Jerusalem lies astride the bumpy road to peace New accord skirts issue of Holy City

September 12, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Just about any Middle East scholar, politician or street merchant will tell you the same thing. All roads to peace must eventually lead through Jerusalem.

For the moment, the route looks impassable.

That's why the Gaza-Jericho agreement due to be signed tomorrow in Washington skirts the issue of who should rule the ancient city that is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Would-be peacemakers over the years have proposed at least 56 solutions for dividing the spoils of Jerusalem. Not one has proved satisfactory, and shadowing them all are history and religious zeal, the ancient partners of unrest in this Holy City of unholy deeds.

"If you found a reasonable solution to Jerusalem, that would open the door to solving all of the other problems between the Israelis and the Palestinians," says Nasser Eddin Nashashibi, whose family has been prominent among the city's Arabs for five centuries.

"But if you leave Jerusalem to the last and then don't solve it," he says, clapping his hands sharply for emphasis, "then you haven't done anything. To put it off is to put your head in the sand."

So, as peacemakers look toward tomorrow's ceremony with a feeling of accomplishment, they also can see far enough down the road to wonder: What can ever be done to make peace in Jerusalem?

For now, the Israelis remain in control of the whole city, as they have been since their capture of Arab-controlled East Jerusalem tTC in the Six Day War of 1967. But the Palestinians have made it clear that they want to take back control of the Arab side of the city, and the city's holy sites have made it symbolic of the ultimate goals of the peace process.

It can be difficult to think of peace at all when the subject is Jerusalem. Somebody has almost always been killing somebody else over the place, usually in the name of God or country.

Past instigators have included King David, Herod the Great, the Romans, Alexander the Great, Richard the Lion-Hearted and the Sultan Saladin, and along the way the city's sacred temples, churches and mosques have been burned, sacked, rebuilt, desecrated and converted from one religion to another.

The city's most recent combatants have been Arab boys with stones and Molotov cocktails going up against Israeli soldiers with automatic weapons, or older Arabs with knives who carve up tourists and unarmed Jews.

In the caliph's footsteps

In running Jerusalem, the Israelis tried at first to follow roughly in the footsteps of the Caliph Umar, a Muslim conqueror of the seventh century who, upon capturing the city with all its holy divisions, decreed that all could worship as they pleased "unless they rise up in a body."

His former enemies, he decided, would pay a tax rather than serve in his army, and all those leaving town would be afforded safe passage, no matter what their allegiance.

Umar's plan worked to varying degrees for more than 400 years, until the Crusaders swept down from Europe and killed practically everybody in town.

For the Israeli occupiers, the breaking point came from another crusade, this one being the 1987 Palestinian uprising known as the intifada. On came the roadblocks, searches, curfews and increased military patrols. Travel between the two sides of town became risky for both Arabs and Jews.

Accompanying the difficulties was a growing awareness that East Jerusalem had already been getting a bum deal in plenty of other ways. While Israeli suburbs and settlements sprang up in new developments in and around the east side of town, Arab residents soon found it almost as hard to get a building permit as to pass through the eye of a needle, to borrow a local expression.

In recent years, only about 5 percent of the city's building permits have gone to Arabs -- who make up 30 percent of the population -- and those who have built new homes or additions without permission have watched city wrecking crews demolish their work.

Arab merchants and residents also complain of deteriorating sewers, waterworks and utilities, in spite of their high taxes.

Moshe Amirav, an Israeli and a City Council member who favors sharing rule of East Jerusalem with the Arabs, looks at these statistics of discrimination, as he calls them, and sees chances for a Jerusalem settlement slipping away.

"In two to three years, there is not going to be any more East Jerusalem," he says. "It will just be 18 different Arabic islands, and by then all the options may be closed."

'Like entering a tunnel'

The easiest way to see the difference is to stroll the city's two business districts, beginning with a walk down bustling Jaffa road on the Jewish west side.

"You go to Jaffa road and you feel you are in Paris," Mr. Nashashibi says. "You reach the Damascus gate

[to the Muslim quarter of the walled Old City] and it is like entering a tunnel, and on the other side there is dirt and danger."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.