Jews and Palestinians Are Dying for an Imaginary Jerusalem

The first Palestinian protestor after Trump's announcement died in Khan Younis. He'd probably never seen Jerusalem, about an hour from Gaza. He would have had his own imaginary Holy City, a promissory image that hangs on so many Gazan walls

Marilyn Garson
Marilyn Garson
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Palestinian militants from the al-Nasser Saladin Brigades drill with a model depicting the Dome of the Rock in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip. September 19, 2017
Palestinian militants from the al-Nasser Saladin Brigades drill with a model depicting the Dome of the Rock in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip. September 19, 2017Credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Marilyn Garson
Marilyn Garson

From time to time through my first years in Gaza, 2011-12, I spent a weekend in Jerusalem. After a Saturday morning cappuccino at the Educational Bookshop on East Jerusalem's Salah Eddin Road, I’d go to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City. Facing away from the walls, I watched Jews arrive to pray. I found more meaning in those streets than in the actual rituals of prayer.

Then I walked, always back and forth across the seam: Israel/Palestine/Israel/Palestine. Two cities jutted messily into each other, ethnicities evident in the disparities of the municipal budget per capita.

The pavement erupted beneath my feet in the East, twinkling with broken glass.

Teargas shrouds Palestinian protesters as they run for cover from teargas fired by Israeli troops during clashes on the Israeli border with Gaza. Dec. 10, 2017Credit: AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra

I smelled the pungent, unserviced rubbish skiffs, and then I read the restaurant boards of the orderly West; I compared the free-range children underfoot in the Jewish Orthodox and Palestinian streets with the playgrounds of the new city's German Colony.

I trampled the seam on my personal co-existence tour. I walked to remind myself that fractal Jerusalem would not unwind. Its peoples were distinct, yet hopelessly conjoined.

I often returned to the Old City at sunset, loving those pale pink and gold stones, watching the shadows drip from the sconce-like greenery.

Each Shabbat the eternal, symbolic Jerusalem gripped me. No part of Jerusalem is flat, but I wanted it flatly. I could not imagine Jerusalem as anything but ours. Everyone was welcome to co-exist in my city.

It took me a year to let go – not of Jerusalem, but of the limits of my liberal imagination.

It happened on a Friday. Israel had banned Muslim men aged 18 – 45 from the Al Aqsa Mosque, and police cars constricted the roads linking East and West. As I idled on the seam, a bus wheezed past me, bearing a hand-lettered sign in the corner of its windscreen: Birthright. It skirted East Jerusalem, and brought young, foreign Jews to pray at walls from which they were not banned.

A Palestinian demonstrator uses a sling to hurl stones at Israeli troops during clashes near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. December 11, 2017 Credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

"Whose birthright?" I queried.

I let go of my imagined Jerusalem. I will always be one of the millions of non-residents who feel a stake in the city, but I began to imagine it differently. I began to ask, more concretely, how a city of equal birthrights might look.

Around me, Israel was pioneering separations. Roads were elevated and highways burrowed through mountains to hide us from each other. Armies fought through living room walls. Narratives of denial and justification churned out new facts. Not to be outdone, tunnels from Gaza undermined the occupation.

If separation was an infrastructure, could justice also be built? What if the same budget, the same ingenuity, were dedicated to sharing a city?

Jerusalem is not the first city to be subject to competing claims. I studied the concept of contested cities. I read about uneven works in progress, as other nations tried to re-envision their partnerships. No one inhabits a city in flat-earth grid squares. We live along pathways, in time, habits, meanings, cultures. Those are dimensions of co-existence, and there are many co-existence projects with knowledge to transpose – if someone would ask.

I walked less after the war of 2012. A vision of co-existence seemed increasingly distant.

The image of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock projected onto projected on the walls of Mohammad al-Amin mosque in Beirut, Lebanon in solidarity with the Palestinians. December 7, 2017 Credit: REUTERS/ Hasan Shaaban

After I left Gaza for the final time, I spent a few weeks trying to recover the joy I used to feel in Jerusalem. My timing was poor. Jerusalem crackled with rage in September 2015. I arrived at my hotel in Abu Tor, dodged the stones that spun away from the metal-plated wheels of a Mad Max police convoy, and belatedly understood why my room had been affordable during the holidays.

Violence radiated out from the Old City. PM Netanyahu sought authorization for police to deploy snipers in response to stones, recreating the disproportions of the First Intifada. Israel’s Public Security Minister urged Palestinian Jerusalemites (residents, that is; lacking the rights of citizens), to "live together, calm things down. Nothing has changed in the status quo."

Well, yes, I thought. Exactly nothing.

From the leafy defile of the Sultan’s Pool, I looked up at the Old City walls one last time. Footsteps ran straight at me, and I whirled around. A stocky Palestinian man was running like the wind, legs pumping, head thrown back to gasp for air. Six men powered after him like one machine with shaved heads and a tangle of tattooed arms. I slapped at my pockets but I had turned in my phone. I could not call the police, and I’d never catch up to them.

Later that day, I asked my niece if there’d been anything on the local news.

Israeli troops clash with Palestinian protestors in the West Bank city of Ramallah as demonstrations still flared over President Trump's declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. December 11, 2017Credit: AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI

She said, with a hint of country-mouse pity, "Oh, Auntie Mar, those things aren’t news anymore."

I left Israel as the stabbings began.

Now Trump has gifted Jerusalem to his electoral base. As a capital divorced from a solution, Jerusalem would be a city whose Palestinian residents are ethnically excluded from the basic rights of citizenship. Overwhelmingly, people who seek solutions through law, justice, history or fairness have rejected Trump’s act - but they have yet to coalesce around any other vision.

The first protestor died in Khan Younis, in Gaza. He had probably never seen the city of Jerusalem, a little more than an hour from Gaza. He would have had his own imaginary Jerusalem, a promissory image that hangs on so many Gazan walls.

We know that he died protesting, but no one has yet elaborated what he and others are protesting for. Surely not a return to the Jerusalem of last month. Jerusalem does not need more of the status quo ante, it needs an inflection point. Is there anyone left, on any side, who can catalyze this with a vision of a better Jerusalem?

Marilyn Garson worked with communities affected by conflict for 18 years. She worked and lived in Gaza 2011 – 2015. She now writes from New Zealand, and blogs at Transforming Gaza

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