As you walk the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, you may find it hard to believe that Israelis and Palestinians are in their 63rd year of conflict. In the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, Arab shopkeepers hawk their merchandise not only to tourists but also to their Jewish Israeli neighbors; you’re as likely to hear Hebrew spoken as Arabic; and most of the time, you can’t tell by looking who is a Jew and who is an Arab. At the end of the day, most of the Arabs who work in the Old City return to their homes in East Jerusalem, and most of the Jews retreat to West Jerusalem, but the two communities mix here daily, and they get along as well as people in any other civilized city. There is little crime and even less political violence. It certainly isn’t a war zone.
This de facto peace may be the foundation for a genuine and lasting peace one day. Most proponents of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, would drive an international border through the Old City, dividing it—and the rest of Jerusalem—between the two sides. As divided cities around the world have shown, such a plan would be unlikely to work. Not only might it spell the collapse of a delicate and hard-earned status quo; it could wreak lasting damage on a city beloved by both peoples.
Before 1948, Jerusalem had a Jewish majority. But in May of that year, the British Mandate in Palestine expired, Israel declared its independence, and the new country was promptly invaded by Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. The war lasted until the following year, when Israel signed separate armistice agreements with each of the aggressors. The Jordanian-Israeli armistice line, drawn where each army happened to be standing at the time of the cease-fire, slashed right through the center of Jerusalem, with the Jordanians controlling the eastern, northern, and southern sectors (what today is generally called “East Jerusalem”) and the Israelis controlling western Jerusalem and an enclave in the east on Mount Scopus. The line became known as the Green Line. Neither Israel nor Jordan ever declared it a border; each side hoped that it was temporary and that Jerusalem’s final status would be decided later, either by negotiation or by conquest.
Israel’s toehold in western Jerusalem was surrounded on three sides and connected to the rest of the country by a narrow strip of land just a few miles wide. Jordanian soldiers held the high ground overlooking that corridor and the rest of the city, and despite the armistice, they frequently fired artillery shells, mortars, and sniper rounds at Jewish civilians on the Israeli side of the Green Line. Jews caught on the Jordanian side were even less fortunate; those who weren’t expelled were killed or taken to prison camps, and their property was confiscated or destroyed. The Jordanians ravaged Jewish cultural and holy sites in East Jerusalem—bulldozing an enormous 2,000-year-old cemetery on the Mount of Olives, razing the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and reducing synagogues to rubble. Abdullah el Tell, a Jordanian commander and later the military governor of the Old City, even boasted about it. “For the first time in 1,000 years, not a single Jew remains in the Jewish Quarter,” he said. “Not a single building remains intact. This makes the Jews’ return here impossible.”
Jordan, Egypt, and Syria launched their second war of annihilation in 1967. This time, the Israelis defeated all three armies in six days and pushed the 1949 armistice lines outward, taking the Golan Heights from Syria; the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt; and the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem, from Jordan. Egypt and Jordan later relinquished their claims to Gaza and the West Bank, and Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt. Israel never formally annexed those territories because adding millions of Palestinian Arabs to its population would threaten its Jewish majority over the long term.
But East Jerusalem was another story. Israel did annex that—partly because Israelis yearned to reunite their capital but also because they had vowed never again to let a hostile army surround them on high ground. And one of the first things the government did was to build Jewish neighborhoods in empty areas formerly used by the Jordanian army. (Some of the new neighborhoods, in fact, were in places that had been Jewish before the Jordanians destroyed them after 1948.) Today, about 200,000 Israeli Jews live in East Jerusalem, in neighborhoods like French Hill, Ramat Shlomo, and Gilo, on what was once the Jordanian side of the Green Line. Residents can look down the dizzying heights into the heart of the city from hilltops once occupied by snipers and artillery crews.
“Annexing East Jerusalem was a dramatic event,” says Orly Noy of the Ir Amim organization, an Israeli center-left, human rights nonprofit. “That meant that, at least according to Israel, all of Jerusalem became a part of the sovereign state of Israel.” She unfolds a map of Jerusalem that her organization has produced. It shows the Green Line and another line, this one blue, which marks the edge of Jerusalem since annexation. The blue line, dividing Jerusalem from the West Bank, is what Israel now considers its national border.
