Samera remembers a time, during the tumultuous and violent years of the first intifada (1987-1993), when her Jerusalem was a place quite different than it is today. Though tens of thousands of Palestinians under Israeli occupation were imprisoned in those years, many of them tortured, a measure of hope and optimism pervaded Palestinian Jerusalem in ways that seem foreign to Samera and other Palestinian Jerusalemites in 2004, over three years into the costly, low-level warfare of the second uprising.

East Jerusalemites have a different status than denizens of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the other Palestinian ter- ritories occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Having declared all of Jerusalem its “eternal and undivided capital,” Israel issued the Palestinian Arab residents of the city identification cards as permanent residents. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem still pay Israeli taxes, but otherwise they experience Israeli occupation in ways that are familiar to their counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza.

As in the rest of the territories, their tales are of an intensifying crackdown on freedom of movement and ever evolving forms of Israeli territorial control. By the late 1980s, Jewish settlements, built on land stolen from Palestinians, had proliferated all around the contested urban center of East Jerusalem. But at that time the number of settlers in the city and its environs was only half the number residing there today. [1] A unified Palestinian leadership existed during the first intifada, leading an occupied people in pursuit of independence and statehood. Unlike today, the Jerusalem leadership was not comprised simply of an army of silk-suited businesspeople, but rather was guided by local activists — men and women — who bravely, and largely democratically, organized popular committees, underground schools and demonstrations in a fashion not seen in Palestine since.

Israeli military rule was stifling in the 1980s, and those Jerusalem Palestinians who fought against these constraints do not usually wax nostalgic in their depictions of that era. Yet, by all accounts, military occupation has grown far more ruthless over the last three years. Simply navigating daily life in occupied East Jerusalem, Palestinians say, has become a much more onerous task.

Before Oslo

Even during the most difficult days before the 1993 Oslo accord ended the first intifada and ushered in nominal Palestinian self-rule in portions of the Occupied Territories, movement between Palestinian towns and from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel was much less regulated then it is today. Journeys across national boundaries generally took place with few impediments, with upwards of 100,000 Palestinian workers traveling daily to jobs within Israel. These primarily male workers, though frequently dependent on these positions, remained at home when they and their leadership chose, occasionally calling strikes that could paralyze entire Israeli industries, such as construction, for days.

Movement into and through Jerusalem from neighboring Palestinian areas, such as Ramallah and Bethlehem, was for the most part unobstructed, and residents of those towns increasingly made the city, east and west, part of their cultural and social lives. Palestinians routinely entered Israeli commercial zones, recreation areas and places of leisure in the city, whether the Jewish Israeli population liked it or not. Jerusalem would become, by the early 1990s, the urban space where there existed the greatest “mix” of Israelis and Palestin- ians and where national boundaries were challenged.

Despite Israeli efforts to keep Palestinians without “permission” out of the city after 11 pm, many tell of how they constantly circumvented the curfew. “We were a part of Jerusalem if we wanted to be — not apart from Jerusalem,” notes a man from Ramallah who was a teenager during the first intifada. “You didn’t have to beg the Israelis to enter. They weren’t there guarding the roads into the city all the time.” Things have changed indeed.

Tightening Noose

Jerusalem, the city claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital, was the site of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948, when over 40,000 Christian and Muslim residents were removed from their homes in what is now the city’s west side. [2] Since 1948, Israel has implemented “development” and demographic plans devised to secure the entire urban space “for the exclusive use and benefit of the Jewish people,” according to the bylaws of the Jewish National Fund, which manages the majority of Israeli state-controlled land. [3] Once the locus of substantial, positive communal interaction before 1948, Jerusalem has witnessed ever greater moves toward division and segregation over the last six decades, leaving Palestinians with less and less land and more deeply contained within the few remaining areas where Israeli authorities “permit” them to reside.

The rapid transformation and increasing racialization of Jerusalem’s space over recent decades speaks to the fundamental ways in which Israeli colonial authority has sought to reconfigure Palestine more generally. Jerusalem, the most potently symbolic urban center of Israel-Palestine, has been carved up and divided for the benefit of the dominant Jewish Israeli community, through eras of both “peace” and war.

