By Larry Derfner, with Khaled Abu Toameh, June 3, 2007.
JERUSALEM – In his small grocery store just off Sultan Suleiman Street, which
runs past the Old City’s Damascus Gate and through the Arab side of
downtown Jerusalem, a Palestinian merchant grumbles about the hardships and
indignities under Israeli rule. His complaints are long-standing among
Palestinians here, yet the reality for him and others is shifting in response to the
violence and economic hopelessness of Palestinian Authority rule in the West
Bank and Gaza Strip. “There is no safety there,” he says.
As a result, the merchant has given up on what has long been the dream and
demand of Jerusalem’s Palestinians: to see the city redivided, with the Arab
side – which Israel seized from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War – becoming the
capital of a Palestinian state. “Gaza should be for Palestine, the West Bank
should be for Palestine,” he says, “but Jerusalem should stay like it is.” On this,
he is not alone.
Local Palestinians, by deed if not by declaration, are increasingly opting for the
status quo, for life under Israeli sovereignty. Jerusalem is by no means happily
unified, but it is becoming grudgingly unified.
“It’s not that the Palestinians here have become Zionists; it’s not that
they’ve fallen in love with the State of Israel. They haven’t,” says an Arab
attorney in Jerusalem who, like the merchant, requests anonymity because of
the political sensitivity of the issue. “They just want to live normal lives, with
security, with a little money in their wallets. They want their kids to be able to
go to school. They want what everybody wants.”
Distinct. It is now 40 years since Israel tore down the walls and fences that had
divided Jerusalem since the country’s 1948 War of Independence.
International conventional wisdom holds that, despite Israel’s strenuous claims,
the city is still effectively divided. And, on the surface, it is. Jerusalem’s
480,000 Israelis and 250,000 Palestinians each live in their own distinct
neighborhoods. Aside from Palestinians who do mainly low-wage jobs on the
Jewish side of town and Israelis who have business on the Arab side, the two
populations don’t mix.
The Israelis hold Israeli passports, while 98 percent of the Palestinians
hold only Israeli-issue travel documents listing them as Jordanian nationals.
Jews in Jerusalem vote in national and municipal elections; Palestinians don’t.
The Jews identify with Israel; the Palestinians, or certainly the Muslim majority
among them, identify with the Palestinians and the greater Arab world.
Yet while the city’s Palestinians remain spatially and nationally divided from the
Israelis, the relative security of life in Arab Jerusalem has deflated their
nationalist spirit. Only 15 percent of them voted in last year’s PA elections –
compared with 78 percent of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, notes
Hillel Cohen of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. Except for aging
members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the locals no longer clamor
publicly for al-Quds – the Arabic name for Jerusalem – to be recognized as the
Since the 2001 death of Faisal Husseini, head of Arab Jerusalem’s most
illustrious family, the city’s Palestinians, for the first time in modern history,
have had no recognized political leader. This is partly because Israel has
cracked down on Jerusalem Arab political activity since the intifada uprising in
2000, and partly because the city’s Arabs have become deeply disillusioned by
the PA’s dismal performance.
“Let’s be honest – we’ve lost the battle for Jerusalem,” admitted a
locally elected Palestinian legislator. “Frankly, when I see what’s happening in
the West Bank and Gaza, I can understand why.”
To be sure, the Arabs of Jerusalem have a litany of complaints against Israel,
which has never treated them equally with the city’s Jewish citizens and which
is growing increasingly alarmed by the so-called demographic threat to the
capital’s Jewish majority. City Hall has made it virtually impossible for local
Palestinians to get building permits, leading many of them to illegally build
houses that the city, in turn, frequently demolishes. Arabs in the capital lost the
right to bring in their spouses from the PA territories or abroad after a few West
Bank Palestinians used the pretext of “family unification” to gain residence and
commit acts of terrorism. Many of the city’s Arabs lost access to jobs, school,
and family in the West Bank, cut off by Israel’s security fence and military
Better off. Still, Jerusalem Palestinians are voting with their feet. Thousands
who had left for West Bank jobs have moved back to the city out of fear of
being denied re-entry, causing rents on the capital’s Arab side to nearly triple in
the past few years.
While the population, overall, is certainly poor by Israeli standards, it is
far better off economically than Palestinians in the West Bank, not to mention
those in Gaza, whose economy is a humanitarian disaster.
Furthermore, in return for the taxes they pay to Israel, Arabs in Jerusalem
receive healthcare and social benefits. And if Israeli police tend to be overly
suspicious or worse toward Jerusalem’s Arab population, they also tend to
know their limits.
A Palestinian bystander in Gaza is liable to be killed by a Fatah gunman,
a Hamas gunman or an Israeli-fired missile; a Palestinian bystander in Jerusalem
is extremely unlikely to be killed by anyone. Notes the local attorney: “The
saying you hear in the city now is ‘Give me hell in Jerusalem over
paradise in the PA.'”
Despite their abiding Palestinian national identity and resentment of Israel, many
local Arabs are coming to terms with Israeli sovereignty. They are reporting
crimes to Israeli police in greater numbers. There is also a big shift in the
schools away from the PA-approved curriculum to the one approved by Israel –
at the insistence of Jerusalem Arab parents.
Ayman Gbara, an Arab high school principal in Beit Safafa, a
neighborhood just across the security fence from Bethlehem, says the shift is
happening at his school because parents see that their children are physically
barred from going to the West Bank to attend college, so they want their kids
to have a high school diploma that can get them into an Israeli college in
Jerusalem. “Twelve, 15 years ago, this was considered to be like treason,”
says Gbara. “Today, it’s considered to be acceptable, even advisable.”
For 40 years, conventional wisdom has held that, for Israeli-Palestinian peace,
Jerusalem has to be redivided roughly along the border that existed before the
Six-Day War. For all this time, Israel has been hard at work trying to change
that perception. Now, on the other side of that old prewar border, Israel has
gained untold numbers of silent, resigned supporters for its cause.