A holy city still divided

Times Staff Writers

Jerusalem — AS a young paratrooper 40 years ago, Moshe Amirav felt the unmistakable touch of history.

Ignoring a minor head wound suffered in the capture of East Jerusalem from Jordanian forces, Amirav raced through the winding lanes of the Old City to join jubilant fellow soldiers at the Western Wall.

It was June 7, 1967. Overcome with the sense that God had finally brought the Jews home, he scribbled “Shalom,” or peace, on a slip of paper and tucked it between the iconic stones.

“I said to myself, ‘No matter what happens to you in your life, you’ll never have such a moment of ecstasy again,’ ” recalled Amirav, now a 61-year-old scholar.

Just over a mile from the Western Wall that day, Ibrahim Dakkak, a Palestinian builder, also felt the tug of history. Shocked and bewildered, he huddled with his family under their kitchen table and listened to the sound of combat. Fearful of being discovered by Israeli troops, Dakkak’s wife muffled the cries of their year-old son by cramming a tomato into his mouth.

Dakkak emerged to a region transformed. Israel had captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula.

After 19 years in which the city they call Al Quds had lain sharply divided — Jews on the west, Arabs on the east — Palestinians faced the prospect of Israeli rule.

“I felt defeated,” said Dakkak, now 78.

Jerusalem was totally under Jewish control for the first time in 2,000 years. Israeli leaders vowed that the city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims would remain the “eternal and undivided” capital of the Jewish state.

Forty years later, Israel’s vision of a unified Jerusalem under its control remains illusory. Long after the removal of the barbed-wire fences that bisected it in 1967, the city remains bitterly divided between Jews and Arabs. The war has evolved into a battle of attrition over land and identity.

In daily life, Jews and Arabs inhabit side-by-side worlds. Palestinians feel hemmed in by Israeli rule over their East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Jews in West Jerusalem, though victimized by numerous suicide bombings, in quiet times maintain the rhythms of a normal existence: schools, shopping and trips to the park. Disparities in living conditions are glaring. The two sides also have separate professional associations and cultural institutions, and contrasting visions of the future.

Many Jews here and in the diaspora are passionate about holding on to all of Jerusalem. But in Israel, others have become ambivalent and are uncomfortable with the policies their government pursues to keep control. Polls show a majority of the country favors concessions to the Palestinians if that would lead to peace.

Meanwhile, as Israel has consolidated its hold on the land, the city’s population has gradually become more Arab and less Jewish. Thousands of less devout Jews leave Jerusalem each year, many of them alienated by a growing ultra-Orthodox minority that controls City Hall and often insists on stricter observance of Jewish religious law.

Palestinians are scrambling to move into the city as they watch Israel build a barrier it says is needed to keep out suicide bombers. Palestinians say the barrier cuts off East Jerusalem, which they envision as their future capital, from the West Bank.

The status of Jerusalem remains one of the biggest obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement. The issue was a major stumbling block at the Camp David talks of 2000, even after Ehud Barak, then Israel’s prime minister, broke an Israeli taboo simply by discussing it.

An agreement to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel also would require accommodation on many other difficult topics, including the fate of Palestinian refugees and the shape of the borders. But serious negotiations, much less an accord, appear remote for now. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government is weak. The rise of the militant group Hamas has left the Palestinian Authority in disarray. Violence between the two sides continues.

In the absence of peace, Israel and the Palestinians jostle for advantage, reshaping the holy city and further diminishing chances for an agreement. New “facts on the ground” are planted each day.

A delayed victory

BEFORE Israel’s independence in 1948, Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine were in British hands. Heavy immigration had made Jews a majority in the city decades earlier, and by 1948 they accounted for 60% of its population.

The United Nations had envisioned Jerusalem under international control as part of the world body’s plan to carve Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. But war erupted at the time of Israeli independence, and the resulting armistice left the city split. West Jerusalem was a narrow thumb of land jutting into the Jordanian-controlled West Bank.

