When Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resume Wednesday in Jerusalem, the negotiators must confront proposals to divide the city. These proposals would bring East Jerusalem under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority as the capital of a Palestinian state, while West Jerusalem would remain the capital of Israel.
The status of Jerusalem has long been one of the thorniest issues on the table in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has been widely reported that the Camp David talks in 2000 broke down over the question of sovereignty over Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated numerous times, “Jerusalem will never be divided.” However, as I witnessed during the five months I spent living and studying in Jerusalem earlier this year, Jerusalem is already de facto divided. Dividing the city legally is a logical next step — one that will be difficult, but is very necessary.
Jerusalem was officially divided between Israeli and Jordanian control from 1948-1967. Jewish holy sites such as the remains of the ancient Jewish Temple were located on the Jordanian side, and Jews were not allowed to access those holy sites. The 1967 war reunified Jerusalem, a fact that is celebrated every year in Israel on Jerusalem Day.
The following picture is an iconic image in Israeli minds, taken in 1967 as the first Israeli soldiers reached the Western Wall, the ruins of the ancient Jewish Temple:
Israel annexed Jerusalem and declared it the capital of Israel, although this has not been recognized by the international community. The U.S. Embassy remains in Tel Aviv, the internationally recognized capital of Israel.
Since the city's 1967 reunification, Israel has constructed new Israeli housing developments across the Green Line (i.e. in the part of the city formerly held by Jordan), complicating any efforts to re-divide the city. Much of this has been accomplished through the expropriation of Palestinian land. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the Israeli government has expropriated one-third of Palestinian lands in Jerusalem since 1967.
Despite such efforts, 370,000 Palestinians reside in Jerusalem, making up 39% of the city’s population. Since 1967, they have been legally considered “permanent residents” of Israel, required to pay taxes and entitled to government services but ineligible to vote in general elections.
East Jerusalem is extremely underdeveloped and underserved by the government. In advance of Jerusalem Day 2013, ACRI released horrifying statistics about the situation of Palestinians living in the area, including the fact that 79.5% of East Jerusalem residents live below the poverty line.
Despite the legal reunification of Jerusalem, the city continues to be stratified between Israelis and Palestinian areas:
I studied and lived in Jerusalem for over five months earlier this year at the Hebrew University, which is located in East Jerusalem. My dorm was in the Jewish neighborhood of French Hill, which is located between the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and the Shua’fat Refugee Camp. During my time in Jerusalem, I could always tell whether I was in a Palestinian or an Israeli neighborhood. While the municipality posted signs in English, Hebrew, and Arabic, store-windows advertised discounted prices in Arabic or Hebrew depending on the neighborhood.
My friends and I often shopped at the Arab supermarket in Sheikh Jarrah, where the prices were much cheaper and the shopkeepers much friendlier than at the Israeli supermarket in French Hill. Yet I never ran into any Israelis while looking for cheaper Nutella in Sheikh Jarrah.
Atlantic writer Zvika Krieger observed a similar phenomenon, saying, “Most Israeli Jews have little familiarity with the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and splitting off these Arab neighborhoods would do little to alter their daily routine — Jerusalem is already a divided city.”
Since final status negotiations collapsed in 2000, numerous organizations have proposed detailed plans for formally divvying up the city.
The Old City presents the most serious challenge to these plans. Inside the walls of the Old City, holy sites from different religions are often located cheek by jowl. When I visited the Western Wall Plaza, I passed the entrance to the makeshift walking bridge that tourists could take to the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif in Arabic (a Muslim holy site that is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome Of the Rock).
To address the impracticality of physically dividing the Old City, many proposals place the Old City and the Holy Basin under international control or a special regime, to ensure universal access to religious sites.
Proposals to divide the city are not simple but they are necessary.
An Israeli refusal to divide the city would torpedo any peace deal with the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, said in June, “We won’t accept any city other than Jerusalem as our capital.” Any serious peace negotiations must take this into account, and plan to divide the city accordingly. As negotiators sit down in Jerusalem, hopefully their environs will force them to have an honest conversation about the reality of a peace deal. Dividing Jerusalem may be painful for all parties, but accepting that reality will also move the negotiations once step closer towards peace.