The Green Line is invisible in Jerusalem. You’d have no idea where it was just by looking. “After annexation, it became a national task to erase the Green Line,” Noy says. “We didn’t want anything to remind us that the city was ever divided.” The blue line on Ir Amim’s map, though, can’t be missed. During the Second Intifada, in the 2000s, the Israeli government built an imposing concrete wall along the border to keep Palestinian suicide bombers from the West Bank out of Israel. “Most of us don’t expect a real peace any time soon,” says Israeli historian Yaacov Lozowick, author of the books Hitler’s Bureaucrats and Right to Exist. “So we suspect that the reality of that barrier after several decades will become the border.”
That, of course, is where Jerusalem’s history becomes relevant to Israelis’ and Palestinians’ future. Palestinian negotiators say that they will refuse to sign a treaty unless East Jerusalem is ceded to them for their capital. That is, they want the border between Israel and a Palestinian state to be the old Green Line. (I’m referring to those Palestinians who say that they’re willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist. The terrorist organization Hamas insists that Israel must cease to exist inside any borders; and even Fatah, the more moderate organization that currently controls the West Bank, only in 2010 changed its charter to avoid mentioning the elimination of Israel.)
The Israelis, meanwhile, regard the blue line, which is near where the concrete barrier stands, as the de facto border already and the starting point for a negotiated border in the future. “Around 200,000 Jews live in neighborhoods built on the other side of the 1967 [Green] line,” Deputy Mayor Yakir Segev tells me. “These neighborhoods have always been considered parts of Israel that will remain under Israeli sovereignty in any agreement. No one will dream of evacuating these big Jewish neighborhoods in the name of anything. All Israelis, and even the Palestinian Authority, understand that we’re going to keep these neighborhoods and give them something else in return.” This understanding, though, didn’t prevent a major brouhaha from erupting in 2010, when the Obama administration harshly criticized Israel’s decision to end a construction freeze and build 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo.
What to do about the controversial territory between the Green Line and the blue line? In 2000, President Bill Clinton suggested drawing a border according to demography. Jewish-majority areas between the two lines would go to Israel, while Arab-majority areas would go to a Palestinian state. When something much like this was proposed at the time of Israel’s founding, the Arab countries refused partition and opted for war. Again in 2000, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refused the American-Israeli partition offer at Camp David and launched a war of suicide bombers. Yet again in 2008, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert offered a partition plan that would give the Palestinians sovereignty over most Arab-majority areas; Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said no.
One day, however, the Palestinians may say yes, so a nonprofit called the Geneva Initiative, based in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, has drawn up maps showing how to divide Jerusalem largely according to Clinton’s parameters. Jewish population centers on the once-Jordanian side of the Green Line would be Israeli territory (as would the geographically contiguous settlement blocs in the West Bank). In exchange, smaller and more remote Israeli settlements would be evacuated and ceded to a Palestinian state. Many Israelis would find this acceptable if a stable and enduring peace were to follow.
If you limit your attention to the parts of Jerusalem far from the city’s center, the Geneva Initiative’s map may seem sensible. Some Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, such as Um Tuba and Sur Baher, look and feel like clean and prosperous sections of Baghdad. Israeli Jews don’t live there or want to. The same holds for much of what is technically Jerusalem to the north and south. The official city limits go all the way up to Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority has its offices, and all the way down to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. The suburban areas here are Jerusalem only in name and almost entirely Palestinian. When I drove to these areas in my rental car, I felt as though I’d left not only Jerusalem but Israel itself.
But that relatively simple solution won’t work in the “Holy Basin,” an area surrounded on all sides by hills that includes the Old City of Jerusalem and its holy sites—above all, the Western Wall of the ancient Jewish temple, al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Most proposals for dividing the Basin would give the Old City’s Muslim, Christian, and Armenian Quarters to a Palestinian state, along with holy and historic sites outside the walls of the Old City, such as the Mount of Olives and the City of David. “Most Israelis,” Lozowick says, “are very uneager to have that area go to the Palestinians.”
