Reporting from Jerusalem, July 1995

With help from my dedicated Bryn Mawr College extern Danielle Ford, I have now completed the digitization of a series of five reports I wrote for Al-Hayat in July 1995 on the situation of the Palestinians of Jerusalem. (I could say “East Jerusalem”, which is of course occupied territory. But actually West Jerusalem was one of the urban areas within the area Israel controlled prior to 1967 that had been the most thoroughly “cleansed” of its Palestinian inhabitants in the fighting of 1948… So until this day, there are almost no ethnic Palestinians in West Jerusalem.)
I thought it would be pretty timely to publish this series now, in light of the latest Wikileaks revelations about the amazing depth of the concessions Abu Mazen and his negotiators have been prepared to make over Jerusalem (and other issues)… All of which were rejected by Israel, and also apparently Washington, as “still not enough.”
I think it’s also important to publish this piece of historic reportage because I learned during that visit– which came just a year after Arafat’s triumphant “return” to the occupied territories in the wake of the September 1993 conclusion of the Oslo “interim” agreement– how speedily the Israeli government had moved after Oslo to throw a ring of steel around East Jerusalem in an attempt to cut it off from the rest of the West Bank. Of which, of course, it had always been not only an organic part, but also the capital. As, under international law, it remains to this day, billions of cubic tonnes of the settlers’ illegal concrete-pouring notwithstanding.
Since 1993, successive Israeli governments of all political “colorings”, have continued their campaign to cut the living heart of East Jerusalem out of the body of the rest of the West Bank. Now, instead of makeshift stone barricades and razor wire, the ring of steel around E. Jerusalem consists nearly wholly of the 28-foot-high concrete Wall, punctuated by prison-camp-style watch-towers. But the origins of this policy, around Jerusalem, go back to the mid-1990s…
So here is Part I of that report. This is the English-language original as I wrote it then. The very good translators at Al-Hayat translated it into Arabic for their use of it.

by Helena Cobban,
July 1995
The road from Ben-Gurion airport up to Jerusalem is always striking: whizzing upward along the gullies in the looming mountains, past Jewish villages, a few distant Palestinian villages topped by minarets, and by the road-side, occasional ruined Palestinian houses covered in vines…
This time, somewhere near the mournful ruins of Deir Yassin, the driver of our ‘sherut’ share-taxi swept off the main road, taking one of the many new roads with which the Israelis are consolidating their hold on East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Our first stop: the settlement of Givat Ze’ev, nestled proudly into the West Bank just northwest of the city. A lower-middle-class couple got out, in front of a pretty apartment block, and were greeted by their three sleepy children while the driver cracked jokes with them in Hebrew. Then, back into the city, past the ramparts of Rarmot Alon — a settlement with nearly 8,000 Jews-only housing units built inside the city’s expanded boundaries. A couple more drop-offs, then the driver asked where I was going. “National Palace Hotel,” I said in English, naming a place near Salah Eddin street in the heart of Palestinian Jerusalem.
The driver turned. “Much trouble there,” he said. I shrugged. His words sounded like standard Jewish-Israeli alarmism: I never had any trouble in the Salah Eddin area. But I noted his attitude toward going into Palestinian Jerusalem with interest. It seemed clear that for him — as for nearly all the other Jewish Jerusalemites whom I met during my stay in the
city — the actual city they lived in was far from the ideal, “unified” urban center described by former mayor Teddy Kollek and present mayor Ehud Olmert to their admiring supporters in the west.
One of the most extreme attitudes I discovered amongst Jewish residents of the city would have been almost farcical if it had not also been potentially tragic. A taxi-driver I picked up at the Hebrew University refused point-blank to take me to the National Palace. “I can’t go there!” he protested when I told him that that was my destination. “Why not?” I asked, interested to hear his response. “Oh, don’t worry for me or yourself,” he replied. “I’ve got my gun right here beside me. But I don’t want to have to kill anyone. And if they throw stones at me I will definitely have to shoot them.” Reluctantly, he agreed to take me to the (Israeli) District Court, just down Salah Eddin from the hotel. No sooner had I closed the car door than he turned the car and swiftly roared away…
Even among convinced members of the Jewish-Israeli left, the attitude toward Jerusalem’s remaining Palestinian-populated enclaves was frequently the same. “How do you get to National Palace Hotel exactly?” asked my friend, the historian Benny Morris. “I haven’t been to that area for years. I don’t know my way around there. How about if I just drop you off at the Saint Georges Hotel instead?”
“East Jerusalem?” the pro-peace educator Hadara Keich asked, shaking her head slowly. “No, I haven’t been there for years.”
For Palestinians, of course, the division between the city’s Jewish and Palestinian zones has always been stark and real. There might have been a time, a decade ago, when some of the more adventurous Palestinian intellectuals would venture over to West Jerusalem’s ‘Cinematheque’ cafe for a coffee or a beer with Jewish friends. But that stopped happening, once the intifada hit East Jerusalem with full force in early 1988. Now, the Palestinians know exactly where the dividing lines between them and the city’s Jewish residents lie — and this is not just because of the glaring disparities in the municipal services accorded to the two communities. And, unless they have pressing business on the other side, all Jerusalemites, Palestinian and Israeli, stick well inside their own side of the line.
“If I walk in West Jerusalem and see a policeman, I feel reassured,” says Faisal Husseini. “If I see a policeman in East Jerusalem, I feel threatened.” Husseini should know. I met him in his besieged headquarters in orient House, where the sense of threat from the Israeli police and settlers ringing the building was ever-present. The day before, two of his employees had been arrested and taken to the city’s ‘Moscobiyya’ jail on trumped-up charges. But more of all that later…
The intifada succeeded in shattering the myth of the “unity” of the city for all of its residents, Palestinian and Israeli. But it has also become quite clear that the Israeli government’s accelerated campaign of building Jews-only housing fortresses and a whole network of connecting roads has left the Holy City’s remaining Palestinian enclaves like strangled ghettoes.
