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Israeli-Palestinian divisions flare up on Jerusalem Day

The presence of two differing visions about the city's history and future are hindering hopes of reconciliation
Palestinian protesters are removed by Israeli police in Jerusalem (MEE/ Daniel Tepper)

For 47 years, Jerusalem Day has been marked amidst controversy, and this Wednesday was no exception. Jewish marchers with their blue and white flags sang in front of Damascus Gate on the northern edge of the Old City, while Palestinians on the street above - who had come from adjacent neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to protest - were held at bay behind metal barricades by grey-uniformed border police.

Occasionally, the songs of the parade were interrupted by the crack of a stun grenade from the street, and bitter white smoke drifted briefly through the crowds.

Few topics are more sensitive in Israel and Palestine than the fate of Jerusalem, which is claimed by both peoples as their rightful capital.  Every year, Israel celebrates Jerusalem Day, which marks the unification of Jerusalem under Israeli control after the Six Day War of 1967. But this day only serves to remind Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents about what they perceive to be the ongoing occupation of the city.

"Forty-seven years ago, Jerusalem was unified, and it will never be divided again," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during special cabinet meeting marking the day. "This is not only a national holiday, it is a national miracle."

Netanyahu’s sentiments resonated with many Israeli Jews, especially those who have chosen to make East Jerusalem their home.

“It’s kind of the completion of the '48 war. It was as though it was a staggered success story,” says Yishai Fleisher, a political activist and settler in East Jerusalem, of the unification of the city in 1967.

It is estimated that some 190,000 settlers currently live in East Jerusalem, alongside 370,000 Palestinians. Today, one of the most contentious issues facing Jerusalem is the proliferation of Jewish settlements in the annexed eastern half of the city. These are regarded as illegal under international law but continue to grow with the support or tacit acquiescence of the government, and the outrage of the city’s Palestinian population.

“For Jerusalemites, the occupation started a long time ago,” counters Fayrouz Sharqawi, advocacy coordinator with Grassroots Jerusalem, a Palestinian community organising NGO. “The celebration of the Jerusalem Day is actually the celebration of the occupation of all of Palestine.”

Photo gallery credit: (MEE/ Daniel Tepper)

Modern History

Jerusalem has been through a lot over the last century. Rule of the city was transferred from the Ottoman Empire to the British in 1917, after the end of World War I. The British then oversaw the expansion of Jerusalem beyond the ancient walls of its Old City and the unrest that accompanied large waves of Jewish immigration in the first half of the 20th century.

An Israel-Palestine partition plan envisioned by the UN in 1947 was expected to take effect after the end of British mandate. It would have made Jerusalem an international and unified city, but this plan never came to be. When the last British troops left on 14 May, David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, declared the establishment of the state of Israel from Tel Aviv, and the war which had been simmering since the 1947 UN resolution broke out in full.

One year and some 700,000 Palestinian refugees later, Jerusalem found itself divided - the Eastern half was Jordanian, while the Western came under the authority of the new state of Israel. These days, there’s little to mark the Armistice Line laid between West and East Jerusalem in 1949 except a palpable demographic and economic shift at the western edge of the Old City.

The partition only lasted until the Six Day War of 1967, following which Israel occupied East Jerusalem along with the remainder of the Jordanian West Bank, the Golan Heights in the north, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai in the southwest.

Since then, the whole of Jerusalem has remained in Israeli control under the administration of the Jerusalem Municipality. As Jewish settlements have expanded in East Jerusalem, they have gradually shifted the demographic nature of the city.

Forty-seven years after the annexation of East Jerusalem - or the “reunification” of the city according to Israeli state terminology - tensions remain high and on the ground, institutionalized discrimination against Palestinian residents persists, with settlers and Palestinians alike left wondering about the future of their city.

Settler movement on the march

Yishai Fleisher is one of the 190,000 Jewish settlers living in East Jerusalem. He and his family reside in a large compound of six interconnected buildings in the Arab neighborhood of Ras al-Amud near the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Old City, al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock.  Five times a day, the call to prayer can be heard from a nearby mosque.

