Glory days for Jerusalem? It depends whom you ask
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Right-wing Israelis in Jerusalem have had much to celebrate this week, but their happiness serves to highlight the disenfranchisement felt by Palestinians across the social spectrum.
It’s been a heady few days for Israeli nationalists in Jerusalem. US Presidential advisors Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner are in town to attend the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem Monday, which also happens to be the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel. For many religious and conservatives here, the move is a long-awaited recognition of what for them was always an incontrovertible truth: Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
On Sunday, as many as 45,000 mostly right-wing, mostly teenage Israelis who had been bused in from throughout the country, descended on the city to celebrate Jerusalem Day, which commemorates the 1967 Israeli seizure and annexation of the Old City and East Jerusalem, a day of joyful unification for the dancing and marching celebrants.
And, if all that wasn’t enough to make an Israeli burst with joy, the nation won the Eurovision song contest on Saturday night, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “next year in Jerusalem”, which Jews in the diaspora have recited at the end of the Passover Seder since at least the 1500s to mark their desire to return to a rebuilt Jerusalem. On Saturday, though, it meant that next year’s Eurovision contest would be held in the holy city.
For a religious Israeli, it could well feel like God is smiling upon his chosen people.
But every coin has a flip side, and here that side is the Palestinian people who, in Jerusalem, share a tiny piece of the world’s most revered ground with Israelis and for whom recent events have been yet another stark reminder of their disenfranchisement.
“They are dealing with us as if we are nothing,” said Fathi Sabari, a 57-year-old shopkeeper on Sultan Suleiman Street in East Jerusalem, where most of the city’s Arabs live. Sabari’s shop is a short walk from the Damascus Gate, which leads into the Old City, where he was born. Sabari was seven when his father was injured by Israeli forces during the 1967 capture of the Old City and retains vivid memories of that day.
Sabari sees the transfer of the US embassy as just another chess move in a geopolitical game that shows little concern for Palestinians. “If a superpower wants to do something, what can we do?” he asked. “What I don’t like in this is that the Americans are giving the Israelis something they call a right, and what rights do they give to the Arabs?”
Palestinians in the Muslim-dominated marketplace in the Old City on the other side of the Damascus Gate shared similar sentiments.
“We are humans,” said a 47-year-old municipal worker who identified himself only as Fouad. “We are not animals. We are the same as the Jewish people.”
Fouad saw the embassy relocation as a provocation, a sentiment echoed by others in the market, who worried that the move might result in the all-too-familiar cycle of violence and retaliation, and ultimately take a financial toll on them. Fouad felt that the Palestinians had been let down not only by the US but also by the other Arab states, most notably Saudi Arabia, which has moved largely in sync with the Trump administration on issues pertaining to the Middle East.
Huda Imam, founder of the Centre for Jerusalem Studies at Al-Quds University, said that the lack of action on the part of the international community is hard to accept. “The silence is difficult for us,” she said. She rejects the notion of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel only. Not only is it the capital of Palestine, too, she said, but the spiritual and symbolic capital of people from all over the world.
'It's a step on the way'
That their Palestinian counterparts feel disenfranchised and overlooked had little importance to the Jews who flooded Jerusalem on Sunday to celebrate its reunification 71 years earlier. For them all that mattered was that their holy city was theirs, and that it was now being recognised by the US and other countries as Israel’s capital.
The day was significant “for us as Jews, coming back after so many years, uniting the city, being able to go to the most holy places”, said Moriah Ackerman, a 28-year-old settler who had come into Jerusalem with her husband and three young children for the festivities.
Her husband, 27-year-old Yosef Ackerman, said that he was overjoyed at the embassy move. “It means something, because America is recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel for the first time.” While that in and of itself was reason to rejoice, he recognised that much of the world had not made the same determination. Still, he said: “It’s a step on the way.”
Many in the crowd, like Gideon Israel, a 35-year-old who was born and raised in the US and moved to Israel when he was 18, rejected not only the idea of Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital but the very notion of a Palestinian state. For him, the US embassy move – for which he campaigned for years though his organisation the Jerusalem-Washington Center – was more than a recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, it was the beginning of the rolling back of the Oslo peace accords.
The move goes far beyond symbolism in his view. “As long as the embassy was in Tel Aviv, it was as if the state of Israel was created by the United Nations,” he said. The relocation is “an admission that Israel is in Jerusalem because of an historic connection”.
Like many celebrants at the march who said they welcomed peaceful relations with the Palestinians, but in a united Jerusalem and a single state, Yosef Ackerman said that, he too, would like to live in harmony with not only the Palestinians but the broad array of people who inhabit this small slice of sacred ground. When asked if that seemed unlikely given the current state of affairs, he shrugged and said that things take time.
“Fifty-six years is not such a long time,” he said. “We’ve been around for 6,000 years. We’re not afraid of time.”