Dystopia in Jerusalem (Monday 6 February)
PREVIOUS: Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)
Israeli and foreign citizens are not obliged to cross between Ramallah and Jerusalem via Qalandia, but Palestinians are. If you can, it is usually worthwhile to drive a little around the perimeter of the Wall and cross at a more relaxed checkpoint at Hisma/ Pisgat Ze’ev. It is a privilege that divides the visitor from ordinary people in the West Bank, but it does save time. It also makes the squalor and delay of Qalandia all the more unnecessary. It did not take me long to work out how militants might get weapons through the barrier if they really wanted, and if the thought has occurred to me, it will have occurred to potential terrorists long ago.
There is a good road, built with the assistance of US-AID (Israel is quick to build and maintain good roads that serve settlements but neglects roads that do not), skirting this part of the Wall but further south the alternative roads are very poor and quite dangerous. As soon as one passes through the checkpoint, the environment changes abruptly. On the Palestinian side it is a dry, rocky landscape but on the Israeli side there is a verdant suburb, well-watered shrubbery and lawns among the blocks of flats of Pisgat Ze’ev. This suburb is actually a ‘settlement’ on occupied territory. Settlements, I quickly learned, come in several different shapes and sizes. The most heavily populated are the ones like Pisgat Ze’ev and Ma’ale Adummim, which are designed and built to be as normal and everyday as possible. Were it not for the international dimensions, they would be just like relatively pleasant low-income suburban developments in other Mediterranean countries, such as the vast new sprawls around cities in central and southern Spain. From the ordinary Israeli’s point of view, there is nothing pioneering or strange about living in these places – they are convenient, moderately priced, newly built suburbs to commute from and raise a family in. There is a big difference between these and the heavily politicised, confrontational settlements such as the one in Hebron.
However, counter-intuitively, it is probably the settlement-suburbs of East Jerusalem that are more of a problem for a future treaty based on two states than the outposts of extremists. The Israeli army evicted several thousand politicised settlers when they pulled out of Gaza, and this would be a feasible operation across much of the West Bank. The settlement-suburbs are different in that the numbers of people are so large and the fact that these are not defiant pioneering outposts but suburbs woven into the Jerusalem metropolitan area. The pattern of development of these suburbs poses two threats. One is that they will effectively sever the southern and northern sections of the West Bank from each other, and the other is that by forming a ring around the inner Arab part of East Jerusalem they will prevent any linkage between East Jerusalem and independent Palestine. A viable Palestinian state will have to include at least some of these areas, and the more settlement housing that is built, the harder it will be to get a peace agreement accepted and implemented.
Our first port of call in Jerusalem was at the offices of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) (http://www.icahd.org/), a peace organisation established in 1997. While the late 1990s were springtime for progressives in many European countries, it was a depressing time for the left in Israel. The murder of Yitzhak Rabin and the narrow and surprising victory of Netanyahu in the May 1996 elections (following some cruel Hamas bus bombings earlier in the year) made it seem to Israeli progressives that the peaceful possibilities opened up by the Oslo accords in 1993 were being closed down, and ICAHD was one response, focusing on the large-scale demolitions of Palestinian homes by the Israeli military and the Jerusalem city authorities.
We were met by the energetic, outspoken Jeff Halper, director of ICAHD, who over coffee took us through a rapid history of land, settlement, demolition and abortive peace initiatives. I took from him a sense of the use of complexity as a weapon by the powerful, in this case the Israeli state, against the weak, and a deep pessimism about the long term prospects.
