Bringing Jerusalem Back Down to Size

By Yossi Alpher

Published July 22, 2005, issue of July 22, 2005.

Last week the government of Israel made a historic decision to leave a portion of Jerusalem outside the security barrier, thereby officially beginning the process of undoing the anachronistic post-Six-Day War annexation that has turned Israel’s capital into a bi-national nightmare.

Ariel Sharon, of all people, has undertaken to allow the fence protecting Jerusalem to deviate from the borders of “united Jerusalem, eternal capital of Israel.” The decision leaves beyond the barrier some 55,000 Arab residents of northern areas of the city in Kafr Aqab, Anata and Shuafat.

Not that Sharon’s barrier makes much sense in Jerusalem. It still separates some 200,000 Jerusalem Arabs from their preferred cultural, political, commercial and educational environment in the surrounding West Bank. It still attaches other sections of the West Bank, with their own Arab population, to Israel’s capital — only three out of 85 miles of the Jerusalem barrier are actually on the municipal border.

Many of those Arab Jerusalemites left beyond the planned barrier are hastening to move into the fenced-in parts of the city, thereby increasing rather than reducing the Palestinian population. Jerusalem Arabs have no faith in the pledge of the government and the municipality to continue to provide services to those who find themselves beyond the barrier, and to enable them to move back and forth.

At a time when everywhere else in the West Bank the fence is going up more or less along the pre-1967 border, with the inclusion of consensus settlement blocs, it still offends all demographic and security logic in Jerusalem. It virtually guarantees that the next intifada, if there is one, will erupt among the city’s angry and frustrated Arab population.

Nevertheless, Sharon is beginning to divide Jerusalem. As with the Gaza disengagement, his reasoning is murky. But he is setting an important precedent for the rational delineation of the future borders of Israel.

A bit of history is in order. The Jerusalem folly was perpetrated by the Knesset on June 27, 1967, barely two weeks after the end of the Six-Day War. Looking back, it is nothing short of astounding to recall how the vicissitudes of war and global politics produced the Jerusalem we have known since then.

I was an officer in Israeli military intelligence at General Staff headquarters in 1967. Amid the euphoria of victory produced by the war, the predominant intelligence assessment held that, at any moment, the United States or the Soviet Union, or both, would issue an ultimatum for Israel to withdraw from all the territories it had just occupied: Sinai, the Golan Heights, Gaza and the West Bank. There appeared to be no reason why the great powers would act differently this time than they had after two previous Israeli-Arab wars in 1948 and 1956. Once again, the thinking went, they would oblige Israel to give up its conquests.

This explains the hasty annexation of the areas across the Green Line known today as east, north and south Jerusalem. The government of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol wanted to preempt the great powers by creating a fait accompli that, hopefully, would leave greater Jerusalem and its holy places in Israeli hands, even if everything else had to be given up.

On the assumption that the rest of the West Bank would shortly be returned to Jordan’s King Hussein — who ruled it from 1948 until 1967, when his hasty decision to attack Israel caused him to lose everything west of the Jordan River — a combined government-military committee was assigned the task of drawing new borders for the city. These would of course include the Jewish holy places in the Old City, City of David and Mount of Olives area. But the prevailing wisdom dictated that Jerusalem also be able to withstand future wars and sieges.

The committee and the government made the classic mistake of “fighting the last war”: Wherever Jordanian snipers had taken pot shots at Israelis from the hilltops surrounding pre-1967 Israeli Jerusalem, the hills were simply annexed to the city. When Mayor Teddy Kollek expressed a desire for an airfield to enable re-supply of the city in case of siege, as had happened in 1948, a long finger of land was drawn north to the outskirts of Ramallah to create the Kalandia-Atarot landing strip. In addition to one square mile of vital holy places, Israel also ended up with some 27 square miles of Arab villages, and (at the time) 70,000 new Arab subjects.

The ensuing months and years belied the intelligence predictions. The Russians and Americans never issued an ultimatum. Hussein never got back the West Bank. Eventually, suicide bombers and a Palestinian demographic threat replaced sieges and snipers. Jerusalem was configured all wrong to deal with the real security challenges that emerged.

The portions of Arab Jerusalem lopped off last week include the Kalandia-Atarot airstrip, long rendered useless by urban sprawl from the direction of Ramallah. A few years ago this move would have generated impassioned protests from the champions of “united Jerusalem, eternal capital of Israel.”

Today, though, Israelis are increasingly coming to recognize that sovereign rule over the Arab parts of Jerusalem offers only disadvantages for a Jewish and democratic country. Most Israelis seem to understand that reducing the size of Jerusalem is a small step — however ambivalent and complicated — in the right direction.

Like the security fence itself. Like disengagement.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.

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