Opposition to such a division isn’t limited to Israeli Jews. An increasing number of Jerusalem’s Arabs are also uneager to be shoved over to a Palestinian state. Back in 1967, after Israel annexed East Jerusalem, it offered the Arab locals citizenship. Few accepted it at the time, so Israel declared the locals residents of Jerusalem, issued them the same identification cards that Israeli citizens used, and gave them all the legal rights of citizenship except for eligibility to vote for members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. (They can vote in local elections, though most choose not to.) Since then, they’ve enjoyed the substantial benefits of living in Israel, and they’ve developed a unique political culture. Hardly any participated in the Second Intifada, for instance. Hillel Cohen, author of The Rise and Fall of Arab Jerusalem, tells me that in Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods, “the mainstream is against armed struggle.”
And over the last few years, thousands have finally accepted the offer of citizenship. “They feel threatened by the fact that they might be forced to become citizens of Palestine,” Lozowick says, “so 12,000 to 15,000 of them have recently filed citizenship papers. And about 20,000 of them were already Israeli citizens. The number is growing all the time. There is tremendous social and political pressure on them from the Palestinians in the West Bank not to do that, because everybody recognizes that if the number of Arabs in East Jerusalem reaches a critical mass of Israeli citizens, then Israel will not be able to divide Jerusalem. The entire city will be made up of Israeli citizens.”
This isn’t to say that Jerusalem’s Palestinians are devoted to Israel. On the one hand, they’re loyal to their people’s cause; on the other, they have more political, civil, and human rights than Arabs have in the West Bank, Gaza, or any of the Arab-majority countries. “There are two different political lexicons among the Palestinians, and you can hear both from the same people,” Cohen says. “A person will tell you the Jews should be killed because they’re the enemies of God, they don’t have any rights here, and so on. But the next day, he’ll say, ‘We’re all brothers, we’re all human beings, we have to coexist here in the Holy Land.’ I hear both from the same people.”
I ask one Arab shopkeeper in the Old City: If Jerusalem were to be divided, which side of the border would you want to live on? “The Israeli side!” he says instantly and emphatically, as if there were no other possible answer. I can’t imagine his saying the opposite later. “None of us want anything to do with the Palestinian Authority. They are corrupt. They are impossible. They are not straight. No one can deal with those people.” He doesn’t think that the Israelis are “straight” either, but he insists that they’re better. “Which side would you rather live on?” he asks me rhetorically.
But another Arab shopkeeper in the Old City says the opposite—“Some want to stay in Israel because the economy is better, but not me”—and like the Palestinians Cohen describes, he proceeds to contradict himself. “I’ll compromise on the 1967 lines, even though I don’t like it,” he says, sounding like a reasonable moderate. “If I don’t compromise on the 1967 lines, I will get nothing.” Not 20 minutes later, he’s yearning for apocalypse: “I hope Iran gets the bomb. I am ready to die. As long as Israel is destroyed, I am ready to die.”
Despite the immense difficulties, many Israelis think that a partition of Jerusalem will happen one day, and some are planning for it. One of them is urban planner Israel Kimche, whom the municipality hired in the 1960s to plan for the reunification of Jerusalem and who is now working on plans for redivision. Like most Israelis, he hates the idea, and not only because of his past work. He has visited every divided city in the world, and he does not like what he has seen. Everyone remembers the terrible wall that divided Berlin during the Cold War, but fewer know what Nicosia, on the island of Cyprus, looks like today. The Turkish military controls the northern half of the city, while the (Greek) Cypriot government maintains its hold on the south. Kimche has seen it, and so have I. A ghastly and heavily militarized dead zone cuts Nicosia in half, including the most beautiful part of the Old City. Kimche vividly recalls the years before 1967, when Jerusalem was in a similarly wretched condition. “It was terrible,” he said. “We had minefields in the city.”
