East Jerusalem: Exploring Jerusalem’s Contested Other Half (Photos, Videos)

East Jerusalem is Jerusalem’s sort of connected other half.

Together with Haredi (Jewish Ultra Orthodox) Jerusalem and predominantly-Jewish-but-non-ultra-orthodox Jerusalem it comprises Israel’s capital city — a city which, practically speaking, functions as a sort of loosely bound-up collective made up of these three constituent elements (and then some). (The city’s Jewish population is a roughly even third split between the ultra-Orthodox, the less religious, and the secular. Definitions, of course, matter much.)

Palestinian women shopping on Sultan Suleiman street in East Jerusalem, near Damascus Gate. Photo: author.

The territory — effectively, the area within the Jerusalem municipal boundary but on the eastern side of the so-called Green Line armistice demarcation agreed with Jordan — was administered by the Hashemite Kingdom for 19 years.

Given the close ties between many Palestinians and Jordan — there are more than 2 million Palestinian refugees living in the country — trappings of that tie and the Jordanian presence are still visible on the ground. Currency converter shops on this part of town almost always include the Dinar as one of the advertised currencies available for exchange.

Israel conquered the territory in the Six Day War of 1967. The vast majority of the international community continue to retroactively repudiate that move and regard East Jerusalem as illegally annexed territory (minus the US which in 2017 upended longstanding policy by recognizing Jerusalem, without qualification, as Israel’s capital.)

In fact — contrary to what many believe, and many would argue the dictates of common reason — even Israel’s claim over the West of the city remains diplomatically contentious, usually recognized at best by begrudging de facto recognitions of facts on the ground but stopping short of a full diplomatic rubber stamp.

The US, Kosovo, and Guetemala maintain embassies in the city. Russia and Australia have inched closer — also alongside some other states with warming relations with Israel who have opened commercial offices to again indicate growing rapprochement with the idea of endorsing long term Israeli sovereignty over its capital.

In 2018, in a landmark moment, Australia recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In the same year, Russia held its Russia Day reception in Jerusalem and offered tepid recognition amounting to the same thing diplomatically. According to a spokesperson for its foreign ministry “we must state that in this context we view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

A money changing shop on Salah ah-Din street, one of the main commercial streets in East Jerusalem, near Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Photo: author.

Those states, though significant breakaways from the consensus position, remain the outliers, however. For the vast majority of the international community, Jerusalem’s formal status, post-Oslo, is something like an unstated modern incarnation of the failed corpus separatum envisioned by the United Nations.

Embassies, being meticulous observers of matters of protocol, are therefore careful not to hold receptions in any part of the capital — the West included — in order to avoid giving even a feint semblance of legitimacy to Israel’s application of its sovereignty over all of the capital.

A sign erected by the Jerusalem Municipality on Sultan Suleiman Street in East Jerusalem. Photo: author.

Even though a visitor to the city couldn’t help but notice that it functions unquestionably fully as part of Israel, until the Israelis and the Palestinians stop being at loggerheads — which at this point sounds like about the same time we can expect pigs to take flight — its status is sort of officially up in the air, however much at odds that may be from day to day reality.

For the time being East Jerusalem and its Palestinians — known as the maqdiseen in Arabic (in Arabic, Jerusalem is known as Al Quds), find themselves in a sort of strange position between worlds.

With the exception of (some) residents of the southern village of Beit Safafa, they mostly hold permanent residency permits to Israel (East Jerusalem is comprised of a network of Palestinian villages which were together subsumed within the territory over the Green Line).

They pay taxes to the City of Jerusalem as they live within its municipal boundaries but cannot vote in Israel’s elections so long as that remains their status. They can even have that flimsy status revoked should they spend enough time out of the city.

East Jerusalemites have long complained of underinvestment in their part of the city and of an impossible situation in which sufficient construction is rendered extremely difficult to achieve lawfully (they say that not enough building permits are granted and that when they are forced to build without them Israel is hyper-aggressive about ordering demolitions).

They find themselves, they say, between worlds — which they are.

Israel aggressively implements a policy forbidding the Palestinian Authority from operating in the city, even in those parts (like Kafr Aqab) that lay on the other side of the separation barrier, making them practically inaccessible to Israeli civilian authorities. Unlike those in Ramallah and Bethlehem, mere kilometers to the north and south of the city, they can’t rely upon the services provided by the Palestinian Authority (PA).

A Palestinian lady walks near the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem near the Herod’s Gate entrance. Photo: author.

While that situation might sound desperate, it’s worth underscoring that this is a question of volition as much as it is rights, however. Which makes the unfortunate plight of these residents, in respects at least, also self-imposed.

East Jerusalem Palestinians have traditionally largely refused to engage with Israel, viewing the State and the City of Jerusalem as unwanted foreign occupiers (sometimes attacking municipal workers who come to collect refuse).

