Reflective impressions of Jerusalem
Posted on 16 April 2011
I am pretty lucky as my job frequently brings me to diverse places of the world. This time, I just come back from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) composed of the West Bank and of Gaza where I spent the last three weeks. Although I was based for most of my stay in the recluse/closed down Gaza strip (indeed inaccessible to most), I nevertheless also had the chance to stay few days in Jerusalem. This post then relates my impressions of Israel, while I’ll write two other posts about the West Bank and Gaza.
First, of all, I was absolutely struck by the beauty of the Old City. It is pretty small – it takes no more than an hour to walk all around it following its fortified walls – and is being invaded by hordes of tourists, but I was nevertheless surprised by the fact that there are no visible tensions between the different communities populating the place. The Old City is indeed divided in four ‘quarters’ – the Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim – and given the recurrent violence that occurs in the region between tenants of these faiths, I would have not been surprised if the air had been more tense. Having said that, I immediately qualify this by recalling that despite my positive experience on this regard, the place is heavily patrolled by Israeli uniformed and civilian forces, and tensions do occur on a regular basis. And while people can walk all around the Old City, it is interesting that it’s only when entering the Jewish quarter that one has to go through metal detectors and put the bags in an x-ray machine. That said, I’ve noticed a number of t-shirts being sold in the Jewish Quarter that are of particular bad taste, if not purely provocative… Judge by yourself with the following picture…
Yet, the status quo did not halt the violence, which continues to break out every so often even in modern times. For example, on a hot summer day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its agreed spot into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, and eleven were hospitalized after the resulting clash. In another incident in 2004 during Orthodox celebrations, a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. This was taken as a sign of disrespect by the Orthodox and a fistfight broke out. Now, one understands why – for centuries now – the custodians of the key of the church are actually not Christians but Muslims. Indeed, in 1192, Saladin assigned responsibility for it to two neighboring Muslim families. Until now, twice each day, a Joudeh family member brings the key to the door, which is locked and unlocked by a Nusseibeh.
As I read elsewhere, “you do not need to be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, or even be overly concerned with religion, to be overwhelmed. Anyone with a sense of history, spirituality or the human species should be absorbed by the tremendous weight of human civilization that cloaks nearly every part of the city. It is an inhabited, living city – not a deserted museum or monument. Humanity’s passion play has been constant revival at this location for most of the length of recorded history.”
This remains true until today. Indeed, while walking in the Old City, I several times heard fighter jets flying above. Nobody seemed to care about it, yet one has to realise that for a good part, they had just dropped bombs in the Gaza strip, located only few dozens of kilometres away… Business as usual…
I’ve spoke to a number of Palestinians and asked them what made them Palestinian. From a ‘nation’ perspective, the answer is pretty obvious: they are Palestinians because of a shared history, culture, language and traditions. But from a legal perspective, it seemed to me that every Palestinian I met had a different legal status. Indeed their Palestinian passport is not seen as conferring them citizenship, since it is not issued by a government and their status is generally linked to their place of birth and/or living during a given period in time. Those living in Jerusalem East for instance don’t have the same rights and obligations than those living in West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt or Jordan. This has a direct impact on their ability to move and travel in the region, but also in Jerusalem itself. For example, while (East) Jerusalemites can drive to the West Bank (located only few kilometres away), inhabitants from the West Bank have utmost difficulties to drive to Jerusalem. Gazans on their side, are essentially stuck in their tiny 40×10 km strip. After the 1967 Six Day War, East Jerusalem residents became permanent Israeli residents, affording them the right to live and work in Israel without special permits. However I’ve been told by several Palestinians that residents endure repeated investigations and inquiries to keep proving their legitimacy and apparently Israel commonly denies it. In addition applications can take months or years to be considered, making them time consuming and expensive.
Eventually, it seems to me that the current situation in Israel and ‘Palestine’ is unsustainable – continuing the practice of giving Israel’s Jews privileged access to basic services like health and security at the expense of Israel’s Arabs and of Palestinians will only deepen social and economic divisions between these peoples. I understand Israel’s need for security, but by keeping outsiders in indignity and hardship, it seems to me that its approach to security precisely sows seeds for future frustrations and violence.