I hope neither Jews nor Muslims will take offence at a porcine metaphor, but it does look a lot like the West Bank is being salami-sliced. East Jerusalem – including some rural areas – is annexed. The Oslo accords divided the rest of the West Bank into three ‘Areas’. Area A (18 per cent of the land area) contains the main West Bank towns and is under Palestinian Authority (PA) civil and security control (although this does not apparently preclude Israeli army operations from taking place periodically), Area B (22 per cent of land area) is under PA civil control but Israeli military, and Area C (60 per cent of land area) is under full Israeli control. Under Oslo this division was supposed to have been temporary, but it has ended up frozen in place. Areas A and B contain most of the population, but these are corralled into 70 islands within the web of Area C which covers main highways, the Jordanian border, settlements and the Jordan valley. The small, urbanised nature of Areas A and B make it difficult to accommodate natural population growth and therefore keeps land expensive in areas where it is permitted to build. Meanwhile, low-cost housing for settlers spreads across an increasing proportion of Area C, while Bedouin villages in the area are bulldozed. Water is an increasingly urgent problem; even in Area A the PA is not permitted to approve digging of wells, while settlements consume water with a western profligacy that defies the desert surroundings.
The future suggested by current developments is nightmarish. Abstract out East Jerusalem, and Palestine is divided into four non-viable fragments (‘cantons’) – Gaza, the north around Jenin, the centre around Ramallah and the south around Hebron and Bethlehem – by Area C. It is not hard to imagine separation barriers going up (probably as deep ditches rather than walls, so as not to spoil the view) either side of the main highway linking Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. Without natural resources, without hope of change, the cantons would be social abscesses, with increasingly alienated and badly educated young populations left to fester in poverty and extremism. Meanwhile, the powerful Israeli military-industrial complex could use these essentially captive populations as testing-grounds for military, security and control technologies, and export its expertise to an increasingly violent and divided world. This is not my own despairing vision, but that of some deeply pessimistic Israelis who fear that their situation has nurtured something ugly and sinister.
Mikhal, from ICAHD, then took us on a walking tour of the Old City in Jerusalem. It was somewhat different from what one would find just wandering about, and from the sanitised version that one would get from many tourist expeditions. I had already noticed one particularly striking house in my Sunday’s wanderings – an arched dwelling in the heart of the Muslim Quarter ostentatiously displaying its Israeli identity.
This house, it turns out, is the property of Ariel Sharon, whose interventions in the politics of Jerusalem have more than once involved crude assertion of territorial control (most notably in his 2000 excursion to the Temple Mount). He acquired the property in 1987 .
The Old City is dotted with micro-settlements in this disputed area, often a product of the asymmetrical process of land restitution in Israel in which Palestinian claims in Israel proper including West Jerusalem are disallowed but a Jewish history to a building or land in East Jerusalem can lead to a successful claim.
Everything ends up politicised in Jerusalem, including policing (community police support officers will tend to be settlers policing mainly Palestinian populations), planning control and of course archaeology. Two current projects are particularly worrying to Palestinians and Israeli progressives. One is the excavation of tunnels in the Old City near the Temple Mount, which some fear may undermine the foundations of the mosques on top of the Mount with incalculable consequences for the world political situation. The other, in the shadow of the Temple Mount, is the ‘City of David’, a politico-archaeological project which in turn casts a shadow over the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan.
Silwan is the sort of neighbourhood that in most cities would be gentrified – Jerusalem’s equivalent of Friedrichshain in Berlin or Leith in Edinburgh. It is just south east of the Old City, stretching up and down a valley in a higgledy-piggledy sprawl of houses old and new. But it is a troubled place, an inner city confrontation zone between residents on the one hand and settlers and the authorities on the other. Parts of it are scheduled for demolition in the interests of the City of David and the creation of a park – based apparently on a sketchy claim that King David had enjoyed strolling along the valley. Silwan is a tense place; people have no confidence in the authorities, and with reason – their community facilities seem to end up demolished despite attracting the interest of visitors, such as Jimmy Carter, more illustrious than ourselves. It was also the scene of a nasty, filmed confrontation when a settler drove at some local children. Everything in Jerusalem is politicised, and inner city redevelopment, like provision of parks, is a tool of demographic engineering.
But on the Monday afternoon we went to an unlikely part of ‘Jerusalem’. Under its current peculiar boundaries it stretches out into a rural area to the east, where we gain a deeper acquaintance with The Wall.