creativity through cooperation sparks change
Jerusalem, a city considered as the holiest land of the three Abrahamic religions is also a centre of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Church spires and mosque minarets dot the myriad of rooftops as far as the eye can see, but on a closer look, the telltale signs of creeping neo-colonial ethnic-cleansing and an omnipresent occupation lie just below the surface.
Meandering through the overcrowded commotion of the old city streets, one can easily feel as if one is in an ancient time. The many street vendors selling prayer rugs, kippas and crucifixes illustrate the importance of this city to many of the world’s faithful who make their pilgrimage to this ‘City of Gold’. The smell of roasting meats, along with the colourful swatches of fabric combine to engulf the senses as one wanders down the labyrinthine lanes crisscrossing through the Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish Quarter. One thing the quarters have in common is the display of many fluttering white and blue flags emblazoned with the Star of David.
As a tourist, there is nothing odd about seeing these flags. The flags of the sovereign state hanging from windows throughout the old city don’t seem out of the ordinary. It is only when one looks closer and notices the hidden armoured security cameras and the copious spools of barbed-wire covering the windows and rooftops of these outposts that it becomes apparent that besides being the symbol of a highly nationalistic society, these flags represent something more, something disquieting: the slow encroachment of a settler society throughout this ancient hallowed city. The international community along with the international media consistently denounce such acts, yet the settlement enterprise, both in Jerusalem and in the occupied territories, continues unabated.
Jerusalem, contrary to the claims of many of the Israeli establishment, remains the crucial aspect to solving this protracted struggle. Yet Israel continually undermines any hope of a just peace. The Israeli establishment proclaims the reunification of a divided city, while on the ground, continually disregards the basic rights of its 200,000 Palestinian residents. Walking the streets of East Jerusalem, such neglect becomes all too clear, with streets overflowing with garbage and roads in varying levels of disrepair. At nightfall the streetlights form a desert-like mirage winking in and out, providing a bizarre representation of a city divided.
While there is no wall dividing East and West Jerusalem, many Israeli Jews will look at you with a mixture of questioning and hostile expressions if and when you are daring enough to mention the existence of a division. Most Jewish residents of West Jerusalem never venture across Road One, which physically divides the city in the form of a four-lane road heading north along the “Green Line” from Damascus Gate. The division is quite clear however, to those that do. The Israeli narrative of the history of this city provides the Jewish residents of Jerusalem with a convenient story of the 1967 War and the re-unification of the city, however such a reunification on the ground 43 years later is still a fantasy.
The Israeli police, who differ from those of West Jerusalem, are heavily armed and look more like the Israeli Defense Forces, instilling more fear than trust in the people. If there is a crime committed in Occupied East Jerusalem no one calls the Israeli police, as it will only attract more trouble. The reality is grim, and it is impossible to fully comprehend what its like to live under occupation until you have experienced it for yourself. What is clear is that living in an occupied city in the absence of an authority that the population trusts is a pressing concern.
The status of Jerusalem has remained mostly on the sidelines during the recent Obama-administration sponsored peace talks, with much of the inflammatory news articles focusing on the settlement moratorium and now the building of settlements in the occupied West Bank. Yet, contradictory remarks on the future of Jerusalem from Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat have highlighted the debate that appears to be swirling within the Israeli political elite. The eternal capital of the Jewish people is also earmarked in the Palestinian national consciousness as the future home of the Palestinian capital, and thus its status is crucial to finding a just peace. Yet the daily growth of a Jewish presence in East Jerusalem undermines the very process that the Israeli establishment professes to endorse. A complete halt to Jewish expansion in East Jerusalem would be a powerful signal to the Palestinian and international community that Israel is indeed pursuing a policy which will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The rhetoric that is used by both the Israeli and Palestinian camps to highlight the importance of Jerusalem as a religious holy place tends to overshadow the economic reality that Jerusalem represents to the Palestinian’s claim to self-determination. Following a political solution to the conflict, East Jerusalem would be the economic heart of the nascent Palestinian state, without Jerusalem, many argue that such a state would remain economically unviable.
The Jerusalem of 2010 is a complicated place, it is unique in that what was at one time a city of peace is now a city of force. The tension is palpable, and at some times can be unbearable. For there to be a return of peace in this city, the wishes of its residents cannot continue to be ignored. The clash of ideologies in Jerusalem come from basing current policy on a biblical religion which chooses not to be updated to account for the present situation in a diverse city, which doesn’t resemble the city of old. To change the reality on the ground will require a paradigm shift that is highly unlikely, but entirely necessary. The equal rights of all its citizens — Muslim, Christian, atheist and Jewish — must be upheld, and for that to happen, Israel and the international community must do their part to enforce the norms of international law which enshrine these basic rights. Until that point, the city of peace will remain an illusion.
Photography: Jordan Berger