Less than a week after the Palestinians commemorated 64 years of dispossession as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Israelis took to the streets for an occasion with similar duality. On Sunday May 20, they celebrated the day in 1967 when the Israeli army won control over East Jerusalem. The annual event causes tension since Palestinian residents of the city do not see Jerusalem Day as an occasion to celebrate.
Jerusalem is one of the most contested cities in the world. There are holy sites for Christianity, Judaism and Islam in East Jerusalem that complicate matters significantly. Israelis took over the Arab quarters in 1967 during the Six-Day War and annexed East Jerusalem and the surrounding areas weeks later. Israel’s reclamation of the Western Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism is a source of national and religious pride for Jews around the world and every year millions journey to the site to pray.
In 1980, the Knesset officially passed legislation to make the city the “complete and united” capital of the Jewish nation. The international community does not accept the legitimacy of the annexation, believing that control of the city should be determined through negotiations. As result, all 87 foreign embassies in Israel are located in Tel Aviv. Palestinians maintain that East Jerusalem must be the capital of a future Palestinian state and they protest the ongoing Israeli expansion into previously Arab neighborhoods that puts that goal in jeopardy.
On this year’s Jerusalem Day, 30,000 Israelis marched through the streets to assert control of East Jerusalem. Following a recommendation from Israeli authorities, Arabs in the area shuttered their shops and most remained indoors to avoid escalating the situation. Groups of Orthodox Jewish youth chanted inciting slogans such as “death to Arabs” and struck the closed shop doors. The provocation is an annual problem. Time’s Global Spin blog reports that Israeli police wanted to stop the demonstrators from marching in the Arab quarter this year but they eventually bowed to tradition. In the end police say they arrested ten Jewish Israelis for shouting racist slurs and attacking Arabs and five Arabs for throwing objects and attacking the demonstrators.
The day before the Jerusalem holiday, former Israeli prime minister and mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert caused a stir in the media when he told the Hebrew paper Maariv that he believes that a peace agreement cannot come without “inevitable political concessions” including partitioning Jerusalem. During the 2007 and 2008 peace negotiations, Olmert offered to divide the city with the Palestinians and told the paper he “was within touching distance of a peace agreement. The Palestinians have never rejected [his] proposals.” The peace talks faltered when Olmert faced accusations of corruption and resigned.
Current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended a ceremony on Ammunition Hill, a key battle site during the 1967 Six Day War, and espoused his commitment to keeping Jerusalem united. He told the crowd that, “Israel without Jerusalem is like a body without a heart. And our heart will never be divided again.” He also emphasized that only Israel can ensure stable access to Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites saying, “Only under Israeli sovereignty will the quiet be kept…Religious peace was only ever preserved under Israeli rule. A lasting peace is only possible when a nation is strong… A nation willing to sacrifice its heart will convince its enemies that it is willing to give up on everything.”
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat spoke out against Jerusalem Day and told Israeli media outlet Ynet that, “Celebrations of the illegal annexation of east Jerusalem hurt peace prospects. This is cutting proof that peace is not on the agenda of the Israeli government who lets thousands of fanatics march through the occupied city and threaten Palestinian residents while blocking their option of getting to hospitals, schools, shopping centers, churches and mosques."
Many writers and human rights organizations used the day as an opportunity to highlight the inequities between East and West Jerusalem. East Jerusalem residents pay Israeli taxes but see few benefits. Mohammed Aweida, a resident of the Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem, wrote a piece in Ha’aretz saying he is not familiar with the unified Jerusalem that Jewish Israelis celebrate. He writes, “My Jerusalem is villages in ruins, with ugly construction, without infrastructure and without security. In my Jerusalem there are not enough schools, there is no childhood and no adulthood (or matriculation)… It is a good thing there is Jerusalem Day, so we will remember there is another Jerusalem next door. Shalom and salaam to you, Jerusalem.”
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel published its annual Jerusalem Day report that details the deteriorating situation in East Jerusalem for the Palestinian residents. It shows:
- 38 percent of Jerusalem is Palestinian.
- Since 1967, Israeli authorities have revoked the residency of 14,084 Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
- This year, 78 percent of Palestinians in Jerusalem, including 84 percent of the children, live below the poverty line. This is the worst figure to date.
- Education is still not improving in East Jerusalem where, despite rulings from the Israeli courts and promises made by authorities, there is a shortage of at least 1,000 classrooms.
- Next year a law for mandatory free education will apply to children ages 3-4 but ACRI reports that this will be hard to implement since there are only six pre-kindergartens in East Jerusalem compared to the 66 in West Jerusalem.
- Palestinians can only build on 17 percent of East Jerusalem land and most of it is already in use.
The expanding settlement infrastructure in East Jerusalem is deepening the rifts between the communities. Crisplan Balmer, journalist for Reuters wrote a piece focusing on on the possibility of a new settlement, Givat HaMatos, pushing Israel to “the point of no return.” Israeli authorities issued plans for an area on the fringes of Jerusalem that include 2,610 new housing units and 1,110 hotel rooms. This neighborhood could block Palestinians in East Jerusalem from reaching Bethlehem, putting the possibility of a viable and contiguous future Palestinian state at risk. Settlement expert Daniel Seidemann told Balmer, “There is only so much territorial abuse this tortured land can take before we kill the political options of saving the two- state solution… What is happening at Givat HaMatos is a game changer… Events are careering out of control."
News Round Up:
*Fatah and Hamas met in Cairo and agreed on a new timetable to create a reconciled government. The sides have been trying to implement a unified Palestinian government for a year without success.
*Israeli human rights watchdog B’Tselem revealed footage from May 19 that shows masked and armed men from the Yitzhar settlement shooting at Palestinians living in the neighboring town of Asira al-Qubilya while Israeli soldiers stand by. One Palestinian went to the hospital for a gunshot wound to his head. Spokesmen for the settlement and the army both say the videos do not accurately portray the entire incident.
*Paralympians from Gaza competing in London received permits to travel fifty miles to al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Monday. The event was particularly emotional for the adult athletes who had never seen the third holiest site in Islam in their life due to travel restrictions.