East Jerusalem’s current isolation from the rest of occupied Palestine did not begin with the right-wing government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, nor is there much faith among Palestinians or Israeli progressives that a new era of decolonization would swiftly commence if the Labor Party were ever to return to power. The age of the Oslo accords (1993-2000), a period dominated by Labor governments, brought with it an increasing separation between Arab and Jew, in Jerusalem and in other occupied places.

Labor’s objectives, as they pursued their understanding of the Oslo agreements, were not internally coherent. A range of voices and visions were expressed within that series of governing coalitions. One aim, however, was backed by a very broad consensus: the creation of a more rigorous institutional separation between the contending national communities. The Israeli architect of Oslo himself, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, expressed this aim when he sought to sell the accord to the Israeli public by referring to it as “taking Gaza out of Tel Aviv.” To such ends, the Rabin government had already initiated one of the most significant spatial alterations in Jerusalem since the Israeli conquest of the eastern part of the city in 1967. In March 1993, Israel began to erect permanent military checkpoints at every major entrance to Jerusalem from the West Bank. The checkpoints helped Israel to enforce a new policy of “closure” — restrictions on the movement of people and goods — that has, since that time, come to be powerfully associated with Israel’s regulation of Palestinian entry into the “eternal and unified capital of the Jewish people.” With the establishment of the checkpoints, Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza could no longer
“legally” enter the city without special Israeli permission.

Part and parcel of the policy of closure was Israel’s intention to stop Palestinians from making Jerusalem their internationally recognized capital and to defuse what Israeli planners have termed the Arab demographic “time bomb.” [4] A familiar tension became evident during the early days of closure, as Israeli capital desired access to the captive pool of Palestinian labors residing in the West Bank and Gaza, while other forces within Israel wished to be rid of the non-Jewish population that threatened to overwhelm the Jewish population with relatively higher birth rates. To obviate the perceived demographic threat, Israel eventually replaced most Palestinian laborers with “guest workers” from other countries, and envisioned a series of “industrial zones” to be built along a territorial divide between the two national communities. [5]

Hassles at the checkpoints guarding the entrances to Jerusalem became an everyday occurrence for Palestinians as the 1990s progressed, but Palestinians would often walk around them, sometimes in clear view of the Israeli soldiers stationed there. Since Sharon’s government was elected in February 2001, however, these nodes of control are almost impossible to evade. The checkpoints themselves have proliferated, while the routes Palestinians devised to move around them undetected have been bulldozed or are heavily monitored.

For decades, Jerusalem has been one of the most segregated cities in the world, but today it is a tremendously fortified one as well. Traversing the contemporary city one notices how, since the outbreak of the second intifada, an array of supplementary “security” features have become elements in the daily lives ofboth Jews and Palestinians. West Jerusalem and Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem are guarded with greater vigilance; few cafés or restaurants are without a security guard at the entrance. One is compelled to pass through metal detectors to enter Israeli ministries, post offices and various other locales where Jewish Israelis congregate. Plainclothes police can be espied at bus stops and sitting on busses with far greater regularity than before 2001. At the checkpoints and in the city streets, Palestinian young men and boys who look or act “suspiciously” are often detained for prolonged periods, humiliated and, not uncommonly, beaten and incarcerated. Palestinian taxi drivers can be seen warning one another as they pass in opposite directions about a suddenly erected “mobile checkpoint” on the road ahead. Such measures — like the permanent checkpoints — are meant to assure the Jewish Israeli public that the state is adequately “fighting terrorism.” The actual impact of these policies, however, is rather different.

“Non-Negotiable” Expansion

While movement into and through East Jerusalem has become increasingly difficult for Palestinians, Jewish settlement construction underscores Israeli intentions for reconfiguring this occupied territory. Construction of settlements, on vast areas of expropriated Palestinian land, has proven crucial to the Israeli effort of making ever larger areas of the city “non-negotiable” and off limits to Palestinians or a future Palestinian state. Most of the construction sites in East Jerusalem were chosen by the Labor governments of the 1970s. Though Jerusalem settlements were a major focus of the Likud governments of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, they were expanded most dramatically under the Labor governments of the 1990s. [6] Other major alterations to Jerusalem’s built environment in the years 1993-1996 include a tunnel for Jewish settlers drilled under the Palestinian village of Beit Jala, completed in 1995, and a system of settler bypass roads, built on many thousands of acres of Palestinian Jerusalemites’ land.

Since 2001, the patronage of the second Bush administra- tion has allowed Israel to actively “thicken” the Jerusalem-area settlements and bolster its hold over a progressively expanded “Greater Jerusalem.” This unilaterally defined region greatly exceeds the city’s municipal boundaries to encompass the major settlement blocs of Ma’ale Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, Gush Etzion and others. These are sites that, precisely because they are so populous, are considered by a broad Israeli consensus as “non-negotiable.” Today the territory of “Greater Jerusalem” accounts for at least 20 percent of the West Bank and is home to a majority of the illegal settler population. In the last three years, all of the major settlements in East Jerusalem as well as those in the surrounding areas have grown, some quite substantially. Neither the broad international consensus against such continued land theft nor occasional State Department rebukes have put the slightest dent in these policies of expropriation. Though George W. Bush’s vaunted 2003 “road map” for resolving the conflict demands that Israel “freeze all settlement activity consistent with the Mitchell Report [commissioned by President Bill Clinton to ascertain the deep causes of the uprising],” it is generally understood among all parties to the conflict that the United States does not seek to challenge Israel’s building boom in any place that the latter defines as “Jerusalem.” Clinton’s deference to the Israeli governments of the mid-1990s on the question of the building of the Jewish settlement Har Homa speaks succinctly to this US acquiescence.

The continual carving up of East Jerusalem and the rest of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 was made an explicit part of US policy when, in July 2000, Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak put forward their “generous offer” seeking to consolidate Palestinian autonomy from dozens of tiny, isolated islands scattered throughout the West Bank into three larger cantons. These three cantons would have been separated from one another, surrounded by Israeli settlements and military forces, and disconnected from the one city Palestinians regard as their capital. Jerusalem — East and West — would have remained overwhelmingly in Israeli hands, save a thin thread of Palestinian pseudo-sovereignty, dangling down from the Ramallah canton in the north to the Damascus Gate of the Old City.

In the Labor Party platform of Ehud Barak, nearly all land contiguous to Jerusalem, including the “E-1 area” that runs from the eastern settlement bloc of Ma’ale Adumim to the edges of Jericho (an area larger than Tel Aviv), would remain forever in Israel’s hands. The terms of the “generous offer” would have provided for the creation of a mammoth “Greater Jerusalem” under sole Israeli control, approved by the US government, and effectively cutting any future Palestinian state in the West Bank in half.

Such was the “generous offer” at the July 2000 Camp David negotiations. Yet what was ultimately unacceptable to the Palestinian leadership at Camp David was not these settlements — which they were, by all accounts, prepared to accept — but Israel’s refusal to create contiguity of territory in the West Bank and to acknowledge the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. The unofficial Geneva accord publicized in late 2003 replicates the Palestinian concession that the settlements of “Greater Jerusalem” will remain.

Resistance and Disillusionment

Since the beginning of the current intifada in the fall of 2000, there have been innumerable Israeli military incursions into, or bombings of, Palestinian towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. From Jenin to Jerusalem to Jabalya, increasingly brutal Israeli operations have been met with a variety of types of resistance — some violent, others not. Yet in Jerusalem, the city so central to the articulation and projection of Palestinian nationalism, Palestinian mass action and defiance has been relatively insignificant. Why has this been the case?

A number of scholars and activists — Palestinian and Israeli — believe the sources of this caution are both fears of Israeli backlash and an ever incompetent national leadership. Many Palestinian Jerusalemites explain that the Sharon government’s rhetoric has grown so vitriolic, and the Jewish Israeli population so inflamed, that any sort of large-scale resistance — militant or non-violent — might provide hyper-chauvinist elements within the current government with a pretext for pushing Palestinians out of the city en masse, residency permits or no. The very few “red lines” being imposed on Sharon’s government by its bene- factors and brothers-in-arms in Washington exacerbate this trepidation. East Jerusalemites further contend that the lack of open confrontation with Israeli forces in the city has much to do with a crisis in their own national leadership, which has not acted in accordance with any kind of unified strategy. As one unemployed and embittered resident of the Shuafat refugee camp said in the wake of Operation Defensive Shield (Israel’s second major invasion of the formerly semi-autonomous West Bank towns in the spring of 2002), Palestinians are simply “tired of dying for this leadership.”