Fleisher works as a radio host, columnist, and is the founder of Kumah, a Zionist organization that encourages American Jews to move to Israel. He calls Jerusalem “the heart of the Jewish people”, and sees Jerusalem Day as a celebration of Jewish control over holy sites in the West Bank and the Old City in Jerusalem.

According to Peace Now, an Israeli NGO that monitors Israeli construction activity in the West Bank, plans and construction tenders have been approved on close to 14,000 settler homes since last July. Some 5,000 of the homes are located in East Jerusalem, with the Jerusalem municipality just this week approving plans for 50 additional housing units to be built in East Jerusalem’s Har Homa settlement.

Fleisher calls the activity of the settlers “narrative warfare.” The narrative he promotes, shared by much of the settler movement, casts the East Jerusalem settlements as the natural progression of Jerusalem’s reunification.

“What you call settlement activity, we call it natural growth - the natural next step,” he says.  “There certainly is an element of Judaizing Jerusalem, but I don’t think it’s such a bad thing.”

The Judaizing of Jerusalem, however, has come at a high price for Palestinian residents.  Evictions, inadequate space for construction, and rent costs driven up by the scarcity of available housing have forced many Palestinians out.

“They are pushing a lot for Palestinians to go out of the city,” says Salah Shweiki, who lives in the Shu’fat neighborhood of East Jerusalem. “A lot of people can’t afford to live here.”

According to recent statistics from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, only 14 percent of East Jerusalem is zoned for Palestinian residential construction, while 35 percent of the territory encompassed by the municipality’s urban planning in East Jerusalem is designated as “open landscape area” where it’s illegal to build.

“Since 1967, until today, a lot of the policies in East Jerusalem were not geared toward urban development for Palestinians but were geared toward urban development for Jewish neighborhoods,” says Ronit Sela, director of ACRI’s Human Rights in East Jerusalem project. “Today they’re just at a complete loss as to where they can build houses.”

In the meantime, 516 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem have been demolished by Israel in the past decade, displacing 2,028 people. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions reports that while Palestinians are responsible for only 20 percent of building permit violations in Jerusalem, 70 percent of demolitions in the city target Palestinian structures. The discrepancy has helped fuel discontent that pours out during annual Palestinian protests against Jerusalem Day.

“Almost 15,000 Palestinians were expelled out of Jerusalem, and that didn't happen on 5 June 5 1967,” Sharqawi continues.  “It happened every day ever since.  And the number is still going to grow.”

The meaning of Jerusalem Day

Amany Khalifa, another activist at Grassroots Jerusalem, traces the significance of Jerusalem Day back to Jewish settlement in Jerusalem prior to the 1948 establishment of Israel.

“I always go back and think about the whole thing...even before '48,” she says.  “I mean the whole story of Jerusalem and the first settler immigration.

For all their differences, however, Khalifa and Fleisher’s narratives of the settlement history may not be as far apart as one might expect.

Both ridicule the notion of a two-state solution – it’s “an American idea,” says Fleisher. Neither believes in distinguishing between the occupation of the territories annexed in 1967 and Jewish settlement within the ’48 borders.

“For me, it's a huge colony called Israel,” Khalifa says.  “It’s a huge settlement and all its residents are called settlers.”

Not that their views of that history’s impact bear much similarity - one’s staggered triumph is another’s ongoing tragedy

Under the Israel Stability Initiative, a plan put forth by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, Israel may soon move to annex Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank under Israeli civil and security control where 325,000 settlers live.

“We have taken every step towards sovereignty and all we have to do is pull the trigger on the final step,” says Fleisher.

Such a measure has been slammed by the Israeli left and the international community alike, although many Palestinians say the move is unlikely to change the reality on the ground.

“It wouldn't be a dramatic change if that happened for us Palestinians,” says Sharqawi of the Stability Initiative. “It might be for those outside, who don't know what’s going on [and] who really think that the Palestinian Authority has any kind of sovereignty over any part of the West Bank.”

For them, the celebration of Jerusalem Day serves as just another visible reminder of the loss of Palestinian Jerusalem. “What Jerusalem Day makes very clear and amplifies is the feeling that we have lost our city, that we don't own it anymore,” says Sharqawi.