Losing Jerusalem

In his new book, Dr. Hillel Cohen says that the Arabs of East Jerusalem have lost much of their desire and will to fight for the deteriorating city and its Arab identity. In the battle of force and power, Israel is winning.

If the title of his new book, "The Market Square Is Empty: The Rise and Fall of Arab Jerusalem, 1967-2007" doesn't make it clear enough, the first lines written by Dr. Hillel Cohen should remove any doubt. "The Palestinian dream to see East Jerusalem become the capital of Palestine, which in the early 1990s appeared within reach, now appears further than ever from being attained," writes Cohen.

If so, then, official Israel can celebrate united Jerusalem's fourth decade more comfortably than ever. What's left of the future capital of the Palestinian state are heaps of ruins, a political phantom; a surrounded city, encircled by settlements and isolated from the rest of the West Bank, a city that had already been dying for 15 years before the separation fence came to finish it off. The name Al-Aqsa Intifada, still used as the official moniker for the second intifada, sounds like a pathetic joke when one looks at the desire these days of Jerusalem Arabs to be part of the Palestinian state and their connection to the Palestinian Authority.

"One must distinguish between the affinity for the Palestinian Authority and the affinity for Palestinian nationalism, Arab nationalism or Islam," Cohen says. "The affinity for the Palestinian Authority is not strong because the PA is not strong. The PA cannot be a source of pride for people because of all that it has experienced, both vis-a-vis Israel and with its internal difficulties. Therefore, residents of East Jerusalem have a problem with the PA, and because they're in East Jerusalem, it's relatively easy for them to ignore it. But this doesn't mean that they've lost their basic nationalist conception."

But I'm talking about the desire for independence, or about the desire to separate from West Jerusalem. A desire that sometimes seems no longer to exist.

Cohen: "You want to separate from West Jerusalem when you have an alternative. What's the alternative now? To enter the chaos of the territories? Why don't Taibeh residents want Lieberman's plan for annexation to Qalqilyah?"

Taibeh is '48 and Jerusalem is '67.

"How is that their fault? The ratio now is 3:2 - 60 years for you [Arab Israeli citizens] and 40 years for them [Jerusalem Arabs]. Pretty soon it will be almost the same."

But it's still very different.

"Of course. This is a society that is different than the Arab society within Israel. I think that those in East Jerusalem are a hybrid between Israeli citizens and residents of the territories. They're not identical to either, but they have characteristics of both. Their legal situation is different, their rights are different and now with the closures that began in the mid-1990s and even more so with the barrier, their reality is different, too. But the fact is that it's easier for a resident of East Jerusalem to travel to Taibeh than to Hebron."

How is East Jerusalem viewed in Hebron and in the other West Bank cities?

"After Oslo, they [East Jerusalem residents] weren't looked upon kindly. People said that they got carried away with themselves because they had rights and differentiated themselves from the PA. There were cases where people were beaten in Ramallah or at least cursed and harassed because they possessed Jerusalem ID cards. But some say otherwise. Some say that the Jerusalemites suffer more from the Israeli occupation. Several Fatah activists from the Ramallah area with whom I spoke, for example, talked about the suffering of the Jerusalem Arabs and about house demolitions, which no longer happen in the PA and are something the Jerusalem Arabs still have to endure. Or the arnona [municipal tax], for example. Living under Israeli rule has its advantages but it also has its drawbacks, and it's not so clear-cut. You have thousands of people whose houses are in danger of demolition, and that's not an easy situation to live with."

In the book you remark that in the case of house demolitions, Jerusalem Arabs have forgone the possibility of organizing, and in contrast with the past, they prefer to deal with the problems privately and not to ascribe a nationalist nature to them.

"One of the things that Israel did manage to do was to shut down the Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem, from Orient House to the Association of Palestinian Writers. Either Israel did it or the desire of these institutions' personnel to be in Ramallah did it, but either way, they left Jerusalem. Add to that the death of Faisal Husseini in 2001 and the crisis within Fatah. Fatah, of course, is in a very big crisis, so there is no one to call on people to take up a struggle. You don't embark on a struggle unless you have institutions organizing things and activists you can rely upon."

At the time, there was a lot of talk about potential protests and mass demonstrations that would accompany the closing of Orient House. But in the end, it closed quietly.