Many Israelis saw their victory nearly 20 years later as a long-deferred finale to the earlier conflict. Once again they had access to the holiest Jewish site: the plateau that Jews revere as the Temple Mount, which abuts the Western Wall and lies atop the ruins of the ancient Jewish temples.

But the compound also is holy to Muslims. They call the plateau Haram al Sharif, and consider it the spot from which the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. They worship there at the Al Aqsa mosque.

“We were talking two completely different languages,” recalled Dakkak, the Palestinian builder. “They were thinking they were liberating the land, and we were thinking they were occupying the land.”

In the aftermath of the 1967 Middle East War, Mayor Teddy Kollek proposed adding little more than the Old City to his West Jerusalem municipality, ensuring a solid Jewish majority for the unified city. But Israeli officials said they wanted to make the city easier to defend. They added 27 square miles, more than doubling the municipality’s size.

“We decided … Jerusalem should never be surrounded or blockaded again,” said Reuven Rivlin, an Israeli lawmaker who is a former speaker of parliament.

Much of the world considers the added areas to be occupied land; Israel says it was legally annexed.

New city boundaries zigzagged to exclude most residential areas of 28 Palestinian villages, while taking in much of their open land. Still, along with the new turf came 68,600 Palestinians, more than a quarter of the enlarged city’s 266,300 residents.

With remarkable speed, suburban-style Jewish neighborhoods began sprouting in East Jerusalem, mostly on expropriated land. Neat rows of pale, stone-sided apartment blocks and tile-roofed houses lined streets carved into the hillsides, many within earshot of Palestinian villagers.

Israel Kimhi, an advisor to several Israeli prime ministers and research director at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, a think tank, said the waves of government-financed building had several strategic aims. For instance, by building French Hill north of the Old City in the early 1970s, Israel linked isolated Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus to the rest of the city. Neve Yaakov, farther north, and Gilo in the south were designed as buffers between West Jerusalem and West Bank cities.

Then, in the mid-1980s, Israel began building roads to the north, east and south and a ring of West Bank settlements outside Jerusalem’s boundaries. Israeli authorities said the new communities would help defend the city. Maale Adumim grew in the eastern hills leading to the Jordan Valley, and Givat Zeev arose in the northwest.

Some of these settlements blossomed into towns of tens of thousands of residents, complete with shopping centers. The strategy made sense to many Israelis.

“They started with the closest circle, then moved to the outer rings,” said Maurice Shneor, a customs supervisor who fought for Israel in 1967 and lives in West Jerusalem. “You build circles of defense, take strategic locations, occupy high ground. What do you do when you acquire a plot of land? You mark your territory. Israel did the same thing.”

But the new masters of the land unwittingly took steps that helped turn the demographic tide against them.

The settlements built outside Jerusalem attracted growing families who were leaving the city in search of bigger, cheaper homes. The government-funded construction drained the city’s economy and strained its services, accelerating a Jewish middle-class flight.

The boom also attracted an influx of Palestinian construction workers, which Israel did little to curb. These workers married into East Jerusalem families or found other ways to stay, and soon they outnumbered the city’s native Palestinian population.

Palestinians now represent about a third of Jerusalem’s 732,100 residents, and demographers say that if the trend continues, they could be the majority in two generations. More Jews are moving out of Jerusalem than moving in, but the opposite is true for Palestinians. And Palestinians have a slightly higher birthrate.

Today, Israel’s pledge to never divide the city is often interpreted as reflexive sloganeering.

“For many years, it was said that the only consensus in Israel was the consensus on Jerusalem, that it should be united under Israeli sovereignty and nonnegotiable,” said Ora Ahimeir, director of the Jerusalem Institute. “But reality brought an awakening and a realization that the immediate post-'67 reality was sort of artificial, that unification was not full unification.”

Amirav, the former paratrooper, is one of those who has changed his views. Once a fervent advocate of the right of Jews to settle all of biblical Israel, he now believes Israel should yield on Jerusalem in the interests of peace.

By annexing East Jerusalem, an exuberant Israel bit off too much, said Amirav, now head of the public policy department at Beit Berl College.

“The notion of a united city does not exist anymore,” he said.

