“Jerusalem is a shared gift for humanity”.


By James J. Zogby

*Excerpted from Saliba Sarsar, ed. What Jerusalem Means to Us: Christian Perspectives and Reflections. North Bethesda, MD: Holy Land Books/Noble Book Publishing Incorporated, 2018.  Dr. Saliba Sarsar is Professor of Political Science at Monmouth University and co-Founder and President/CEO of the Jerusalem Peace Institute.

**Dr. James J. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.    He was appointed by President Barack Obama to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2013. In addition to writing a weekly column published in 16 countries, Zogby is the creator and host of the award-winning call-in political television show “Viewpoint” and is frequently featured on national and international media. In 2010, Zogby published the highly acclaimed book, Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters. His 2013 e-book, Looking at Iran: The Rise and Fall of Iran in Arab Public Opinion, is drawn from his extensive polling across the Middle East with Zogby Research Services.

I first visited Jerusalem 23 years ago. I was there in my capacity as co-Chair of Builders for Peace, an American initiative launched by then Vice President Al Gore of Jewish and Arab American business leaders working to find ways to grow the Palestinian economy.

We stayed at the Palestinian-owned Ambassador Hotel – from which we could see the Dome of the Rock and the Mount of Olives. Early in my visit, I made a point of going to the Old City, walking its narrow passageways. And I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the magnificent Haram Al Sharif with its holy mosque. I also went to see the Wailing Wall. Witnessing Christians, Muslims, and Jews praying in such close proximity of one another, it is impossible not be moved by the city’s immense religious significance. This is the reality of the heavenly Jerusalem – spiritual center for the Abrahamic faiths.

There is, however, another Jerusalem. As I continued to come to the city, during the rest of the 1990s, I became acutely aware of another, all too often overlooked, aspect of Jerusalem and that is the fact that it was the center of life for millions of Palestinians. This is the earthly Jerusalem and it the story of this city that I want to tell.

Jerusalem was, as Faisal Husseini pointed out to me, the metropole. It was the beating heart of Palestinian life – the hub of their economic, cultural, social, and political activity. The city was not only the home of Palestine’s most important religious sites and institutions, it was also where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians throughout the occupied territories came to work or shop, go to school, receive medical treatment or social services, attend cultural events, or consult with professionals of all types. Even without a state, Jerusalem performed all the functions of a capital. It played the role that Washington, or Paris, or London play to the regions that surround them.

After the Israelis occupied all of Palestine in 1967, it wasn’t always easy for Palestinians to gain access to the city. There were periodic closures and checkpoints with which they had to contend. But, for the most part, even with the burdens imposed by the Israeli authorities, Jerusalem remained the hub.

One way that occupiers control perceptions is by naming their handiwork. The Israeli construct –

“Greater Jerusalem” – is a misnomer. When the Israelis announced this fiction a few years after the 1967 war, it included not just the eastern part of the city but a large swatch of West Bank land that included 28 other Palestinian villages. To mask this crime of illegal annexation, Israel began to call these villages “Arab neighborhoods,” while referring to their settlements as “Jewish neighborhoods” of Jerusalem.

Palestinian life changed dramatically in 1994 after a Jewish terrorist massacred 29 Muslim worshipers in a Hebron mosque. Fearing a Palestinian reaction, then Prime Minister Rabin imposed a closure – one that would never be lifted. In the years that followed, the closure became intense with more rigorous enforcement. Permits to enter the city became more difficult to obtain. Palestinian institutions in the city were shuttered and foreign groups were advised that they were forbidden from holding meetings of a political nature with Palestinians in the city.

All during this time settlements were growing. Even before Israel began building its notorious Wall, Jerusalem was being surrounded by a living concrete barrier. Standing on Jabal Hussein on the eastern outskirts of the city and looking to the north, east, and west, you could see ever-expanding Israeli settlements snaking up and down the hills enclosing the city with a wall of Jewish-only housing. Sandwiched in between some of them, you could make out smaller Palestinian villages. Their land had been taken for settlement construction and now these ancient communities were dwarfed by the new Israeli apartment compounds that were literally suffocating them. And to make matters more burdensome, there were massive highways cutting through the landscape further dividing Palestinians from each other, taking their land, and separating them from access to their metropole of Arab Jerusalem.

The impact of all this was immediate and was felt in all areas of life. Just a few years after the permanent closure was imposed, unemployment in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas had risen to shocking levels. Because Palestinians from the West Bank could no longer easily make it into the city, businesses and social and medical service facilities had to lay off employees and professional service providers closed their offices. Commercial enterprises were likewise suffering, as were cultural institutions.

On future visits with Builders for Peace, I found that we could no longer meet with Palestinians in Jerusalem. On one occasion, I accompanied then Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown who was to speak with Palestinian businessmen at the Ambassador Hotel. Halfway through his talk, a large group of Palestinians got up to leave. He turned to me asking if he had said something that had offended them. When I caught up with them outside of the hotel, a few men in the departing group told me that they had very much wanted to remain, but because they had come from outside of Jerusalem, they had to receive a special half-day pass from the Israeli military authorities. As it was getting late, they were forced to leave. If they missed the deadline for their return to the checkpoint, they feared they might either be arrested or disqualified from receiving permits in the future.

Late one night in Jerusalem, I engaged the night clerk at the Ambassador Hotel in conversation about what was happening to Jerusalemites. He had a Ph.D. in Psychology, but because patients could no longer come into the city, he had been forced to seek other employment. He feared that if he left the city to work in Ramallah, he would lose his Jerusalem residency. Because he knew that the Israelis wanted to depopulate the city of its Arab citizens, he insisted on remaining even if it meant working as a night clerk. His situation was not unusual. As a result, he noted, that there was widespread depression and a loss of hope. And he, worried aloud, that he didn’t know where this would lead.

Meanwhile, outside the closed off Jerusalem, abnormal growth was taking a toll. Ramallah, itself choked off from normal expansion by Israeli land seizures, now came to serve as a substitute capital housing many of the functions that had once been in Jerusalem. Property values became too high for most residents and because the city became bloated with construction, congestion became burdensome.

Then came the construction of the Wall, which once again, Israel tried to camouflage by insisting it be called a “barrier.” In fact, throughout the environs of Jerusalem it is a 28-foot concrete wall complete with watch towers at intervals along the way as it cuts through the West Bank and several Palestinian communities. It has completed the separation and strangulation of Arab Jerusalem, further impoverishing its citizens. And it has accelerated settlement construction the confiscation of Palestinian land – creating captive Palestinian populations in “Greater Jerusalem” and its environs.

Within the Wall, thousands of Palestinian homes have been demolished by Israeli authorities because the Israelis say they were built without necessary permits – precisely because the Israelis will not issue permits to Palestinians. Thousands of Palestinians have had their residency in the city terminated either because they were forced to find work outside of the city or because they married someone from the West Bank and are not allowed to bring their spouses to live with them in the city. And the Israelis continue to take over more Palestinian properties in “Arab neighborhoods” turning them over to settler groups to create new hostile military-protected colonies in the heart of Arab areas. The entire situation is deplorable.

In short, while heavenly Jerusalem will live on, continuing to inspire the faithful of the three Abrahamic religions, the earthly Jerusalem is being transformed by the Israeli occupiers into a hell on earth for the 300,000 Palestinians who steadfastly remain in the city. Attention must be paid to this reality.

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