“A sin committed in Jerusalem is like committing a thousand sins, and a commandment performed in Jerusalem is like performing a thousand commandments.” Khalid Ibn Madan al-Kala’i
As is well known, neither Israeli nor Palestinian national identity would have any significance without a tie to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the focal point and microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as the key to any agreement or improvement in the overall situation. Despite this, nearly all of the political protagonists in the city are non-Jerusalemites.
The current situation in Jerusalem reflects the bi-national and unequal power structure that exists between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem is both unequivocal and unilateral, and the city remains at once both united and divided, depending on when, to whom and in what way.
Government policies are at the expense of both Israeli & Palestinian residents
Most waves of Israeli-Palestinian violence have begun in or focused on Jerusalem. In the current round, it is not only the perceived threat surrounding Al-Aqsa that plays a central role but also the barrier that divides Jerusalem from Palestinians in adjacent communities. Aside from the socioeconomic collapse engendered by the barrier, it also isolates Palestinian Jerusalemites from their co-nationals, fosters a separate Jerusalem identity, and strengthens their belief that maintaining a foothold in Jerusalem is dependent primarily on them.
Furthermore, the separation barrier also reinforces Jerusalem’s alienation from the overall Palestinian leadership. Ramallah’s new skyscrapers can be seen from the outskirts of Jerusalem, and I imagine that many Jerusalemite Palestinians assume that the money used to build these lavish buildings is Palestinian money that has stopped going to Jerusalem since the barrier was built, that now enriches a handful of politicians and businessmen in the neighboring city.
The perception of being “the last remaining to guard the walls,” along with the sense of abandonment and alienation from national politics, are common Jerusalem sentiments prevalent among Jews and Palestinians alike. One can easily find them in every sector of the city, each for its own unique reasons. They can be found among the “Neturei Karta” Ultra-Orthodox Jews that live in the Holy City in anticipation of the disappearance of the deviant Zionist entity, in the impoverished residents of the neighborhoods beyond the Green Line, and in the Jewish secular and liberal religious activists that remain in the city in order to prevent it from becoming the sole preserve of religious radicals. This sense, undoubtedly, has a firm grounding in present reality.
As Yair Lapid — a man with an uncanny talent for delivering mainstream Israeli clichés — cogently expressed, Jerusalem is not a city but rather a symbol. Politicians indeed make extensive use of this symbol, but most refrain from living here or even visiting unless absolutely necessary. They are ignorant of the events that transpire here and neglect the needs and problems of its residents.
We see, for example, while the local police bodies, the General Security Services, the municipality, and activists from the west side of the city — both right and left — demand that the government invest more in the service sector and infrastructure of Palestinian neighborhoods, particularly education, the national government either refuses to or simply ignores these calls. Even in the western side of the city, where the situation is far better, there is a sense that the government has abandoned them. A law passed in 2006 that required government ministries to operate in Jerusalem which was intended to improve the economic situation in the city has simply not been implemented. Requests from business owners for support, or at least to reduce taxes and restructure their debts following losses from rounds of violence, are routinely ignored. Policies, to the extent that they exist, serve to achieve either geopolitical interests (which are typically unachievable in the first place) or to capture newspaper headlines at the expense of city residents, Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Is Jerusalem just a "complex mathematical equation that needs to be solved"?
In fact, the Israeli media covers Jerusalem in a manner consistent with the travel literature of 19th-century Europe. Typically, a journalist from Tel Aviv trudges to Jerusalem in order to scan the situation “over there” and in the end merely confirms his preexisting, mostly negative, assumptions. Rightwing religious media outlets are rarely interested in the life of the city when it does not pertain to Palestinian violence against the 3,000 ideologically driven settlers who reside in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods or the “soft hand” approach of the police toward Palestinians.
An outside perspective and a lack of a physical presence characterize the overwhelming majority of organizations and activists involved in seeking solutions for the future of Jerusalem. These actors — Israeli, Palestinian or international — are either inclined to refer to Jerusalem as a complex mathematical equation that needs to be solved, or even worse, a problem that simply needs to be removed. On top of this dearth of unfamiliarity, alienation, remoteness and hostility in Jerusalem, one can also add the proliferation of European and American money that imports ideas, theories, and a world of concepts concerning “conflict resolution” that are all alien to the reality yet coerced into the local scene.
Needed – Concrete Action on the Ground
A situation has been created where the residents of the city with the greatest influence on the nature of the conflict have the least influence on its reality. Our voices are not heard, the prevailing lexicon of foreign concepts and terminology has no relevance to our reality, and political decisions are taken by people who are unaware of the situation in the most important city of the conflict and who do not pay the price for these policies.
Is it any wonder that there is no improvement in the situation?
In this city and in this land, there is only one method that works: concrete action on the ground and a tangible presence in the area itself. This is not a call for “going out in the streets to protest” but rather a reference to the need to have a greater presence in the city and for its residents to have more influence on the day-to-day affairs of the public sphere. Those who oppose an agreement, who support absolute control and escalation, have understood this for some time. But those who support coexistence, agreements, and peace have yet to internalize this lesson. If Jerusalem is the center and microcosm of the conflict, then Jerusalemites are the ones who need to lead the charge for change. Those who want to support them need to do it here rather than in Tel Aviv, Ramallah or Geneva. We need to cease talking about Jerusalem and begin speaking from Jerusalem. In my opinion, the forces capable of accomplishing this can indeed be found within the city.