The “Arafatist” regime has earned its reputation for being endlessly inept, infinitely corrupt and willing to sell out popular needs for the gains of a narrow elite. Though most Palestinians recognize that the Palestinian Authority can do next to nothing to compel Israel to share sovereignty in the city, they affix blame to their besieged leadership for having organized only modest sorts of anti-occupation initiatives in Jerusalem, inadequately funding local home-building initiatives and continuing to negotiate with Israel even as the Oslo-era settlement expansion progressed. [7]

The Bulldozer

Israeli colonial power is exercised in dramatic ways, such as through the building of sprawling settler estates high on fortress-like hilltops, and it is exercised in the nuances of daily life in Jerusalem’s landscape. While the dramatic exercises are often well-documented, the latter are often ignored, though everyday forms of violence have had a pervasively negative impact on the non-Jewish population of the city. Such largely unseen measures include the demolition of Palestinian homes.

Over the last five decades, the state of Israel has confiscated roughly 40 percent of East Jerusalem from Palestinians for settlement construction. Another 45 percent — again, mostly Palestinian-owned land — has been zoned by Israel as “Green Land,” thereby precluding any construction upon it that is not authorized by the state. No more than 16 percent of East Jerusalem is left for the domiciles of the Palestinian population; of that land, they are permitted to build on only a fraction. Palestinian structures which are judged by Israel to be in violation of its zoning laws are subject to arbitrary, “administrative” demolition.

According to Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, “since 1967 Israel has demolished more than 8,000 Palestinian homes throughout the Occupied Territories, leaving some 50,000 Palestinians without shelter and traumatized.” [8] Halper explains that during the Oslo years, roughly 300 Palestinian homes were demolished in East Jerusalem alone. Since the beginning of the second intifada, several dozen more have been razed, with hundreds of demolition orders outstanding.

Though Israeli forces have the means to destroy only a handful of what they term “illegal structures” in the Jerusalem area, Palestinian inhabitants never know when bulldozers might arrive to raze their homes. Local housing rights activists — Palestinians and Israelis — relate how demolition crews move from site to site with little or no warning, sometimes in the early morning hours, to evict Arab families from their most intimate of spaces. Palestinians who live in homes targeted for demolition express how this continual uncertainty carries with it an enormous emotional cost. Many targeted families have described these conditions as a sort of low-intensity terror that they are compelled to live with at all times. “We go to sleep every night,” explained one mother of five, “not knowing if the army will be here the next morning to destroy our home. We are completely vulnerable in our own homes.”

The aim of such policies, as many current and former Israeli city planners have themselves attested, is to limit the Palestinian population in the city. As former Israeli planners Amir Cheshin and Sarah Kaminker have written, the goal of the Israeli state from the inception of Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967 was to maintain a ratio of 72 percent Jews to 28 percent Arabs in the city’s population. [9] This racist formulation is meant to mitigate Israeli anxieties about an Arab “demographic time bomb.” Palestinian residents are often compelled to leave East Jerusalem because of high taxes and unmet housing needs, explains Kaminker, and very few Palestinians are being permitted to move into the city from other areas of the country to establish residency, lest the Jewish population diminish relative to the number of Arabs. [10]

Walls of Exclusion

Another feature of the emerging system of spatial segregation in occupied Palestine is the imposing concrete barrier and complex of fences that Israel is building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Known to Palestinians simply as “the wall,” this territorial divider has disparate segments which are eventually to link up into a continuous whole. [11]

Though the wall has brought substantial international criticism upon Israel, including the UN General Assembly’s request for a verdict on its legality from the International Court of Justice, its assembly moves forward at tremendous human cost to the Palestinians. Israel’s attempt at a “hermetic solution” would be onerous enough if this barrier were built on the Israeli side of the Green Line demarcating the armistice lines of the 1948 and 1967 wars. But the wall is built almost exclusively on stolen Palestinian land, on the West Bank side of the Green Line, with the stated purpose of defending illegal Jewish settlements on one side of the wall and other Israeli populations on the other. As the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims, “The anti-terrorist fence is an act of self-defense that saves [Israeli] lives…. The route of the anti-terrorism fence is determined solely by the immediate and pressing need to save Israeli lives by preventing Palestinian terrorists from reaching the Israeli populations. Thus, the fence is being built wherever this can be achieved most effectively.” The word “populations” clearly refers to settlers in the Occupied Territories as much as it does to Israelis within the Green Line.