I become still more dubious about partition as Lozowick and I take a walking tour of the Old City and the Holy Basin, following the Green Line with the help of the Geneva Initiative’s map. It looks a lot less plausible on the ground than it does in satellite photographs, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that dividing the Holy Basin might be impossible. Take the neighborhood of Abu Tor, on a hill just south of the Old City. The eastern side is Arab, and the western side is Jewish. The Green Line runs through its center. It would be easy enough, theoretically, to make the Green Line the border between Israel and a Palestinian state.
But that border would go right down the middle of a street where Jews live on one side and Arabs live on the other. If a wall or a fence were erected on that border, residents wouldn’t be able to drive down their own street. And if there were no wall or a fence, anyone could cross the border without passing through customs or security: tourists, spies, job-seekers, and suicide bombers. A Palestinian could throw a hand grenade into Israel from inside his living room, and vice versa. What would happen if Hamas took over the West Bank, as it already has the Gaza Strip, and placed terrorist nests mere feet from houses in the center of Israel’s capital? For that matter, how would the Palestinians feel if their neighbors across the street lived in a democracy with social security, health care, and high wages, while they lived in a corrupt authoritarian system without any rights? “No one here is a settler,” Lozowick reminds me. “This is the pre-1967 border. No one can say, ‘The Israelis shouldn’t be here so close to the Arabs.’ This is where the original line was. There are a lot of places like this in Jerusalem.”
Drawing a new border would be even harder inside the walls of the Old City. On a street near the Armenian Quarter, a house that the Geneva Initiative has slated for Israel is wedged between two houses that would go to a Palestinian state. Houses in the Old City are ancient. They lean on one another. It is physically impossible to weave a border between them. Only a European Union–style non-border without a fence, wall, customs booth, or security checkpoint could exist inside the Old City. Things are even stranger where the Muslim Quarter abuts the Jewish Quarter. Arabs own shops at street level, while Jews own apartments upstairs. According to the Geneva Initiative, the ground floor on that street would be Palestinian and the second floor Israeli.
I ask Lozowick if the people who drew this theoretical border have walked around the Old City and actually looked at their proposal. “I asked them that,” he says, “and they wouldn’t answer. They wave their hands.”
Next, I drive to the already-divided city of Hebron in the West Bank. I’ve visited many places in Israel and the West Bank, and none is more disturbing than Hebron, where 500 Jewish settlers live in a cramped section of the mostly Palestinian city. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers are stationed there to protect them because they’re often shot at by their neighbors. Tourists occasionally drop by to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the second-holiest Jewish site in the world, but they understand that there’s a chance they’ll be murdered.
As a result of the strife, Israeli soldiers have locked down a large swath of the Arab neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the Jewish area. Shops are closed, their doors welded shut and covered with spray paint. This is in Hebron’s Old City, a part of town that would overflow with thousands of tourists and pilgrims from all over the world if it weren’t an ugly, war-torn slum. What the Israeli military calls the “sterile zone” was once a vibrant ancient city; today, it looks like a ghost town.
This, Lozowick wrote in his blog, “is what happens when Israelis and Palestinians agree to divide a city, but can’t agree to live together in peace. The blame for lack of peace is irrelevant: each side will doubtlessly say it’s all the fault of the other, but the result won’t be any nicer thereby. The myriads of observers, pundits, politicians, dreamers, visionaries and true believers who all know for a certainty that dividing Jerusalem is the key to peace in the Middle East, need urgently to visit Hebron.”
The same overoptimistic attitude, in fact, characterizes the entire Middle Eastern peace process, in which a number of major players, including the most experienced diplomats, have convinced themselves that they know what the future holds. “Many people still say, ‘We all know what the final settlement is going to look like, so we just need to get the two sides together and work it out,’ ” Israeli political analyst Jonathan Spyer tells me. “To that I say: ‘No, you don’t know what the final status is going to look like. The final status you have in mind is what you came up with by negotiating with yourself.’ ”
It has been years since I’ve managed to find an optimist who lives in the region and believes that the conflict will end soon. Hillel Cohen sums up this grim realism when I ask him what he expects for Jerusalem 50 years from now. “Some war,” he says, shrugging. “Some peace. Some negotiations. The usual stuff.”