Building and razing

ONE gray morning last November, scores of Israeli police officers converged on a bluff in East Jerusalem, surrounded a modest home and escorted a bulldozer crew to the door.

Kamil Saou, a 43-year-old Palestinian landscaper, had built the home without a permit. That gave the government the legal right to demolish the home. As Saou raced off to seek a court injunction, a policewoman ordered his wife, Suad, to collect her valuables and led her to the street. The bulldozer tore through the three-room stone house, Suad said, and crushed most of their 300 olive, almond, apricot and lemon seedlings.

The couple’s five children came home from school that afternoon to a pile of rubble. Their new house was a tent the Red Cross had pitched on the lawn.

On average, such scenes play out twice a week in East Jerusalem.

Since the 1980s, Israeli authorities have fought a largely unsuccessful battle to stop the growth of Palestinian neighborhoods. City officials acknowledge that more than a third of all Palestinian homes were built without permits. Palestinians say zoning and building restrictions are so severe that they have no choice but to build illegally.

Along with 26 neighbors in the Beit Hanina district, the Saous built on land they owned.

But the government had designated it a “green area,” off-limits to Palestinian construction. Successive Israeli governments have made such designations, planted trees, and later cut them down to build homes for Jews.

The city threatened to demolish all 27 of the Beit Hanina homes, but then backed down and agreed to consider the community’s appeal.

Osnat Post, acting city engineer, said her office had taken a more lenient approach in recent years to accommodate Palestinians’ need for housing. However, the city is often at cross purposes with Israel’s Interior Ministry, which is concerned primarily with law enforcement. It was the ministry’s bulldozer that tore down the Saous’ home, leaving the rest of the neighborhood standing, after the family missed a deadline for renewing its permit application.

That wasn’t the end of the story. Kamil Saou assembled a building crew and worked day and night for three weeks. They had nearly finished a slightly larger house when the ministry returned in late December and posted a new demolition order.

The Saous got to court in time to win a temporary reprieve.

“The Jews can build anything they want,” Suad Saou said, pointing out her kitchen window as earthmoving equipment carved new lots for the Jewish neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo across the valley. “On our land they only want to destroy.”

Yet the family’s resilience underscores another reality: Palestinians are building faster than the Israelis can demolish. Adding to the boom now are Palestinians moving back into Jerusalem because they fear being shut out by the barrier Israel is building.

According to Meir Margalit, a former Jerusalem city councilman who opposes demolitions, Palestinians have constructed more than 1,000 homes a year in East Jerusalem in this decade, more than 90% of them without permits. The most torn down in a single year was 152.

Palestinians have fended off the bulldozers with Israeli help.

Israeli courts routinely delay demolition orders. The Israeli press has given sympathetic coverage to Palestinian protests, such as a peaceful sit-in two years ago that forced the city to call off plans to destroy 88 homes in one neighborhood. Many Israelis oppose the demolitions on humanitarian grounds or object to the diversion of large numbers of police to protect the wrecking crews.

The policy of limiting Palestinian communities “has not worked,” said Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem lawyer and critic of land-use policy in the city. “You have anarchic growth in East Jerusalem. The city has lost control.”

Separate worlds

MADLENE Vanunu spent her youth on Israel’s side of the barbed wire that once carved Jerusalem into Israeli and Jordanian halves.

“We used to see the Arabs through the fence. Sometimes we would talk. Sometimes they said, ‘Good morning.’ Other times they threw stones,” said Vanunu, who is 58 and still lives in the same house in the working-class Musrara neighborhood.

When the fence came down, it was just a five-minute walk to the spice-scented lanes of the Old City.

“In the years after the war, we went to the Old City every Saturday,” said Vanunu, who works in the municipal art gallery in West Jerusalem. “We would go to restaurants, meet with people and talk.”

But in the 20 years since the first Palestinian intifada, she has been there only once, and then with fear. The six years of on-and-off clashes that began in 1987 drove the two sides apart. The violence became a turning point in their relations.

Road No. 1, which traces the old boundary, still serves as a psychological border. And despite the patchwork of Jewish enclaves in East Jerusalem, the vast majority of Jews and Arabs live as though they are in separate cities.

