YOSSI MEKELBERG May 01, 2021
If anyone required further evidence of the microscopically thin veneer of Jewish–Arab coexistence in Jerusalem, last week it was there for everyone to see, with outbursts of violence and hate speech pouring forth in this holy city.
From the outset, it must be said that there will not be genuine coexistence in this most complex though fascinating of cities as long as one ethnic or religious group claims a monopoly over its entirety and deprives other communities of their right to shape its character, not to mention to have an equal say in how the city should be run. Moreover, this unique city, like no other in the world, will never enjoy the peace and tranquility it is crying out for if it is left to religious-nationalist extremists to dictate the agenda.
The solution for a lasting coexistence is not necessarily establishing a “Special International Regime,” as the 1947 UN Partition Plan suggested, but instead to establish Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine, who must share responsibility for everyone who lives there and advance the vision of unity and harmony that many millions around the world are praying for it to experience.
There is a tendency when violence breaks out to concentrate on the immediate trigger, at the expense of addressing the root causes of the volatile situation such as currently prevails in Jerusalem. Then, when the violence recedes, the city returns to its artificial normality, but another round of clashes is always just around the corner.
At the heart of the explosive state of affairs in Jerusalem is that part of the city is occupied by Israel, and the Palestinians, who constitute nearly 40 percent of its population, don’t enjoy the same rights as their Jewish neighbors. On the contrary, despite Israel formally annexing East Jerusalem, in contravention of international law, Palestinian residents are deprived of the civil and political rights that Jewish residents of the city enjoy, and can hardly find solace even in the courts. Instead, Jewish neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem continue to expand, encroaching on Palestinian land and property, encircling and suffocating their neighborhoods, on a mission to prevent parts of Jerusalem ever becoming the capital of an independent Palestinian state. This is why feelings of anger, hatred and fear prevail in a city whose name means “City of Peace.”
Palestinian protests last month were initially sparked by anger over the decision by the police during Ramadan to erect barriers at the Damascus Gate plaza and thus prevent people from gathering in this normally bustling place, which tends to become even more popular during the holy month. For the authorities to justify this decision as an attempt to regulate the flow of people entering the Old City was a combination of thoughtlessness, insensitivity and lack of understanding of the underlying anger at the occupation and the forces that represent it, especially during holy times. The barriers were eventually removed but only after several nights of protests, some of them descending into levels of violence that have not been seen for years.
At the heart of the explosive state of affairs in Jerusalem is that part of the city is occupied by Israel, and the Palestinians, who constitute nearly 40 percent of its population, don’t enjoy the same rights as their Jewish neighbors.
Into the fray entered, in a deliberate and calculated manner, Jewish-supremacist religious elements of the likes of the despicable Kahanist organisation Lehava, which thrive on these confrontations, intentionally misrepresent the situation and inflame the hatred. Now that their representatives have been elected to the Knesset, thanks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lobbying for them, they grow equally in their confidence and their nastiness toward Arabs. For them to chant out loud in the streets “death to the Arabs” is a matter of routine, and the police do nothing to stop them.
When another far-right leader, Bezalel Smotrich, with whom Netanyahu is flirting to get him to join the coalition as a senior minister, says that “Arabs are citizens of Israel, for now at least, and they have representatives at the Knesset, for now at least,” it sends a chilling, racist and threatening message to Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. Smotrich’s partner in the Religious Zionism party, Itamar Ben Gvir, Lehava’s founder and leader and now shamefully an elected Knesset member, is taking a central role in these demonstrations of hate and incitement toward Arbs at the Damascus Gate, aggravating an already explosive situation by warning his supporters of imminent “pogroms by the Arab enemy.”
For this ilk of repugnant supremacist-religious messianic politician, clashes between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, especially with a religious flavor, are the stuff that dreams of Armageddon are made of, ending in their distorted minds with the expulsion of the Arab population. Their dream is a nightmare for the rest of us. The combination of a weak police response and a considerable and visible increase in support for this Jewish supremacist group in the streets, which includes unprecedented numbers of ultra-orthodox youth, should worry whoever cares for the situation in Jerusalem, which threatens to quickly escalate into a more widespread religious-nationalist confrontation. And in its wider context, the increasing hostilities in Gaza over the past few weeks between Israel and Hamas can be seen partly as a message of solidarity with their Palestinian brethren in Jerusalem, and partly as an attempt to stay relevant as a Palestinian election looms.
I started by picturing the kind of place Jerusalem should avoid becoming, despite the fact that destiny seems to have decided otherwise. But it is equally, if not more, important to suggest what should be done to ensure it remains a city upon a hill with the eyes of all peoples upon it.
First, it should belong to everyone who lives there, regardless of religion or nationality. Second, divided sovereignty should not entail physically dividing the city, but instead the privilege of facilitating a city that is prosperous and also a spiritual hub for those who live there, as much as for those who visit it or have a special place for it in their hearts. Third, instead of insisting on a united Jerusalem under the sovereignty of one national movement, the Zionist one, it should host the capitals of both Israel and an independent Palestinian state, and become the ultimate expression of both peoples coexisting in peace, where the only walls are the ones of the Old City. Fourth, Jerusalem should be the place for those who see religion in terms of spirituality and a search for commonality among the monotheistic religions, and humanity in its entirety, not for what divides them.
Then, and only then, will Jerusalem become united in purpose, values and virtues — not a fertile ground for supremacists and religious fundamentalists, nor united under the spears of an occupying army.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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