While a process to obtain Israeli citizenship remains open to them — and doing so affords them suffrage and much better employment prospects — most refuse to do so on the grounds of allegiance to Palestinian nationalism (or the positions of their parents, who are often more opposed to the idea of any form of conciliation).

A shop in the Old City of Jerusalem. Many stores sell a mixture of both Palestinian and Israeli flags, hedging their bets on their expected clientele. Photo: author.

Doing so is regarded as a form of betrayal — or ‘normalization’ in the more common discourse — and societal opprobrium and the fatwas of religious leaders provide powerful enforcing mechanisms in a tight-knit and clannish society.

They view their choice largely as being hapless quasi-citizens of neither side to the conflict or as being traitors to their own cause — and so live within a quasi-city that manages to be in both worlds of the conflict but neither all at the same time.

It makes, also, for difficult facts on the ground and one half of Jerusalem that’s grossly less developed than the other with significant poverty and associated problems.

To round out the picture of disenfranchisement and anger, there’s how East Jerusalem is viewed from the other perspective — that of Israelis — and the conflicts that frequently spill over between the two diametrically opposed groups who both call parts of the city home.

In fact, for the Israeli right wing even the term “East Jerusalem” is ineffable, for it is deemed to grant some measure of legitimacy to Palestinian claims to part of the capital.

They talk, instead — very deliberately, — of the “Eastern part” of the city. The proscription to never mention East Jerusalem in that language is even written into the style guides of some of right wing nationalist’s favorite newspapers.

The unification of Jerusalem remains a key tenant of Israeli policy. Which creates a strange sort of dissonance between the ideological fervor of the Israeli right-wing — who make their delight at the ‘unification’ of Jerusalem evident every year during the nationalistic Flag Parade — and facts on the ground which make clear that the city is extremely divided along invisible but robust ideological borders.

Because as anybody who steps foot in it quickly realizes — and with the significant but small exception of small and intensely guarded right wing enclaves dotted throughout the East of the city — the character of East Jerusalem is decidedly Palestinian.

In fact, the only things that differentiate the streetscape of your average East Jerusalem street from your average street in Ramallah or Bethlehem are a higher proportion of Hebrew (street signs in area A are devoid of traces of Hebrew); the occasional presence of the Israeli police and Jerusalem Municipality garbage collectors; and other manifestations of Israeli sovereignty like health funds and government offices.

Located, deliberately, between the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukkaber and the Jewish neighborhood of Armon HaNatsiv, reaching hopefully skward, the Tolerance Monument gives expression to a Polish architect’s desire to see greater coexistence between the two groups in the capital. To date, that dream has remained largely that. Photo: author.
In East Jerusalem, the Arab streetscape is broken up by the trappings of Israeli sovereignty, like this outlet of the Clalit health maintenance organization (HMO) in Ras Al Amud in East Jerusalem. Photo: author.
Israel’s separation barrier, at Ras Al Amud, which separates the East Jerusalem neighborhood from Abu Dis, partially within area B of the PA. Photo: author.

There are neighborhoods in East Jerusalem adorned from top to bottom with Palestinian rather than Israeli flags. You don’t even need to visit Jerusalem to discover this fact. Simply navigate in Google Street View on some of the ‘deeper’ parts of this territory.

Arabic is the language of the street, although Hebrew is largely understood. Entry for conspicuously Jewish visitors is often fraught with peril. And if you didn’t know to look out for those subtle differences, it would be very difficult for your average European visitor to determine whether they were in Jerusalem, Ramallah, or Jenin.

The short documentary above (from the Times of Israel; part of a three-part series investigating minority issues in Jerusalem) lays bare the internal struggle within Palestinian society regarding normalization.

The pragmatists in the community realize that accepting Israeli citizenship is the best means to guarantee them and their offspring a better future.

Those somewhere in the middle regard doing so as a sort of halal version of what is otherwise haram (arguing that it’s permitted to frustrate the objectives of Palestinian nationalism in order to temporarily ameliorate their plight; this idea is predicated of course on the increasingly unlikely idea that a Palestinian state and capital will emerge).

And finally there are of course the hardliners who assiduously refuse to even countenance the idea of taking Israeli citizenship irrespective of the fact that that decision may cause them and their families enormous personal suffering. They become shaheeds of sort on the alter of Palestinian nationalism.

Together, these facts comprise the city of Jerusalem today as anybody is welcome to explore it.

A city that prides itself on being “united” but which is actually torn in half by conflicting historical narratives, identities, and goals.

A city with separate bus networks, hospital networks, and school systems for Jews and Arabs.

With two languages. Two flags. And two identities. But one border.





Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things. https://www.danielrosehill.com

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Daniel Rosehill

Daniel Rosehill

Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things. https://www.danielrosehill.com

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