Mohammed Muhaysen, 63, who owns a convenience store in the Wadi Joz neighborhood, about a mile from Vanunu’s house, says he has never been in a Jewish home or hosted a Jew in his own.

“We don’t have any relations with them,” he said.

Today secular Jews rarely venture into East Jerusalem’s traffic-choked downtown near the Old City. Observant Jews still walk through the Old City’s Muslim quarter on their way to worship and study, but they have been assaulted from time to time.

Palestinians who enter West Jerusalem do so for a specific errand — to visit a doctor or government agency or to shop at the mall — and then go home. They are almost never seen in sections such as the bistro-dotted German Colony unless they belong to a construction crew.

Palestinians say that despite talk of a unified Jerusalem, Israel has neglected their areas.

Moaz Zatari, 25, who heads a newly formed neighborhood association in Wadi Joz, said the community’s 7,400 residents have no public schools or parks. A shortage of street-corner trash bins means household garbage frequently overflows in stinking heaps, he said. Along an unpaved road in a low-lying section, Zatari said, poor drainage regularly leaves homes flooded during the winter rains.

“They treat us as second-class citizens because we are Arabs,” he said.

An analysis last year by Margalit, the former city councilman, found that the city spends at least four times more per capita in Jewish areas than in East Jerusalem.

In some Palestinian neighborhoods, school officials have rented apartment buildings to cope with the classroom shortage. At a school in the Shuafat section of north Jerusalem, 320 girls crowd quarters that once were bedrooms and kitchens. Inside one 12-by-13-foot room, two dozen fourth-graders in olive tunics sit at tables packed so tightly that the teacher cannot walk to the back of the classroom.

“We use every millimeter,” said the principal, Maysoun Hallaq. Her office, the size of a walk-in closet, was converted from a balcony.

But at a nearby Jewish school, classrooms are ample and well-appointed, and parents have chipped in to help provide yoga classes and a petting zoo. The middle-class neighborhood, Pisgat Zeev, has 15 schools and 40 parks and playgrounds for the 40,000 residents.

Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski says that since he was elected in 2003, the city has invested nearly $10 million in new classrooms for East Jerusalem. And in late May, he announced a $40-million effort funded by the Israeli government to improve roads and build sidewalks in East Jerusalem.

He said East Jerusalem lagged because it was not developed under Jordanian rule, then grew so fast that Israeli officials couldn’t keep up.

“The problem between East and West is a given,” Lupolianski said. “We have to remember that we did not invent this situation. In 1967, a large part of East Jerusalem didn’t have infrastructure such as running water and electricity.”

Israel offered citizenship to Palestinians in East Jerusalem after the war, but few accepted. The rest were given the status of Jerusalem residents who can work in Israel and must pay Israeli taxes. They also can run and vote in municipal elections, and their numbers would give them significant clout. But they have largely boycotted city politics.

“If we accept to have elections in East Jerusalem under the umbrella of Israeli law, it means that we recognize the legitimacy of the annexation,” said Ziad Abu Zayyad, a former Palestinian Cabinet minister who edits a journal on Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

In the 1990s, interim peace accords enshrined Palestinian demands that residents of Jerusalem be allowed to vote and run in elections for the Palestinian Authority. That helped reinforce a non-Israeli identity.

“We failed to bring the Arabs to the idea that they are part of Jerusalem,” said Rivlin, the lawmaker. “And when we let them vote for the Palestinian election, we let them declare that they are not part of Israel.”

The severe violence of the second intifada, which erupted in 2000, made the chasm seem unbridgeable.

Vanunu said she favored a more conciliatory line toward Arabs, but she wondered when she would feel comfortable strolling in the Old City again. Last time, on the Yom Kippur holiday four years ago, “I went trembling,” she said.

“These days, I hear more and more voices saying they don’t want us here, that they want to throw us into the sea,” she said. “It is when I stop hearing these voices that I may go to East Jerusalem again.”

Upstairs, downstairs

AT 2 o’clock one morning last spring, Mahmoud abu Hawa awoke in his house on the Mount of Olives to the sound of banging on the door.

