city and its inhabitants — but they had a far different vision of the way to manage Palestinian opposition. Immediately after Israel's June 1967 conquest of the West Bank, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan fashioned a policy for East Jerusalem based upon Israeli annexation and expansion; extensive Jewish settlement; open borders with Israel as well as the city's West Bank hinterland, including unhindered trade and transport; and the creation of a preferred status for East Jerusalem's residents and institutions, symbolised by blue identity cards that distinguish them from West Bank residents.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem have always been viewed by Israel as a problem to be managed and a threat to be defused, if not eliminated. For more than two decades after 1967, a succession of Israeli leaders was confident that this objective could be achieved by promotion of Palestinian economic growth and integration. Israel advertised this benign approach to counter criticism of its permanent occupation.

The failure of Israel's massive settlement policy to increase its demographic domination in the city prompted a dramatic change in this conventional wisdom. Despite decades of intensive settlement that brought almost 200,000 Israelis to settle in East Jerusalem, the percentage of Palestinians in the city rose from 25.8% in 1967 to 32.6% in 2000.

Security considerations reinforced the trend favouring division and separation. The policy decision to restrict movement from the West Bank to East Jerusalem, inaugurated in 1991 at the time of the first Gulf War, was not strictly implemented until the bus bombings in Israel that followed the killing of Palestinians at Hebron's Ibrahimi mosque in early 1994.

Ironically, the dynamic of division and separation, and as a consequence East Jerusalem's economic decline, was heightened by the Oslo process, notwithstanding wide support among Palestinians and Israelis that Jerusalem's future was best served by its preservation as an open city. Diplomacy raised the option of the political separation of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and the Jerusalem municipality withdrew services to Palestinian neighbourhoods even as continuing settlement increased East Jerusalem's isolation from its West Bank hinterland.

The readiness of Prime Minister Ehud Barak to "divide" Jerusalem, physically and in terms of sovereign control, reversed a policy proclaiming exclusive Israeli rule over "united Jerusalem." Barak repudiated this central tenet of Israel's occupation policy because he wanted to lock in territorial gains in East Jerusalem settlements acknowledged by the Clinton parameters — "what is Palestinian is Palestinian and what is Jewish is Israeli" -- and because he recognised that continuing settlement in East Jerusalem would not reverse Israel's losing demographic battle, an increasingly salient issue in domestic Israeli political opinion.

Today Prime Minister Sharon is attempting to establish a new paradigm to succeed Dayan's integrationist policies and to foreclose Barak's concept of divided sovereignty. Sharon is determined to destroy the Oslo framework and its potential for Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian sovereignty as a basis for negotiation and the resolution of the Jerusalem issue. On a political level, the permanent closure of the Orient House and the absence of a successor to the leadership provided by the late Faisal Husseini leaves the city's Palestinians without a recognised political leadership or institutional base at anything beyond the local level. Fortress Jerusalem, in concert with settlement expansion in Ras al-Amud and Abu Dis, will close the option of a Palestinian corridor to the mosques on the Haram al-Sharif from the presumptive Palestinian capital in Abu Dis—part of the expanded East Jerusalem capital for Palestine mooted during the Oslo process. On the practical level, the policies now being implemented strike at the heart of the city's ability to function for Palestinians in its historical role as an economic and commercial crossroad and as a political, religious, and cultural centre.

In territorial terms, Fortress Jerusalem is meant to complete the geostrategic isolation of Palestinian areas within the city from those on its West Bank periphery. East Jerusalem settlement communities, such as Gilo and Har Homa in the south, and Neve Ya'akov and Pisgat Ze'ev in the north and east, also serve this purpose. Settlements, however, are porous. Their existence does not preclude the transport, civic, and employment linkages with the Palestinian periphery that a continuous security barrier promises.

Fortress Jerusalem marks Israel's rejection of the notion that Palestinian economic prosperity is a vital element of coexistence. It also ignores the extraordinary cost of the new policy to both Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinian city emerging from this vision will be a series of disjointed communities disrupted by expanding Israeli settlement and linked, if at all, by an aging road network interrupted by checkpoint bottlenecks. Palestinian East Jerusalem is largely sandwiched between Israeli West Jerusalem, to which access can be unreliable and complicated, and its Arab hinterland in the West Bank, which is blocked by a physical barrier.

It is impossible to construct a model for prosperity for a city divided from itself and under siege. Impoverishment and eventual depopulation of the Palestinian sector and a continuing flight of capital and talent from West Jerusalem are far more likely consequences.

The unstated assumption driving Sharon's plan for Fortress Jerusalem is the shrinking of the Arab city in size and aspirations to enable its domination by Israel. East Jerusalem has languished as a consequence of closures during the last decade. Its West Bank market has been denied to it, a feature of the Oslo years that is now made permanent. Israelis long ago stopped patronising or visiting the Arab sector, and tourists, once the entire city's lifeblood, have all but abandoned it. Despite its evident attractions, they will be slow to return to a city under permanent siege. Fortress Jerusalem will contain less than 250,000 Palestinians, a tiny market for a city Palestinians expect to embody their political as well as economic aspirations.

If there is a strategic rationale for Fortress Jerusalem, it would appear to be the expectation that Arab Jerusalem, no matter how grand its past or expectations for its future, will wither in the face of the terrible reality in concrete and barbed wire that is being constructed. The Sharon government intends to leave this legacy to the Arabs of Jerusalem. It may well discover to its dismay that it is bequeathing a similar testament to Israelis as well.

• This article is reprinted from Challenge, an Israeli left-wing magazine covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, available online at www.hanitzotz.com/challenge

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1