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4 April 2024

Letter from Jerusalem: what future do Palestinians have in the ancient city?

The rapidly changing city may seem calm on the surface. Don’t be fooled.

By Bruno Maçães

There used to be two ways to arrive in Jerusalem: from the sea to the west and from the deserts to the east. These days, most international visitors come by train from Ben Gurion Airport. I arrive from the east, having crossed the Allenby Bridge, or King Hussein Bridge, one of Israel’s border crossings with Jordan. To my surprise there is no barbed wire here. There are no walls. No separation barriers. And the Jordan river seems like a stream you could easily leap over. After the border crossing, my bus drives through the Judaean Desert, across which Moses gazed at the promised land, a spectacular wilderness of sandy dunes, rocky crags, wadis and cliffs. The distances here are short and Jerusalem is soon in view, announced by the 55-metre water tower on top of Mount Scopus.

A few days after I arrive, I meet Sari Nusseibeh at the American Colony Hotel on Nablus Road, across the street from his family home. Nusseibeh is the descendant of a Jerusalem family that goes all the way back to the Arab conquest in the seventh century, a family that has been distinguished with the honour of holding the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the empty tomb of Christ. Now 75, he spends most of his time in the garden of the same house he grew up in, just metres from the school he attended as a boy. It would be a mistake to think that Jerusalem has not changed since his youth. “For a long time there was no water tower on Mount Scopus,” he tells me. “As you came from the east, you would see only some landmarks like the Augusta Victoria tower. I arrived from Jericho a few days ago, and as I looked up, I again saw this new landscape, this stretch of buildings, from the south in Ma’ale Adumim all the way to Pisgat Ze’ev. And arriving from the north, there used to be fields, lots of fields, olive trees, as you came up to Jerusalem.”

I drive around those Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, which are illegal according to international law, steadily expanding and now also gentrifying. The new sections of the settlement Pisgat Ze’ev, named after the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, are posher than West Jerusalem and overlook three Palestinian centres in the valley below: Shuafat, Shuafat refugee camp, and Anata. These villages are surrounded by a concrete wall, the separation barrier. A large segment of the Palestinians living inside are unable to leave because they do not have a Jerusalem identity card. I walk all the way to the street balustrade above the refugee camp, hosting Palestinians expelled from the Old City after 1967 and encounter an Israeli woman returning home after walking her dog. After some polite introductions, I ask her if she is bothered by the sight of the squalid refugee camp. “We never look down,” she smiles. “We look to the sky.”

The separation barrier is not a single wall neatly dividing Jerusalem from the West Bank. In the neighbourhood of Dahiyat al-Bareed, a large concrete wall covered in barbed wire bisects the area, separating Palestinians from Palestinians, sometimes members of the same family. Those unlucky to have been left on the wrong side of the barrier must now cross the infamous Kalandya checkpoint if they want to go to Jerusalem. It takes them hours. Their relatives on the other side can travel to the Old City in just 15 minutes. As I drive along the wall, I look up to the barbed wire which is covered in old clothes, maybe swept there by the wind. There are children nearby and it occurs to me that their world has always been defined by this wall.

In Abu Dis, a neighbourhood to the south, I encounter something extraordinary, though it is perhaps more common than one might imagine. I am introduced to a couple, owners of an apartment right next to the concrete barrier. The woman’s mother lives in the next building, not more than 20 metres away, but the wall comes between them. The woman’s journey to visit her mother takes at least two hours. Sometimes they just talk from their respective roofs, across the wall. As her mother does not have the blue identity card of a Jerusalem resident, she cannot visit her daughter.

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In his memoir, Once Upon a Country (2007), Sari Nusseibeh marvels at the magical incongruity of a city in which Christ’s Garden Tomb sits opposite a large bus station. Here is my suggestion to the tourist: turn away from the attraction. Instead, board the 218 to Ramallah, the de facto capital of the State of Palestine. Crossing into Ramallah through the Kalandya checkpoint is relatively easy; our bus is simply waved through. Returning to Jerusalem is a different story. As we approach the barrier some hours later, passengers are ordered to step down and move to a cramped holding pen. There is a barred turnstile at the end and we all push towards it. Every now and then the turnstile is activated by the Israeli soldiers on service, apparent only if the crowd keeps trying to move it. Then the turnstile is locked again, one person invariably caught – a cage inside a cage – for the few minutes before it moves again. Luckily when my turn arrives, I avoid the experience. I place my belongings on a tray covered in slimy yellow liquid for the metal detector. Everything is filthy, hot, congested.

After a while I notice that no one has voiced a single word during the more than one hour I have been waiting. There are no soldiers in view. They are sitting behind a thick glass window as they signal me to place my passport against the glass. They stare blankly for some time but eventually look away, which I take to indicate I can move to a second turnstile. No words are exchanged with them either. I move to the exit, glancing behind at the dozens of Palestinians still waiting to go through.

Working hours for the checkpoint are often unpredictable. In Ramallah, during my visit, I heard a rumour that the checkpoint might close at 5pm, earlier than the sunset hour I had planned. I rushed to the bus station and was able to return in time. A Palestinian working in Jerusalem might have less luck, unable to return home to break their fast or sleep in their bed.

When my minibus from the Jordan border arrived at the Jerusalem checkpoint, every passenger held their blue identity card above their heads to show the Israeli soldier by the door that they were allowed to enter. It is a precious card but easy to lose. Israeli law dictates that only those Palestinians whose “centre of life” remains in Jerusalem can keep their residency permit, even if their families have lived in the city for a thousand years. If the only job you can find is in the West Bank, you lose your card. If you fall in love with someone outside Jerusalem and go live with them, you lose the card. If your child can only find a school outside Jerusalem, you either live separate from her or lose the card. If your rent goes up and you need to find a cheaper apartment outside the city, you, of course, lose the card. And if the city decides your village is no longer part of Jerusalem, you lose your card. The village of Al-Ram was part of Jerusalem until the Oslo Accords in 1995.

A short walk from the bus station, after travelling back from Ramallah, I meet Ziad Hammouri, director of the activist group Jerusalem Center for Social and Economic Rights and a prominent Palestinian figure in the city. From him I learn that every Palestinian who loses his or her residency is redesignated as absentee, so their property in Jerusalem can be apprehended or demolished. By his calculation, there are between 22,000 and 25,000 demolition orders pending against Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem alone.

There are now more than 220,000 Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem. Hammouri believes that the plan is to grow that number to something like half a million, while the number of Palestinian residents is reduced to fewer than 100,000. Today there are around 350,000 holders of the blue identity card. “That means they will evacuate 250,000 Palestinians,” he says. The system he describes is total and relentless, an infallible algorithm pushing Palestinians out of the city, one seized blue card at a time. “In the long term,” he tells me, “they will succeed.”

On the surface Jerusalem may seem calm. The holy month of Ramadan is almost finished. Easter and Purim have passed without incident. But Hammouri, who knows the city inside out, has no illusions. There is danger and destruction everywhere you look.

[See also: The New Atheists: Barbarism and religion]

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