He was horrified to learn that his new neighbors were Jews.

They arrived escorted by dozens of armed security agents wearing black, he recalls. Even though it was the middle of the night, men from a Jewish settler group rousted the 44-year-old Palestinian tour bus driver from his sleep and insisted on talking to him. Abu Hawa watched in disbelief as they opened a suitcase on his children’s bed. It contained about $300,000 in cash.

The group informed him that it had purchased the rest of the five-story building. Now they wanted to buy him out. He refused.

The arrival of the Jewish families set off riots, followed by an icy coexistence and made the red-roofed apartment house on Mansouriyeh Street a microcosm of the long struggle over Jerusalem.

In other parts of the city, the fight over land and identity goes neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street. Here in the biblical core, it goes floor by floor.

Mansouriyeh is a narrow street of stone houses with iron balconies, perched on the Mount of Olives at the northern end of an area known as the Holy Basin. From here, the rugged limestone terrain drops steeply into the cave-pocked Kidron Valley and climbs the next hill, embracing a neighborhood Jews call the City of David and Palestinians call Wadi Hilweh.

Urban geographers say that if leaders on both sides were willing, they probably could draw a new boundary through Jerusalem making most of the neighborhoods on either side contiguous.

The Holy Basin and the Old City are a different story.

As Israelis began to speak in the late 1980s about redividing the city, Jewish settler groups, with backing from hard-liners in the government and diaspora, quietly began acquiring Palestinian homes in the Old City and Holy Basin and hoisting Israeli flags on the rooftops. Their most powerful backer was Ariel Sharon, then minister of industry and trade and later prime minister, who in 1987 acquired the lease on an apartment in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.

Jews now control about 75 buildings in the Holy Basin and at least that many in the Old City’s Muslim and Christian quarters, Israeli and Palestinian officials say. Though Jews constitute a fraction of the area’s 52,000 residents, their expanding presence includes a network of tourist centers and the City of David archeological site, which promotes historical Jewish claims with findings from the era of the ancient temples.

One settler group, Elad, manages the site for the Israeli government, finances new digs, operates tours and rents to Jews willing to settle in the Holy Basin — an effort financed by Jewish groups and individuals, including American millionaire Irving Moskowitz.

Elad’s founder, David Beeri, discovered in the 1980s that some Holy Basin properties had been purchased by Jews before the 1948 war and that the deeds were being held by the Jewish National Fund, a major custodian of land in Israel. He persuaded the fund to authorize him to remove Palestinian residents from the parcels.

Palestinians have accused Elad’s security workers of violent takeovers. According to an official Israeli investigative panel, government agencies in the 1980s and ‘90s gave Elad first chance to buy confiscated homes in the Holy Basin, including some that had been seized from Palestinians under an absentee-property law.

An Elad official, Doron Spielman, said the group acted within the law. Elad approaches Palestinian homeowners and gives them a choice between fighting in court, a process that can drag on for years, or selling to the settler group for as much as twice the market value of their property. “We don’t force them to sell,” Spielman said.

In other cases, like the Abu Hawa house, he said, the group makes indirect purchases to protect people from Palestinian groups that threaten to kill them for knowingly selling to Jews.

Elad’s parcel-by-parcel advance to the Abu Hawas’ building gave Jews their first residential foothold on the Mount of Olives since it came under Israeli control in 1967.

Working through a Jordan-based company, Elad signed a deal to pay Mahmoud abu Hawa and two of his brothers $900,000 for their building. Mahmoud said they thought they were selling to Arabs, but he became suspicious and backed out; his brothers Khalil and Mohammed took the money.

Two weeks later, Mohammed was found dead in the West Bank city of Jericho, shot eight times at close range. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a Palestinian militant group, claimed responsibility. Mahmoud thinks his brother, who left six children, may have been killed not for selling but for trying to expose the Arab middlemen who had deceived him.

In addition, the family-owned restaurant has been burned since the sale and Mahmoud has suffered a heart attack.

Elad is still trying to buy his place, he said wearily, but Palestinians are determined to hold on to the land. “Nobody in this neighborhood will sell voluntarily to Israelis. Never.”