"The balance of power here is quite clear. No matter what, the balance of power is in Israel's favor throughout Israel and Palestine. Absolutely, the balance is in Israel's favor. And this is most evident in Jerusalem. It's no problem to break down resistance, and therefore anyone who nevertheless tries to organize and to act no longer talks about an armed struggle. Obviously, there are some who will always believe in that and continue to do that, but people are talking about sumud [steadfastness], about Palestinian identity, the Arab identity, preserving the Islamic identity, building, praying at Al-Aqsa and not giving up. If you're not permitted to enter Al-Aqsa, then you pray at the checkpoints. This has become the struggle: to maintain a presence, not to leave the city, to remain within the city. One of the problems of Jerusalem is that institutions and a large portion of the elites are leaving. It's no longer so great to live in Jerusalem, and anyone who has the money and the ability to leave is doing so."

Actually, ever since they began revoking the citizenship documents of Jerusalemites living outside the city's municipal boundaries, people have been streaming back to the city.

"That's true for the weaker sectors but not for the elite, not for the intellectuals or for anyone who has employment in the PA or in Ramallah. The people who came back were people for whom it was important to have National Insurance, or who had work in Israel. Obviously, people were very pressured because the state had begun checking to see who didn't live within the Jerusalem municipal area and was revoking their citizenship. The emigration out of the Old City in the 1970s and 1980s was reversed. What really caused the increased crowding was that people wanted to return at any cost, even if it meant living in shacks and in half-demolished buildings not really fit for human habitation."

Which only contributed to the economic and social deterioration of the city.

"Yes. Some very bad things are happening there. You see things like crime and prostitution, things that, partially at least, are connected to the fact that there are no Palestinian institutions that deal with these issues, and the Israeli institutions don't deal with them in an in-depth fashion either. Not that everything is connected only to the occupation and to Israeli behavior. Part of it also comes from the crisis within Palestinian society, part of which comes from its contact with Israeli society. A society with all of its sexual taboos, which is exposed to what occurs in West Jerusalem, Palestinian youths who work in West Jerusalem or go there in the evenings sometimes for entertainment, I think that this is also a cause of confusion and of a break-down of standards. Add to that the poverty and the housing shortage. Social workers in the eastern part of the city and school counselors mention some very serious things that are happening there. True, there are similar things happening in Israeli society, but there's a sense that, lately, this has become one of the most striking characteristics of the society in East Jerusalem. Prostitution, incest, rape."

Roaming around

"The Market Square is Empty" ("Kikar Hashuk Reka," Ivrit Press) is Hillel Cohen's fourth book. His first, "Hanifkadim Hanokhahim" (2000), dealt with the refugees who were either expelled or fled from their villages in 1948 but remained in Israel. "Tzava Hatzelalim" ("Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948"), from 2004, looks at Palestinian cooperation with the Zionist institutions during the British Mandate period. And "Aravim Tovim" ("Good Arabs," 2006) examines Arab-Israeli collaborators from the time of the state's founding until 1967.

In his latest book, Cohen sought to examine three dimensions - political, military and social - of East Jerusalem. "I tried to look at things primarily from a Palestinian point of view, and not necessarily from the perspective of how unfortunate the Palestinians are, or of human rights infringements. To focus on that is to see just part of the story, because there is another side, the armed struggle. And the opposite is also true - if you look at the Palestinians solely from a security perspective, you also miss out on a lot."

Unlike many in academia, and Cohen describes himself as being on its margins ("a lecturer known in the exploitative system as an 'outside teacher'"), he learned Arabic in the street. "Before 1967 I used to go with my parents to the Mandelbaum crossing and they'd tell me, 'That's where the Western Wall is and that's where the Old City is.' I was 6 years old during the Six-Day War, which means I was 4 or 5 when I went to the Crossing. A week or two after the war I went to the Western Wall with my parents. To the best of my recollection, in third grade I went for the first time, alone with a friend, to Silwan, and ever since, I've been roaming around the eastern part of the city and all over the territories, though the eastern section of the city is more accessible. When I went to Silwan for the first time in 1970, even then they threw rocks at us."

Were you wearing a skullcap?

"Yes, I wore a skullcap then. But roaming around is what I do. Yes, now I'm in academia, I do some teaching, I do some research, but if you look at Israeli academia and research on the Palestinians, you find that, traditionally, the research examined different leaderships and documents. Documents about Palestinian land or about PLO decisions. And I always wanted to see where the people were in this story. What I've tried to do is to combine things, both in my earlier books and in this book. To look at the overall political system but also to see how it affects people. I'm in the field a lot and I have reasonable connections with activists in all the organizations - the Democratic Front, the Popular Front, Fatah and Hamas. I talk with activists in the field, I don't talk with the high leadership because what you often get from them are political declarations that may be interesting in themselves but are not sufficient for understanding what's happening to the society. But if you talk with the Fatah man who's responsible for the Old City, for A-Tur, for Isawiya, or with the heads of the Hamas charitable organizations, I think you get a truer sense of what's happening than if you just analyze the political declarations of [Hamas political leader] Khaled Meshal and that type of thing."

