Dividing Jerusalem, Solidifying Occupation

by Daniel Seidemann

This weekend was the 49th anniversary of Jerusalem’s “reunification.” This anniversary comes in the context of a popular uprising in the city unlike any since 1967. Although “Jerusalem-the-eternal-undivided-capital-of-Israel” was never more than a hollow myth, 49 years post-“unification” the city is physically divided by walls of mutual fear and hatred, buttressed by violence and mistrust, as never before.

For protracted periods since 1967, the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem was a disease in remission. That occupation is now metastasizing and increasingly indistinguishable from that of the West Bank. Not citizens of Israel, Jerusalem’s Palestinians form a society in limbo—permanently disenfranchised and politically disempowered, part of neither Israel nor the Occupied Palestinian territories.

Once a barely tolerated minority, the Palestinian collective in East Jerusalem is today often viewed by official Israel as “the enemy.” Collective punishment, which was once episodic, has become increasingly systemic. Always limited, today governmental and municipal services have all but collapsed for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live within the city limits but beyond the separation barrier.

Dividing Jerusalem

These developments are so blatant that even those who have in the past subscribed to the mantra of “eternal-united-Jerusalem” now realize that the status quo is unsustainable. This realization finds expression in a slew of recent proposals calling for dividing the city. One such proposal comes from Israeli opposition leader Isaac “Buji” Herzog, another from Labor leader Haim Ramon, and a third, more oblique but similar in substance to the others, from Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

As a longtime advocate of a political division of Jerusalem as part of a two-state agreement, I welcome this awakening to the reality of the unsustainability of Israeli rule in East Jerusalem. At the same time, I am deeply alarmed, because these plans are animated by some of the most dangerous and counterproductive thinking encountered in recent memory.

Central to all of the proposals is the argument that the way to improve security and “save” Jewish Jerusalem is not to end occupation but to expand it. The central idea is to excise some 200,000 Palestinian men, women, and children from Jerusalem, cutting them off from families, hospitals, places of work, study, and worship. The remaining 120,000 Palestinians—those living in areas Israel prizes too highly to let go—would be isolated within Israel’s new borders, subject to policies more openly hostile to their presence than at any time since 1967.

These proposals make a bad security situation worse. Security in Jerusalem is a function not of the number of Israeli security forces on the city’s streets and borders or the number of its Palestinian residents per se. Insecurity in Jerusalem today stems from Palestinian rage, fueled by despair, deriving from permanent occupation, sharpened by fears that Israel seeks to change the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. Israeli statements, policies, and actions—like proposing cutting 200,000 Palestinians off from their own city—only intensify and lend credence to those fears.

As for “saving” Jewish Jerusalem, Israeli governments and settlers have been working for years to establish—through housing, parks, archeological sites, and tourist facilities—a Jewish pseudo-Biblical domain in the most volatile areas of East Jerusalem (and, indeed, of the planet), that is, the Old City and its visual basin, including the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, all at the expense of equities that Muslims and Christians hold in the city. Suggestions to further cut off Palestinians from these areas only exacerbate this dangerous trend, which is transforming the Israeli-Palestinian political conflict, resolvable by the two-state solution, into a zero-sum religious battle.

The Treason of the Moderates

Some argue that none of this matters—that all of this talk of dividing Jerusalem is just a political gambit designed to demonstrate that Netanyahu has no answer to the problems confronting Israel today. Be that as it may, merely introducing these ideas into the public discourse is devastating. Doing so capitulates to and promotes the view that there is no Palestinian partner for negotiations and leads further down the well-worn path of exploiting this position as cover for policies that foreclose the possibility of two states. Herzog and Ramon, in particular, are further signaling to Palestinians that Israel’s mainstream Left, should it ever come back into power or join the Netanyahu government, cannot be counted on as a reliable negotiating partner. Indeed, by merely advocating this approach, the supposed forces of moderation in Israel are embracing a position as dehumanizing of the Palestinians as that of Israel’s racist and Islamophobic Right. In effect, the so-called moderates are saying to the Palestinians and the world that, in Jerusalem, only Israelis lives matter.

For opposing these plans to divide Jerusalem, I have been charged with hypocrisy, accused of wanting “all or nothing.” In fact, I believe that interim borders, devolution of authority, and enhanced security arrangements can all be constructive steps, but only if they genuinely serve the cause of ending occupation. But Netanyahu and his government are systematically cementing a one-state reality on the ground, and the very possibility of ever implementing a two-state solution hangs by a thread. Perpetual occupation is the greatest threat in our generation to the long-term viability of the Zionist enterprise—and we are at the threshold of exactly this. At stake is whether Israel will be an enduring, seminal development in Jewish history or another fleeting episode of Jewish independence.

As Israel approaches the 50th anniversary of its decisive victory in the Six Day War, it is evident that subsequent Israeli policies have retroactively transformed a war of self-defense into a platform for messianic expansionism that over time is undermining Israel’s very existence. Israel is in desperate need of leaders who will courageously speak the truth about the unsustainability of occupation and the existential imperative of adopting policies that move Israel resolutely towards a two-state outcome, inside and outside Jerusalem. Instead, purported moderates, like Herzog and Ramon, have joined Netanyahu in peddling the illusion that security can be improved, Jerusalem made more Jewish, and the Palestinians made to vanish—all without Israel having to make hard choices or painful concessions. They in essence are telling the Israeli public: the problem isn’t occupation, it’s that Netanyahu is doing occupation badly, and the Left can do it better. But occupation simply cannot be mitigated by political gimmicks, or whitewashed with hasbara stunts.

Many of the supporters of the Herzog and Ramon plans are good people, precisely those who should be courageously articulating sober alternatives to Israel’s self-destructive course. But in a tragic failure of nerve and collapse of integrity, they have abdicated their responsibilities. History will not judge them kindly.

Photo: The Damascus Gate in Jerusalem

Daniel Seidemann is an Israeli attorney specializing in geopolitical Jerusalem and the founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, a Jerusalem-based NGO that works towards a resolution to the question of Jerusalem consistent with the two-state solution.

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