Hillel and Shlomit Mali could hardly have picked a less welcoming place to settle as newlyweds. They arrived three months after the first Jews moved into the building. Their new home was directly upstairs from Mahmoud, his wife, mother and four children.

Unlike Elad’s intrusive security agents, Hillel, a 24-year-old musician, and Shlomit, a 23-year-old graduate student of literature, were solicitous and polite. Though it is assertive in acquiring property, Elad says it tries to minimize backlash by choosing settlers who are not confrontational.

Soon after the couple moved in, Hillel phoned downstairs to introduce himself in rudimentary Arabic. Mahmoud hung up and still won’t speak to the couple.

The Malis sent sweets on the Jewish holiday of Purim. Mahmoud’s mother, Fatima, tossed them into the garbage.

Saturday mornings, when the Jews pray in their small top-floor synagogue, the Abu Hawas tune in a radio broadcast of Muslim prayers and turn up the volume. Neighborhood children stone the Jewish apartments and smash the cameras installed by 24-hour armed guards who watch the building from a control room just off the stairwell.

“They try to be nice,” Fatima said. “But they were the reason my son was killed. They took my house. How can I accept them? I want to make their lives miserable so that they will leave.”

Yet they remain. Forty years after the war, Hillel and Shlomit embody the unfulfilled aspiration of a united Jerusalem under Jewish control.

“I try to talk with my neighbors,” said Hillel, taking in a spectacular view of the contested holy sites from his roof. “Sometimes this is a very hard mission. But if I don’t do this, if I leave the Mount of Olives, I fail.”

Mahmoud would consider that a battle won.

“The Israelis say to me, ‘Shalom,’ but I never say anything back because, honestly, there can be no relationship with these people, no peace. They fight you with their weapons, with their money, with everything.

“They’re trying to take over this whole area, all these houses, and kick us out. We say, ‘No way.’ ”


Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.



Jerusalem through the years


At the end of World War I, Jerusalem becomes part of the British-ruled

mandate of Palestine. A 1931 census puts the population at 90,400 ---

51,200 Jews, 19,900 Muslims and 19,300 Christians.



Israel declares independence in May 1948. War follows. A 1949

armistice leaves Jerusalem’s Old City under Jordanian control. An

Israeli demilitarized zone on Mt. Scopus is surrounded by

Arab-controlled territory.



In the six-day Middle East War, Israel captures all of Jerusalem and

regains access to the holiest Jewish sites. Saying they want to

protect the city, officials more than double its size and begin

building on annexed land.



With minor adjustments, the current boundaries of Jerusalem are set.

Building of Jewish neighborhoods inside the city continues at a rapid

pace. But in the 1990s, the growth rate of the Arab population begins

to outpace that of Jews.



Israel begins the Jerusalem section of a barrier that it says will

keep out suicide bombers. The barrier cuts off two Arab neighborhoods

from the rest of Jerusalem and stretches well beyond the city boundary

to encompass West Bank settlements to the northwest and east.


Sources: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, International Peace

and Cooperation Center, CIA, Israeli Defense Ministry, Associated

Press, Arab Studies Society, National Geographic Society. Graphics

reporting by Batsheva Sobelman


Eastern push


Israel has built new Jerusalem neighborhoods on land captured in the

1967 Middle East War. But overall percentage of Jews in the city is

dropping while the proportion of Palestinians grows.



Before the war, an armistice line separated Israeli-controlled West

Jerusalem from Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem. After its victory,

Israel expanded Jerusalem’s boundaries.


After decades of building, thousands of Jews now live in East

Jerusalem neighborhoods.


Total population of Jerusalem

1967: 266,3000

Arabs: 26%

Jews/others: 74%


1980: 407,100

Arabs: 28%

Jews/others: 72%


1990: 524,500

Arabs: 28%

Jews/others: 72%


2000: 657,500

Arabs: 32%

Jews/others: 68%


2006*: 732,100

Arabs: 34%

Jews/others: 66%


*Provisional figures

Sources: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, CIA, National

Geographic Society