For a Joint Jewish-Arab Intifada in the Holy City

The conflict aside, Israel’s eternal unified capital is a dysfunctional mess.

Yossi Zamir, Tag Meir

Just before our plane took off Wednesday afternoon on my journey back to Jerusalem, the news came of another hit-and-run attack in the city, this one killing a police officer and wounding 13 other people. Upon our landing, the first report arrived of a similar attack on the Hebron-Jerusalem road (though the military since have changed their assessment and now believe it was an accident). I was mildly surprised when the driver of the Nesher taxi-bus decided to take the 443 road through the West Bank instead of Highway 1. But the incessant night-time roadworks were a greater deterrence.

We reached the capital speedily but then began the arduous criss-crossing of Jerusalem to deposit 12 passengers at eight different destinations throughout the city. The first off was a Palestinian resident from Shoafat. He didn’t even expect to be brought home but made do with being dropped at a junction on the Ramot road, where his brother picked him up. Then we crossed back over the Green Line to deposit ultra-Orthodox passengers, navigating through teeming alleyways in the Haredi neighborhoods, still clogged at 11 P.M.

We finally managed to extricate ourselves but got stuck again in Mahane Yehuda market, dropping a new American immigrant computer engineer at his Nahlaot apartment and wending our way uphill to deliver a Jewish tourist from France at a hotel in the center. From there it was back east to bring a couple of Dutch backpackers to their Old City hostel. If you hadn’t been listening to the news, you could actually believe that all was well in a united Jerusalem.

Our nocturnal meanderings ended near midnight and took over three times as long as the journey from Ben-Gurion Airport to the city limits. We hadn’t been stopped at any roadblocks; besides a slightly higher presence than usual of police vehicles on the roads, we hadn’t seen any sign of the current unrest making the headlines.

Traffic the least of city's problems

Israel’s eternal unified capital is a dysfunctional mess and its nightmarish lack of a coherent traffic system is the least of its problems. One thing which was barely mentioned in recent weeks with the entrance of right-wing Jewish residents to apartments in Silwan and the plans to build hundreds of new homes in neighborhoods such as Ramat Shlomo and Pisgat Zeev, across the Green Line, is that nearly all the new building projects taking place in the city are now somehow political, or simply out of reach for the great majority of Jerusalemites, even those of above-average income. That is the case in Jewish neighborhoods and even more so in the Palestinian ones.

With the exception of a couple of high-tech millionaires, I don’t know one person in Jerusalem under the age of 40 who has been capable of buying his or her own apartment without an inheritance or significant help from their family. Nearly all the new building west of the Green Line is for wealthy foreign Jews, such as the Holyland complex, which resulted in prison sentences for two bribe-taking former mayors and other city officials.

Since the Safdie Plan, which was to add 20,000 new homes to the west was brought down in 2007 by an unholy alliance of (mainly out-of-town) environmentalists and ultra-Orthodox politicians – who didn’t like it because it was aimed at the general public – there has been no large-scale planning for the future.

Israel’s biggest city is falling apart at the seams. Its education system is divided between a host of religious and ideological groups squabbling over scarce resources and inhabitable buildings. There are few new employment prospects beyond the government departments and Hebrew University, which are both cutting back. I don’t have to continue reminding readers that as bad things are on the Jewish west side, they are at least twice as bad in the Palestinian east.

The day after

Here’s a prediction: The unrest around the Temple Mount will soon die down and the vehicular terror will also peter out. The enclaves of Jerusalem will be left with their sorrows.

The tiresome and irrelevant argument over whether what we are seeing now in Jerusalem is a third intifada has become a distracting and harmful cliché. No one who actually lived in the city through the wave of suicide bombings in 2000-2004 can call this an intifada with a straight face. But neither are the comparisons to the first intifada valid.

Both Palestinian intifadas matched the Arab meaning of the term – shaking off. They shook the consciousness of Israelis. The first Intifada in 1987 was the Palestinians’ way of letting Israelis know that 20 years after the Six-Day War, they weren’t okay with the occupation, and through wide-scale riots in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, it served to redraw the Green Line, which many Israelis had begun to forget even existed, and create a clear distinction between the territories. The first intifada dissipated due to Palestinian fatigue, then the initial excitement of the Oslo process gave some hope that change may be on the way.

The second and much more murderous Intifada was an attempt to prove to Israelis that they were not safe even in their coffee shops and shopping malls within the Green Line. It failed because concerted military and intelligence operations and the resilience of the Israeli middle class, which continued life nearly as normal, proved to the Palestinians that they were paying an intolerable price for no real gain.

The third intifada

The third intifada, if it ever arrives, will be a Palestinian campaign to prove to Israelis that the status quo is ultimately untenable, and that they will never have anything amounting to normal lives until the occupation ends. So far nothing the Palestinians are doing is coming near to this, and what is currently happening in Jerusalem is nowhere near that.

Jerusalem does need an intifada however. It needs the young generation of secular and modern Orthodox and Haredi and Palestinian communities to get together and demand that both sides stop treating the city as a hostage to political fortune. It needs an intifada of shared radical protests for affordable housing, decent schools and employment.

Neither side of the conflict proposes viable solutions – not Nir Barkat’s city hall or the government ministers, none of whom (with the exception of Benjamin Netanyahu, who spends his weekends in Caesarea) live in the capital. With all their talk of Jerusalem’s indivisibility, none have any real plan of how nearly a million people can have functioning lives here. Neither does the Palestinian Authority, with its demand for its own capital in Jerusalem, have its own plan for how that will work out. Do they actually believe the Palestinian capital will flourish cut off from its other half?

No political will

A long-term solution between Israel and the Palestinians will have to find a way of sharing Jerusalem, but there is no political will right now to find one, and you have to be naive to believe one will be found before the children in today’s crowded city schools will be leaving the city for lack of adequate housing and jobs. Meanwhile, the Israeli side continues to act as if a third of the population doesn’t exist, and the Palestinians refuse to interact with an Israeli City Hall on the rare occasions it acknowledges their existence.

Jerusalem can’t wait. The only hope for the city is for its residents to get together, ignore their politicians and begin to work on a joint future. The politicians on all sides have failed our city. Maybe one day they will get around to marking borders and solving sovereignty issues; meanwhile, we have to live here.

When we finally arrived on Wednesday night in southern Jerusalem, down the hill and across the Green Line in Abu Tor there were sounds of firecrackers and perhaps also tear-gas grenades. From the promenade came sounds of a party with Mexican music. The driver told me he was worried that the new high-speed rail to Jerusalem, cutting travel time from Ben-Gurion to 20 minutes, would push Jerusalem’s oldest taxi company out of business after 85 years.

The $2 billion rail-link and upgraded highway, with their new tunnels and interchanges and underground stations, are the only major infrastructure projects involving Jerusalem. It’s no coincidence they are happening on the west side, towards Tel Aviv. As things seem now, they will mainly serve those who can escape to get out even faster.