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Jonmos having done an excellent job of covering the history of Jerusalem from the Jewish/Israeli perspective, I figured it was time to take a look at the same story from the other side of the fence. This is the story of the Arab districts, known today as East Jerusalem.

Medieval Jerusalem

The idea of "East Jerusalem" as a separate entity is a new one. Since the 700s or so, the Old City has been divided into four sections, known as the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian Quarters. Of these, the Christian Quarter is largely Arab and the Muslim Quarter is entirely Arab, while the Jewish and Armenian Quarters are, obviously, populated almost entirely by Jews and Armenians.

But before we proceed, a brief look back into a few events missing from jonmos's writeup:

Islamic History

The primary reason Jerusalem is regarded as holy by Muslims -- in fact, it is usually called simply al-Quds, "The Holy" -- is that in 621 AD the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount. This voyage is known as the Miraj or Night Journey, and whether it happened in physical reality or within a dream is irrelevant in terms of faith, since the event is noted in Sura 17 of the Qur'an:

Glorified be He Who carried His servant by night from the inviolable Place of Worship (Al-Masdjid Al-Haram) to the far Distant Place of Worship (Al-Masdjid Al-Aqsa) the neighbourhood whereof We have blessed, that We might show him Our tokens!
In 687 AD, Caliph Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock on the presumed spot of the ascension, which reportedly even has Muhammad's footprint on it. Alas, according to Jewish and Christian tradition this is the same spot where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac, which is why it is holy to Jews as well and why the Temple was built there, setting the stage of centuries of warfare and mutual hostility as the two sides competed for ownership. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

The Beginning of the Conflict

During the late 1800s Jerusalem started to boom and settlements outside the city walls started to spring up at a rapid pace. These settlements were mostly Jewish and mostly to the north and west of the city, whereas the Arabs expanded mostly to the east. Still, there were no clear-cut division lines, and in its 1947 partition plan the United Nations recommended that Jerusalem be made an international city belonging to neither side. The Jewish Agency grudgingly agreed, then backtracked; the Arabs opposed the idea from the start.

The Division of Jerusalem

With the end of the Mandate in 1948 came war, and even before the end came fighting in the streets of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is in a strategically crucial spot, guarding the road to Jericho and thus the way to the only bridge across the Jordan River. Jewish fighters systematically conquered and occupied Arab districts like Katamon, the (mostly outgunned) Arabs tried to do the same to Jewish districts, consolidating an west-east battle line.

The crown jewel for both sides was the Old City. The Jews had already made quite a bit of headway, capturing the Tower of David (Citadel) and encroaching on the rest, when King Abdullah of Jordan made the decision to send his army to aid and start the war. The tables were turned and the Haganah was on the defensive, hard put to defend even the western New City; after ten days of holding out, the Jewish Quarter fell and was razed. Fighting elsewhere continued at varying levels of intensity for months.

An armistice was signed in February 1949, with the Old City and several Jewish districts -- henceforth East Jerusalem -- in Arab hands, and the core of the New City and Mount Scopus -- West Jerusalem -- still held by the Israelis. The Jewish section of the city, connected to the mainland only by a thin strip of land, remained virtually under siege and the dividing line became a strongly fortified impermeable border much like the Berlin Wall (except that civilians were not very keen on visiting the other side!). The Israeli section was declared the capital of Israel, while (over loud objections from the Arab League) the Arab part was annexed by Jordan in 1950.

The Reunification of Jerusalem

Following the calamitous defeat of the Arab forces in the 1967 Six Day War, Israel reconquered all of Jerusalem and placed the entire area under the administration of the Munipality of Jerusalem. The Arab settlements that had sprung up in the former Jewish quarter were promptly razed (tit for tat!), becoming the current expansive plaza in front of the Wailing Wall, and the Jewish quarter was rebuilt from scratch. In 1980, the Knesset passed legislation making a unified Jerusalem the capital of Israel in perpetua.

About the only official sign of Jerusalem's internationally disputed status is that, to this day, nearly all foreign embassies are located in Tel Aviv, despite much Israeli pleading. (A very few countries with especially good relations, including Costa Rica but not the United States, have complied.) Israel has also refrained from officially annexing East Jerusalem, placing it in a bizarre legal limbo of being half-Israeli, half-territory. The probable reason for this is that official annexation would have required making the residents of East Jerusalem full Israeli citizens, which would have severely hampered Jewish control over the area.

But Wait, There's More...

Needless to say, the Arabs weren't particularly happy about losing their control of East Jerusalem, there just wasn't much they could do. The Palestine Liberation Organization and, less loudly, its successor the Palestianian Authority continue to maintain that al-Quds is also perpetual capital of Palestine, and Palestinian towns are filled with longing posters about returning to Jerusalem. Israel, of course, is not happy at all about this and the slightest signs of an official PA presence in East Jerusalem, or in fact any non-Israeli civil administration at all, are immediately squashed (cf. the cases of the Orient House and East Jerusalem's unofficial mayor Sari Nusseibeh).

Alas, Israeli policy towards East Jerusalem is largely one of total neglect, and if driving or walking along the potholed and garbage-strewn streets of East Jerusalem you might well be excused for thinking that you are in a different city entirely. Acquiring building permits for Arab areas is notoriously difficult, and houses built without them are regularly bulldozed. Attempts by Arabs to buy new properties in the Old City have been denied on the grounds that they would disturb the homogeneity of the neighborhood, while current prime minister Ariel Sharon has purchased a house in the Muslim Quarter and, to better fit in, draped a bedsheet-sized Israeli flag from a window. (Guards are posted outside 24 hours a day at the Israeli taxpayer's expense.) The official policy of the Jerusalem Municipality is to maintain a Jewish majority in the city, which -- with Arab population growth outstripping Jewish population growth -- has in practice meant trying to quietly force the "excess" population out of Jerusalem.

Still, Arabs in East Jerusalem are better off than their benighted relatives in the Occupied Territories. They have municipal (but not national) voting rights, National Health Insurance (if they have ID cards), are more or less free to move about Jerusalem, and have better access to jobs in Israel proper. This is why East Jerusalem has been relatively quiet during the intifada, as its inhabitants are for most part not willing to risk losing these advantages.

The Future

The status of Jerusalem is probably the single most difficult issue that will need to be solved in order to achieve peace, as neither side is willing to budge an inch. The idea of physically cordoning off the West Bank has been floated recently, but again Jerusalem stands in the way. If East Jerusalem is incorporated with West Jerusalem inside the border, there will be several hundred thousand Palestianians within the border, making it largely pointless. Placing East Jerusalem outside the border, on the other hand, would entail redividing the city, an even more unpalatable option.

My two agorot are that Israel will have to give way and grant Palestinians some sort of sovereignty over East Jerusalem, although I expect that it will be a long time until this happens. (Ehud Barak was too early in proposing this, and the ensuing outcry was one of the major reasons why he was voted out of office.) The Palestinians, after all, are no longer seriously demanding that all of Jerusalem belongs to them. Some ideas floated about include allowing a Palestinian capital on the outskirts of Jerusalem, say Abu Dis, which would allow the Israelis to maintain that the Palestinians are not in Jerusalem and the Palestinians to maintain that they are. Sounds bizarre? Welcome to the Middle East...

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