JERUSALEM-Around the world, the phenomenon of settlements captures headlines. Before coming to Israel, such headlines for me provoked images of Haredi families living in caravans in the middle of the dessert or old-fashioned couples in Oregon trail-esque wagons settling beyond the “green” frontier. My understanding of the situation was an oversimplification of the reality; I thought of a narrative of the greedy, Israeli, extreme right-wingers who wanted to take away any possibility of a Palestinian state. In some cases, especially in the West Bank, this narrative holds, but living here has shown me that, like with most of the conflict, it isn’t always so simple. So far from simple, in fact, that on Friday I found myself amid a crowd of extremely well armed police and protesters screaming “1, 2, 3, 4, occupation no more!” and other various Arabic and Hebrew chants, debating whether the two bangs I just heard down the road were gunshots fired at protesters.
After weeks of seeing the Israeli flags in Arab neighborhoods, hearing from Palestinians and left and right wing settlers (and everything in between), I remained unclear about the nature of settlements in East Jerusalem. Last weekend, though, I spent a day touring these neighborhoods with a human rights organization, Ir Amim. Throughout the internationally unrecognized conquered land beyond the green lines, settlements have continually grown and developed.
Contrary to my image of them, there’s quite a wide range. There is Gilo, which is beyond the Green Line, but home to 30,000 Jerusalemites and looks identical to West Jerusalem, if not even spiffier. Stone complexes are surrounded with ample parking, sidewalks, overflowing gardens, and more. The area boasts the addresses of many left-wingers, including people I know. Many don’t realize it’s technically a Palestinian settlement; they live there because it’s cheaper, not for ideological reasons. More than half of Jews live in neighborhoods beyond the green lines.
Moving closer to the headline narrative, enter: clear-cut Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem where Israelis have bought “outposts.” On face value, these unofficial Israeli settlements appear obnoxious. They wave huge Israeli flags, post menorahs the size of houses in their backyards, and offer absurd amounts of money to buy out current Palestinian residents (unless they take over the land illegally). One resident in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan told me about dozens of times settlers have offered up to $7 million for his father’s small plot of land. Those who sell, though, often face violence if they stick around: a Palestinian who sold his house to a settler on top of the Mount of Olives was found butchered in the back of a car a few years back. Beyond the obvious appearance of invasion, though, the government differential treatment of the two demographic groups becomes stark in such neighborhoods.
In the Palestinian area, 1,200 schools are missing. Roads in Arab neighborhoods haven’t been repaved since an American project in 1966 and disallow two cars from comfortably passing each other. They are marked by an absence of sidewalks, and are lined with run-down shops and political graffiti for Hamas, Fatah, and Popular Front.
Most Arab-Israelis refuse to vote because they do not recognize Israel’s occupation of the area, and this leads to little representation in the government. Without representation, trash doesn’t get picked up, schools don’t get built, permits are not given, and the systematic racism perpetuates, but this happens largely within Israeli law. Palestinians are only allowed to be permanent residents, not citizens. Only Jews, spouses of Jews, or citizens can own land.
75% of children in East Jerusalem live in poverty, and seeing such poverty in any context is disturbing. The moment the area becomes a settlement, though, the road becomes perfectly paved with multiple lanes, the previously nonexistent sidewalks arise with perfectly striped red and white paint, and the view is filled with stones and flowers. The suddenness of this change is not something any headline could depict. The difference between this and typical juxtaposition with wealth and poverty is that it is based on systematic racial differences, and thus begets the question: can Israel continue to stake a claim to shared values of liberal democracy and a Jewish state? I had just heard the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem speak a few days back defending the demolitions because the houses are dangerous and illegal. Perhaps this is true, but it is the system based on racial inequities that is causing this.
The tour ended in a Jewish settlement, which faces the Shuafat refugee camp across the wall. Since it was a Friday afternoon, Muslim sermons filled the air. The amplified Arabic rang off the divisive barrier, and even though all sermons must be approved by the Israeli government to prevent incitement, I felt incited.
The injustices I had just witnessed felt reactionary, and I was compelled to do something. That afternoon, I stumbled upon a friend attending a protest against demolitions in Silwan, and joined. Every Friday, the same group marches to Sheik Jarrah, as reported in Peter Beinart’s explosive article about American Jews and Israel, but this time Silwan residents requested the group’s presence to shed light on the 22 demolitions that were just approved by the local municipality, to move onto more committees for approval.
This situation is complex, and deserves no oversimplification, but for Israel to hold the party line that it is legal ignores the flaws in the current system. It is unsustainable. Following the protest, Israel’s blatantly false coverage of the event reveals its unwillingness to face the current situation in Israel and its territories. Before change or peace can be brought about, there must be truth, and mutual understanding. How can two viable states coexist, when their representations of one city differs so dramatically? There is the Israeli settler Hebron, and the Palestinian Hebron where Israel is mysteriously missing from the map.
I would like to disagree with Foreign Minister Liberman and believe that peace is possible soon, but the settlements reveal to me what stands in the way. Extremists on both sides block peace. However, I don’t think they’ll have enough power to deter it if the majority of both populations commit themselves to a solution.
The settlements clearly provide a physical barrier to peace as their scattered nature makes dividing the city in the case of a two state system nearly impossible. They reveal a larger wedge between the two groups, though: the unwillingness to acknowledge the truth, whether it is Israel writing off settlers as extremists that have nothing to do with the state and pretending Jerusalem is a united and equal city, or Hamas and other groups holding onto hope that Israel will evaporate from the Middle East. To get to a point where peace is possible, there must be open dialogue at every level from the entire spectrum on both sides.