So in third grade you had rocks thrown at you and you still kept on wandering around?

"The Silwan story continues. Yes, they threw rocks at us, but there was a woman there who took us into her home, and that's something that still characterizes my wanderings to this day. This experience of having rocks thrown at you and having someone else protect you - it's typical. During the first intifada I was riding my motorcycle in the Za'atara area near Bethlehem, and there, too, they threw rocks at me and burned my motorcycle and came at me with crowbars, and there, too, someone took us into his home and protected us."

What were you doing there exactly?

"I just went out for a ride on my motorcycle."

Why do you do things like that?

"Usually I like to explore on foot, but when I had a motorcycle I thought it was a way I could get to more places. The first intifada was very interesting. Another time I also got stuck near Bethlehem, and there was some kind of demonstration going on with people with masked faces and Palestinian flags. I'm talking about early 1988 and I'm stuck without gas and the procession is coming closer to me and I see some guys there with Molotov cocktails and I say to them, 'Hey guys, wait a second. You have some gasoline there in the bottles? Could you give me a little for the motorcycle?'"

And what happened?

"They gave me some."

Everything has changed since then.

"Yes, a lot has changed. I left high school at age 15 and spent three years roaming the territories. Not continuously, but I was always on foot and I visited more than 200 villages and slept in dozens of them. There was hospitality. Not the stereotypical kind. People were curious to know what I was doing there and I was curious to meet them. And so, many people took me into their homes. That's how I learned Arabic and got to know all kinds of sides of the Palestinians in the territories. Today, of course, this would be impossible. For the Palestinians, too, it's impossible. The level of suspicion has increased, people are afraid of strangers, afraid they'll be suspected of being collaborators if they host an Israeli. But I wouldn't blame only the Israelis for this change. Because 25-30 years have passed since then, and the whole world has changed. The villages are no longer villages, some of them have grown tremendously, there's the consumer culture, the Westernization, satellite TV. The whole traditional idea of, if a visitor comes to the village then the first thing we'll do is ask if he's hungry hardly exists anywhere anymore."

Because now if a Jew enters a village, there's a chance he won't leave.

"In what sense?"

That he'll start a settlement there and say it's his.

"Yes, that's also part of the story. Even though I can tell you that in some villages I went to, people thought I was a settler and offered me lands."

Just like that?

"Yes. Granted, in most cases they offered me lands that weren't really theirs. But it was nice."

Causing damage

In 1991, when the first intifada was winding down, Cohen began working as the correspondent in the territories for the weekly Jerusalem newspaper Kol Ha'ir. At the time the Palestinian struggle was different and the attitude of the press, the Israeli press included, was nothing like it was during the second intifada.

"Obviously you show more sympathy to a demonstration, even though demonstrations where they throw dozens of rocks at your car aren't so nice, but clearly there's more sympathy for a popular uprising than for cells that blow up buses," Cohen says.

A significant chapter in Cohen's latest book is devoted to the armed struggle in East Jerusalem. Bombings, the creation of terror cells, and the methods of organization of the various Palestinian factions - particularly Hamas, which spawned lethal cells like the Silwan cell, which was responsible for the bombing of Cafe Moment and the Hebrew University cafeteria, and the Isawiya cell, which carried out the attack on Cafe Hillel on Emek Refaim Street.

Unlike the spirit prevailing in the rest of the book, which deals with Palestinian political barrenness and passivity in Jerusalem, this chapter recalls another Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of the start of the decade. "We're sitting now," says Cohen, "in a cafe where there was a suicide bombing. It's not something that can be neutralized from the equation of relations between Jews and Arabs. This book focuses on the years 2000 onward. To address these years without addressing the terror attacks would be absurd. In 2002-2003 the city experienced a very significant series of attacks, in almost all of which Jerusalem Arabs were involved."

It's no longer frightening to sit in a cafe?

"Much less so. The change is not only in Jerusalem but all over the country. There was a breaking point, militarily and intelligence-wise. Israel crushed Fatah and Hamas. In the West Bank, of course; in Gaza, the situation is different. A big part of it is the Israel Defense Forces' very tough response from Operation Defensive Shield onward. I think the armed struggle is very problematic for the Palestinians. It does them damage. A lot more Palestinians have come to realize this now, and that's also part of the story.