In East Jerusalem, two primary segments of the wall have been constructed quite rapidly since 2002, snaking along several kilometers of land at the northern and southern edges of the city, bordering the southern outskirts of Ramallah and the northern outskirts of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. The wall is not a passive dividing line, but rather a belligerent sort of physical structure. On both sides, it requires wide swathes of territory that serve as security buffers for the “security fence.” It pays no heed to the problems it creates by separating Palestinians from their land, schools and communities.

On Jerusalem’s eastern outskirts, the wall has recently and rather violently divided the Palestinian area of Abu Dis, cutting through this community with a sort of “ordered disorder.” For decades, thousands of Arab residents from this area have daily traveled the few kilometers from their homes to their capital to labor, worship, shop and go to school. The latest extension of the concrete barrier has contributed to and, in fact, apparently made permanent the hardships imposed upon Abu Dis by 11 years of closure and checkpoints. Branches of extended families dwelling in the same residential area have become separated from one another on either side of the wall’s high panels. Palestinians wonder what the limits of such incursions are, if Israel is capable of dividing communities so densely populated, with so little opposition from Washington and Europe.

The great lie is that this enormous intrusion, like the myriad “security” measures mentioned above, cannot ultimately stop attacks on Israeli civilians. Like the heightened forms of violence deployed by the Israeli state, it has and will only continue to spark resistance and violence.

Samera and most other Palestinians who live under military occupation in Israel’s expanding “Greater Jerusalem” remain highly skeptical of the parade of “peace plans” that have come and gone since the end of the first intifada. From the 1991 Madrid framework to the Oslo accord to the “road map” to the Ayalon-Nusseibeh plan, and finally the Geneva accord, all of these putative blueprints for a comprehensive settlement have maintained that the future social cartography must be one in which walls and barriers of all kinds are kept in place; one where national communities live in a continued “separate and unequal” spatial arrangement. None of these designs for a different future will hold because none hold the Israeli state accountable to the requirements of international law regarding its past and present colonization of Jerusalem and other occupied territories. Otherwise, the fractured populations of a diminishing Palestine will continue to fall prey to chauvinist national visions now being etched permanently on this landscape of despair.


[1] The East Jerusalem settlements of Pisgat Ze’ev and Pisgat Omer (built on the land of the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina) were initiated in the mid-1980s. Today, they are home to over 30,000 Jewish settlers.
[2] See Ilan Pappé, The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-1951 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1992) and Walid Khalidi et al, All that Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992).
[3] For more on the discriminatory measures imposed on the Palestinians by Israeli public and private institutions, see Oren Yiftachel, “Democracy or Ethnocracy? Territory and Settler Politics in Israel-Palestine,” Middle East Report 207 (Summer 1998).
[4] Two accounts written by Israeli politicians and planners involved in these schemes make this clear. See Meron Benvenisti, City of Stone (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996) and Amir Cheshin et al, Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israel’s Rule of East Jerusalem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
[5] For an excellent examination of the emerging political economy of Oslo-era Palestine, see Graham Usher’s Palestine in Crisis: The Struggle for Peace and Political Independence After Oslo (Pluto Press, 1995).
[6] Figures from the Statistical Yearbook of Jerusalem suggest that the number of Jewish settlers has doubled since the signing of the Oslo accord in September 1993. Also see Thomas Abowd, “The Land Without the People: Contesting Jerusalem on the Eve of the Millennium,” Middle East Report 213 (Winter 1999) and the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories (November-December 2003).
[7] For a thorough reading of the failures of the Palestinian national leadership, see Rema Hammami, “Interregnum: Palestine After Operation Defensive Shield,” Middle East Report 223 (Summer 2002). See also Jamil Hilal, al-Nizam al-siyasi al-filastini ba‘d Uslu [The Palestinian Political System After Oslo] (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1998).
[8] For more information, see the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions website at
[9] See Sarah Kaminker, “For Arabs Only: Building Restrictions in East Jerusalem,” Journal of Palestine Studies 26/4 (Summer 1997) and Amir Cheshin et al, Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israel’s Rule of East Jerusalem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
[10] Kaminker, op cit.
[11] For thorough explorations of the effects of the wall, see PENGON, The Wall in Palestine 2003 (Ramallah, 2003) and Mazal Mualem, “Fence in a Fog,” Haaretz, July 11, 2003.

How to cite this article:

Thomas Abowd "Carving Up the Capital," Middle East Report 230 (Spring 2004).

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