Why Jerusalem Can and Must Be Divided

The attempt to ‘Judaize’ East Jerusalem failed and the Palestinians currently comprise 40 percent of the capital. How exactly is it united?

Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Arab neighborhood of Issawiyeh in Jerusalem, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015.
Arab neighborhood of Issawiyeh in Jerusalem, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015.Credit: AP
Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli

At the beginning of the 1999 negotiations on a permanent arrangement, the Israeli negotiating team tended to stress the difficulty in dividing “united” Jerusalem, hinting that its municipal boundaries conferred holiness on the land within them. The Palestinians had two responses to this. First they would say, “Explain to us how Sur Baher and Kafr Aqab are holy in Jewish tradition.” Then they would add, “You’re too smart a team to divide Jerusalem. Bring us one of Jerusalem’s Border Policemen and ask him where they place the barriers when there’s violence. The line you’ll get is our proposal for dividing the city.”

The relative quiet on the security front that prevailed at the tail end of the 1990s made it difficult for the representatives of then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s government to agree with the Palestinians. His most “generous” offer at the 2000 Camp David Summit regarding Jerusalem was worded thusly: “The Temple Mount will be under Israeli sovereignty, with some sort of Palestinian custody and permission for Jews to pray on the Mount. In the Old City, [Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser] Arafat will get sovereignty over the Muslim Quarter and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Perhaps the Christian Quarter, too. Sovereignty in the Jewish and Armenian Quarters is Israeli. The outlying Muslim neighborhoods will be transferred to Palestinian sovereignty, while the inner ones will remain under Israeli sovereignty.”

In other words, pre-1967 East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli control, while only the outlying villages that were annexed by Israel after the Six-Day War would be given to the Palestinians.

Only the second intifada, which erupted in full force immediately after in September 2000, led Barak to adopt a more reasonable alternative, just before he was unseated by Ariel Sharon. “We’re talking about an effective solution, albeit not absolute,” he said. “It includes two walls in Jerusalem: the first is political, around the greater metropolitan area, which includes Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Givat Ze’ev; the second is a security wall, between most of the Palestinian neighborhoods and the western city, and between the Israeli neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and the Holy Basin [a reference to the Old City and adjacent areas], with supervised crossings within the city.”

The fact that Jerusalem suffered a third of all Israeli attacks and casualties during the second intifada failed to teach the Sharon government that the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are an inseparable part of the national struggle to establish a Palestinian state whose capital is East Jerusalem.

Likud, whose ministers spouted slogans like “Jerusalem united for all eternity” and “Jerusalem must not be divided,” made sure that the political wall was the only one built, and that it included most of the Arab neighborhoods – contrary to all social or security logic.

The application of Israeli law and the annexation of East Jerusalem after the 1967 war tied the hands of High Court justices in the face of numerous petitions filed against the route of the separation barrier, which divided Palestinians in some places but not Palestinians from Israelis. Detailed presentations showing that the wall’s location would actually hamper security forces during periods of escalation didn’t help.

Facts indicating that East Jerusalem already served as the unofficial capital of the West Bank, and maintained a separate existence from the Jewish population in almost every field – education, transportation, employment, trade and leisure – were not effective, either.

The reannexation of East Jerusalem by the separation barrier did not lead to any change in Israeli policy toward the city’s Palestinian residents. Israel continued to unite the area, but not the residents, as former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert explained: “The government I headed didn’t do everything necessary to turn Jerusalem into a united city,” he related. “We invested in Jerusalem, but consciously invested in the western city and the new neighborhoods and avoided investing in areas that I think in the future will not be part of the Jerusalem that will be under the State of Israel’s sovereignty.”

This insight, which led, in 2008, to Olmert agreeing to the division of East Jerusalem, is absent in the consciousness of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Relying on the support of Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, Eli Yishai (then head of Shas) and Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett for preserving “united” Jerusalem, he refused to present U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with any diplomatic proposals regarding Jerusalem, and continued the failed effort to “Judaize” East Jerusalem.

In the last decade, the number of Jews living in East Jerusalem has remained static at 200,000. By contrast, the number of Palestinians has risen by 69,000 to almost 350,000, making them some 40 percent of the city’s population. A decade ago, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland warned Sharon, “There is great significance as to when we reach a permanent arrangement. It’s preferable that we don’t reach a situation where we go to a permanent arrangement when half the capital’s residents are Palestinians.” That warning is about to be realized.

Members of Netanyahu’s government did not make do with building in Jewish neighborhoods, but also sought changes on the Temple Mount. One privately commissioned report last year stated, “The confrontations are occurring on the backdrop of gradual but significant changes that were made to the Muslims’ entrance arrangement to the Temple Mount. The regular ascendance by Jews a large portion of them activists who go up to the Mount a number of times with various groups This increase in numbers is accompanied by the presence of Israeli MKs and ministers, some of whom [then-Likud MK Moshe Feiglin and then-Housing Minister Uri Ariel] give media interviews on the Mount and/or authorize Jewish prayer near the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque – actions that were forbidden in the past, but are now taking place under the auspices of the Israel Police.”

The report also stated that the new instructions – “whereby, when there’s a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount, Muslims, men or women, under the age of 50 are not allowed to enter” – practically speaking divides “the times of entry to the Temple Mount between Muslims and Jews,” so that on weekday mornings, Sunday through Thursday, “Muslims are totally prevented from entering the Temple Mount area.”

Decisions by Netanyahu’s security cabinet and declarations to the media demonstrate that this government and its head haven’t learned or forgotten anything. One can maintain the position that a “united” Jerusalem will remain under Israeli sovereignty. But by taking such a position, there’s no point in dreaming about a permanent arrangement based on a compromise with the Palestinians.

One can only hope that the comment by the late Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek isn’t realized: “Your government, they’re all drunk,” he said. “One day they’ll sober up, but then it will be too late.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

The projected rise in sea level on a beach in Haifa over the next 30 years.

Facing Rapid Rise in Sea Levels, Israel Could Lose Large Parts of Its Coastline by 2050

Tal Dilian.

As Israel Reins in Its Cyberarms Industry, an Ex-intel Officer Is Building a New Empire

Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III and a British synagogue.

How the Queen’s Death Changes British Jewry’s Most Distinctive Prayer

Newly appointed Israeli ambassador to Chile, Gil Artzyeli, poses for a group picture alongside Rabbi Yonatan Szewkis, Chilean deputy Helia Molina and Gerardo Gorodischer, during a religious ceremony in a synagogue in Vina del Mar, Chile last week.

Chile Community Leaders 'Horrified' by Treatment of Israeli Envoy

Queen Elizabeth attends a ceremony at Windsor Castle, in June 2021.

Over 120 Countries, but Never Israel: Queen Elizabeth II's Unofficial Boycott