"Some say that it's the fence, but the effect of the fence isn't necessarily actually to prevent the entry of terrorists. A big part of its effect is that it has proven that Israel can do what it wants and that the terror attacks cause Israel to take more Palestinian land. And so it turns out that the Palestinians don't gain anything from the armed struggle. They only lose. Okay, so you killed another 10 Jews, but what did you get out of it?"

One of the interesting things Cohen points out in the book is that, in contrast to Hamas, while Fatah took credit for many of the suicide bombings in Jerusalem, none of them were carried out by members of Jerusalem Fatah. Cohen says that the Fatah members in the city, or at least most of them, opposed the terror attacks.

"In general, in Fatah there was a debate about the suicide bombings. It's like the officer from the Preventive Security Force in Jerusalem said to me - 'From the time of the bombings in 1996 we knew that what Hamas was doing would screw the Palestinians, because Israel would use it to halt the withdrawal from the territories and to capture more Palestinian lands,' and that's just what happened. So their analysis was not mistaken. This was also the legacy of Faisal Husseini."

To what degree did Faisal Husseini's death put a damper on the spirit of struggle in the city?

"You know, I tried not to put too much emphasis on Faisal Husseini as a single individual. First of all, the PA gave up on Jerusalem in Oslo. That was the first step. They gave up sovereignty in Jerusalem and thereby provided Israel with a legal pretext to close the Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem. The second stage was the struggles to subordinate Faisal Husseini, the rivalry or competition that existed in a certain period between Arafat and Faisal Husseini and the halting of budgets and the attempt to subordinate Orient House to the PA. All of these things hurt East Jerusalem.

"Faisal Husseini worked very well in the sense that he established a coalition of all the organizations, he didn't make decisions alone. He had a forum that included members of Hamas and the Democratic and Popular Fronts as well as public figures from all over East Jerusalem, and they worked together. This is what gave him some possibilities. But more than once, Faisal Husseini tried to organize protest activities and only 15 people showed up, activists or employees. He also was unable to get a lot of people out into the streets, except for at his funeral."

How do you explain this?

"The problem was that most of the struggles in Jerusalem failed. There was the struggle against Har Homa that failed, the struggle against the establishment of the Jewish neighborhood in Ras al-Amud that failed, and the feeling was that there was nothing to be gained from this type of struggle. Okay, so you erect a protest tent and you bring in a few hundred people, but what comes out of it? It was failure after failure. There's a very clear balance of powers here."

At least then people were talking about it, there was awareness, media.

"Yes, but how much can you fight when you reap nothing in return? If you're a non-profit organization that receives contributions on the basis of how often you appear on television, then it's worth it to you to fight. But if you're someone who cares about the outcome, then it's clear that this sort of struggle will produce no results. I think that this is one of the reasons they took up a violent struggle. I don't want to portray it as the only problem, but one of the reasons for the outbreak of the second intifada was the fact that from Oslo until 2000, in Jerusalem and in other places, the settlements expanded tremendously at the expense of what the Palestinians saw as the territory of their future state. All the diplomatic methods, the meetings, the telegrams and the protests were of no help. The tragedy of the Palestinians is that the armed struggle is again causing the same thing, but even worse."

Perhaps Israel taught them that force is the only way, though in the meantime they don't have enough force. Perhaps this is the Palestinian tragedy?

"Fine. One could also say that the tragedy of the Palestinians from the start is that they found themselves on land that the Jews claim, and say is their historic homeland - rightly so apparently, unlike what some of the Palestinians think. The Jews have roots here and they've managed to stake a claim in this land. This is where the tragedy begins. If the Jews hadn't come here, nothing would have developed the way it has. But they did come here and they are also stronger. This is the root of the tragedy. The question within this equation is what you do about it. The tragedy within this equation is that if you're quiet and don't protest it doesn't help you, and if you protest gently it also doesn't help you, and if you move to an armed struggle, then it also hurts you. Whatever you do, you're screwed."

So what should be done?

"I don't have a proposal for what the Palestinians should do. But let's say, theoretically, if the Palestinians were to take up a non-violent struggle en masse, maybe something would happen."

Then what? That would bring them back to an Oslo-type process.

"Perhaps. Listen, I don't know what to say to the Palestinians. If someone were to land here from Mars and ask me which nation is worth joining, I probably wouldn't recommend he join the Palestinian people."

And the Jewish people? The Israeli people?

"No comment." W