What We Can Learn from Jerusalem Day 2015

On May 17, Israel marked the 48th anniversary of the “reunification” of Jerusalem, or in the eyes of the city’s Palestinians, the anniversary of the occupation of East Jerusalem.

Marking the day: actions/provocations on the ground.  Jerusalem Day celebrations in Jerusalem have in recent years been co-opted by right-wing religious-nationalists aligned with the settlements and the Greater Israel enterprise. East Jerusalem Palestinians are now subjected to the annual Jerusalem Day “March of Flags,” an event characterized by crowds of Israeli youths parading through the Muslim Quarter (en route to the Western Wall), singing and carrying signs making clear that Jerusalem – all of it – belongs exclusively and forever to Jews, and often chanting racist, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim slogans, including in recent years “death to Arabs” and “Mohammed is dead.”   Notwithstanding the open incitement seen in previous years (much of which is on video), and notwithstanding the hardships the march imposes on Palestinians living in the area (who for their own safety must shutter their shops and stay inside), Israeli courts rejected a plea by Israeli civil society NGOs to compel the marchers to adopt a less provocative route.  This year, Israeli police having publicly declared a long overdue zero-tolerance policy for incitement, vandalism, and hooliganism associated with the march. In addition, pro-peace Israeli groups organized a counter-march intended to defuse the racist message of the day.  In the end, there were some clashes, predictably, outside the OId City, at Damascus Gate.  Photos here.

Marking the day: rhetoric: Every year, Jerusalem Day is an occasion for Israeli political leaders to declare their fealty to the Jerusalem mantra – Jerusalem as “the-eternal-capital -of-Israel-that-will-never-be-re-divided.” This year was no different.  Speaking at a Jerusalem Day event, perennial Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that “We will forever keep Jerusalem united under Israeli sovereignty” and asserted that, “Jerusalem was only ever the capital of the Jewish people, not of any other people… Here our path as a nation began, this is our home and here we shall stay.”  The following day, during a Knesset session marking Jerusalem Day, Netanyahu made clear his intention to continue settlement construction in East Jerusalem, stating, “I have a clear position — we build in Jerusalem… We don’t build to clash with the international community, we do this responsibly and judiciously because this is our natural right…” Netanyahu also used the day to goad opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni over their own commitment to undivided Jerusalem.  It should be noted that on May 19, it was announced that the Prime Minister’s office was taking over responsibility for Jerusalem affairs (in the last government, the Office of Jerusalem Affairs was under the authority of Minister Naftali Bennett).

Responding to Netanyahu, a spokesman for Palestinian President Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, told the media that “There shall never be peace or stability in the Middle East without East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.” It is worth noting that media reporting this statement appeared to universally treat Rudeineh’s statement as a mirror image of Netanyahu’s, when in fact, as has long been the case, Netanyahu is claiming ALL of Jerusalem for Israel (a position that is wholly incompatible with the two-state solution), and the Palestinians are claiming only East Jerusalem for a future state of Palestine (a position that is widely understood as the basis of a negotiated agreement over the city).

Netanyahu’s new Minister of Construction Uri Ariel, a longtime champion of the settlement movement, used Netanyahu’s words to taunt U.S. President Barack Obama on Twitter, tweeting“@POTUS welcome!  Happy Jerusalem Day! in case u didn׳t hear PM Netanyahu: “Jerusalem won’t be divided again, we build all over the city”. Ariel also seized the day to make his own statements on the issue, including when he said: “Will Jerusalem will be divided? No. Will Jerusalem be built? Yes. We are all united in continuing the rebuilding of Jerusalem.” He went on, saying, “…beyond the Jordan to the west there will only be one state and that is the State of Israel.  All the rest is rubbish. It should be clear that there is only one Jerusalem and it belongs to the people of Israel. We will continue to build our country. Your spirit and the spirit of the people of Israel are impossible to defeat.”

In addition, two of Netanyahu’s most dangerous potential challengers, Gideon Sa’ar and Gilad Erdan, took advantage of Jerusalem Day to publicly challenge Netanyahu over his readiness to build in East Jerusalem.  Sa’ar stated, “This is the day to say in a clear voice that we should build massively and significantly in all parts of Jerusalem…This is the time to do it. I call upon the prime minister. Talking about building is not enough. Enough talking. Let’s build.” Erdan said Israel should build in all areas of Jerusalem, “without being deterred by or afraid of international pressure.”

Israeli President Rubi Rivlin struck a more conciliatory note, stating, “As a Jerusalemite and a lover of the city, I ask today about peace in my united Jerusalem, which stands above all bargaining. My Jerusalem is Zion and Zionism, and yet it does not belong only to its history it belongs first and foremost to its people, and to all its residents: secular, religious and Haredi, Arabs and Jews. And in my united Jerusalem there is west and there is an east and there are no secondary sons, there are no secondary Jerusalemites.”

Marking the day: making plans: In addition to stating his intention to build in Jerusalem, the Prime Minister’s office used the occasion of Jerusalem Day to announce plans (on May 19) to move forward with an ambitious plan to “develop” the Western Wall area.  The plan involves major changes to the status quo on the ground in the area surrounding the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, and is thus guaranteed to spark controversy and protest. For more, see: Arutz Sheva, May 19: Gov’t. Approves Series of Moves for Strengthening of Jerusalem; Arutz Sheva, May 19: Cabinet Approves Plan to Further Develop the Kotel.   Also, new Minister of Culture and Sports Miri Regev announced that her first move as minister would be to move the ministry’s headquarters to Jerusalem; she also announced that the ceremony in which she would take over the ministry would be held not in Tel Aviv, but in a little-used ministry facility in Sheikh Jarrah.

The State of East Jerusalem, 2015:   In honor of Jerusalem Day, the Israeli civil society group ACRI released its annual report on the state of the city’s eastern part: East Jerusalem 2015: Facts and Figures  The report covers the socio-economic data (income, employment, schools, housing, etc), data related to arrests and violence, data related to Israeli government policies, including investment in the eastern part of the city, and more.  The report was challenged by a representative of Jerusalem Mayor Barkat’s office, who suggested that for political reasons ACRI was trying to hide “huge investments” and ignore “specific budgets.”  This same representative reportedly also strong rejected the accusation that Palestinian residents of the city have a hard time getting permission to build legally.  She reportedly insisted that housing permits are allocated based on “One thing and one thing only… legal ownership of land.” (For reporting on ACRI report, see: JPost,  May 13, 75% of east Jerusalem residents live below poverty line, says NGO; +972, May 17: For Jerusalem’s Palestinians, a city of poverty and division).  For 2014 statistics, other data points, and links regarding Jerusalem, see: +972 May 28, 2014: Jerusalem by the numbers: Poverty, segregation and discrimination.  Also of interest, this report from Haaretz, May 15: As Israel celebrates a unified Jerusalem, the city is losing its Jewish residents

Further reading:

NYT, May 18: A Celebration of Jerusalem’s Unification Helps Point Up Its Divisions

LA Times, May 18: As Israel marks 1967 unification of Jerusalem, Palestinians feel left out

Haaretz, May 18: Israeli right-wing groups appeal planned Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem