A City Divided

Israel's long struggle to claim Jerusalem as its own is being challenged by religious polarization, fears of terrorism, and demographic trends

June 03, 2007|By John Murphy

Jerusalem -- Israel is marking the 40th anniversary of its capture of East Jerusalem and reunification of the city in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war with a year full of festivities. The Old City walls are dressed up with twinkling blue and white lights. Millions of dollars have been budgeted for parades, concerts, fireworks and other events celebrating Jerusalem's unity, including a group hug of the city's Jews, Christians and Muslims.

But this year, once again, Jerusalem's residents are left to wonder what the party is all about. More than reminding its citizens of how much they share, the anniversary exposes their city's growing polarization and the apparent futility of Israel's long effort to claim Jerusalem as its own.

Once known for its protective fortifications that have kept out invaders over the centuries, Jerusalem today is defined by a series of barriers and checkpoints that are dividing its citizens and creating new obstacles to peace. A recent poll found that 62 percent of Jerusalem's citizens don't think their city is united.

"Although we celebrate 40 years of unification, this is not a case of unification. This is a clear indication of two separate cities here in Jerusalem," said Shlomo Hasson, professor of geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "The separation manifests itself in separate commercial centers, separate transportation systems, separate cultural centers and very little social contact between Palestinians and Israelis."

Jerusalem has changed hands many times over the centuries, as it fell to Muslim, Christian and Jewish conquerors, and its status remains one of the most contentious and emotional issues blocking resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For Israelis, capturing the Old City and the holy sites of East Jerusalem in 1967 was the fulfillment of centuries of yearning to reclaim the city as the eternal and united capital of the Jewish people.

But the past 40 years did not erase the Palestinians' claims to Jerusalem - a center for commerce and culture for the West Bank and the site of the third holiest site in Islam - as the rightful capital of their future state.

Seeking to tighten its grip on Jerusalem, Israel has aggressively expanded the city's Jewish population and curbed the growth of Arab neighborhoods during the last 40 years. But the latest statistics show that Israel is waging a losing demographic battle. Palestinian population growth outpaces that of their Jewish neighbors by about 1 percentage point each year. Jewish residents, meanwhile, are fleeing their capital at a rate of 6,300 per year in search of lower housing prices, jobs and often a more secular lifestyle.

In 1967, when Israel annexed Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem and nearby Arab villages, quadrupling the size of the city, 74 percent of the population of 266,000 was Jewish and 26 percent Arab. Forty years later, the city has grown to 732,100 people and the Jewish majority has dwindled to 66 percent and the Arab population has increased to 34 percent, according to a new report by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

According to one study, if Jerusalem's borders remain unchanged, the proportion of Jews would decline to 60 percent of the population by 2020. Within 25 years, another study predicted, the Arab-Jewish population will be evenly split.

Kicking off the celebrations last month, the mayor of Jerusalem struck a divisive note when he fretted publicly over the demographic threat posed by his Arab constituents.

"Jerusalem could, God forbid, end up not under Jewish sovereignty, but rather that of Hamas," Mayor Uri Lupolianski told Israel's prime minister, according to the Israeli press.

He warned that the Islamic militant group that was responsible for scores of bombing attacks in Israel and which won Palestinian elections last year could take over the city without firing a shot.

"We need a plan, and not crumbs, so that Jerusalem will remain Israel's capital forever," he said.

As demographic forces reshape the city, so do security concerns. During the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, Jerusalem bore the brunt of the violence, with 171 people killed in 38 suicide bombings. Seeking to defend itself from attacks, in 2002 Israel started constructing a separation barrier dividing the West Bank from Israel.

While the stated purpose of the barrier is security, it also serves Israel's demographic and political goals. The serpentine path of the barrier cuts off sections of the city's northern neighborhoods, walling out some 55,000 Jerusalem residents, or about one-quarter of the city's Palestinian population, according to Ir Amin, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to finding a joint agreement on the future of Jerusalem.

The barrier's path separates families and cuts off students from their schools, workers from their jobs and Muslim worshipers in the West Bank from Jerusalem's holy sites.

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