Even more amazing: this building program has continued unabated since the diplomatic ‘breakthroughs’ of Madrid and Oslo, and is now going ahead at fever pitch in the Israeli government’s desperate race to plant additional ‘facts’ in the ground before the ‘final status’ negotiations on Jerusalem are supposed to start next May.
It was sometime between Madrid and Oslo that the number of Jewish residents of the settlements of occupied East Jerusalem climbed ahead of the officially-counted number of Palestinians there. West Jerusalem has virtually no Palestinian residents at all — the 30,000 who lived there before 1948 were all ‘ethnically cleansed’ from it that year. And now, in the expanded tract of land that in 1967 the Israeli government (illegally and unilaterally) declared to be part of the city, and annexed, roughly 28 percent of the counted residents are Palestinian, 72 percent Jews.
Later in my stay, Ibrahim Matar (whose family was expelled from West Jerusalem in ‘48) took me on a tour of the latest government construction projects in the city. We drove all around the expanding sprawl of Pisgat Ze’ev (named for Ze’ev Jabotinsky) in northern Jerusalem, where attempts of previous decades to build with a certain amount of grace, using arches and intimate connecting areas, had now been abandoned in the race to put more raw facts on the land. Harsh, unbroken lines of tall apartment blocks (evocative only of Stalinist town-planning in central Europe) cut stark lines across the lovely hills between Hizma and Tel al-Full. The only thing that arched here were the tall, crane-like necks of mobile cement-delivery pipes as ceaselessly they poured their contents into new foundations, walls and floors for the settlement. A constant stream of construction trucks rumbled back and forth along the hillside.
On the hills west of Shu’afat, the picture was the same. In this area, once cynically declared a ‘green zone’ in order to prevent the land’s Palestinian owners from building anything for themselves, a whole new settlement for 2,165 Jewish families was racing toward completion: Ramat Shu’afat. A number of different contractors were working simultaneously on different parts of the settlement. The workers seemed a mix of Romanians and destitute Palestinians. As the trucks growled by and cement-mixers whined, an ultra-Orthodox contractor dressed in severe black stumbled up some steps to check on final details. The few trees that remained near the settlement as a cynical reminder of its former designation as ‘green’, stood coated thickly white from the heavy construction dust.
We took one of the new inter-settlement roads to drive south, to Gilo, still in the city borders. New fingers were being built for this ‘older’ settlement, whose construction started in the 1970s. East of Gilo, we looked across to the wooded slopes expropriated from Um Touba, Beit Safafa, and Beit Sahour, where preliminary road-building was already underway, in preparation for the whole new settlement of Har Homa.
Everywhere, our senses were assaulted by the scale of Israeli ‘facts on the ground’ in Jerusalem — past, present, and future.
The South African writer Rian Malan has written of his own white-Boer ancestors, that “They spoke of themselves as bearers of the light, but in truth they were dark of heart, and they knew it, and willed it so.’ This willful but honest attitude toward their own acts is one that is, to say the least, not shared by most Jewish Israelis. There have been, it is true, some Jewish Israelis who have criticized government actions like the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, or excesses of repression in the occupied territories. But small indeed is the number among them who are prepared even to give a hearing to criticism of such essentials of the Zionist project as the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 — or the ‘established fact’ of the ‘unification’ of Jerusalem in 1967.
Edward Said has been one of the first in the west to point to the astonishing success the Israeli leadership has enjoyed in portraying its ‘achievement’ in East Jerusalem as being, in itself, a beacon of liberal, enlightened policy …
I had come to Jerusalem, in July of 1995, to explore some of the dimensions of this conundrum. How do those many Jewish Israelis who consider themselves as democratic, and even, “liberal”, reconcile these values with the facts of their government’s massive assault against Jerusalem’s 150,000 Palestinians? On the other side of the coin, why have Palestinian responses to Israeli aggressions in the holy city over the past 28 years been so fragmentary and unsuccessful? And also, yes, are there any ways left that people in Jerusalem can think of, to bring about a solution for the city’s status that is both attainable and sustainable?
It was a journey that would plunge me deep into the moral¬-psychological labyrinth inhabited by the Jewish-Israeli left, and into the agony of the Palestinians’ chronic disorganization and weakness…
Here, in my room at the National Palace, I sift through some of my papers. Here is ‘Mr. Peace’ himself, Shimon Peres, when as Finance Minister in 1989 he wrote a memo to the Supreme Court to support the government’s expropriation of yet more Palestinian land to build ‘Har Homa’. The expropriation, Peres wrote, had, “a dual national mission of fortifying Jerusalem and absorbing mass immigration.” It was necessary, Peres explained, in order “to close a gap in the urban space in the city’s southeast.” Of course, in 1989, it was only Jews who were coming into Israel through immigration. And there was no “gap” in the urban space in southeast Jerusalem — only a gap in the Jewish-inhabited urban space. But to Peres, perhaps only the Jews counted, in Jerusalem, as human?
And here, a statement that the present Labor-led government released, in connection with the ‘festivities’ planned for 1996 — planned deliberately for 1996 — to celebrate the 3,000th anniversary of King David’s arrival in Jerusalem. (“My God, what a disaster that will be!” was the comment of one of the Israeli peace activists I talked to.) Anyway, the government statement: “The events will establish Jerusalem’s place as the heart of the Jewish nation in the collective consciousness of Israel and the world… Israeli rule over the united city has brought unprecedented prosperity and progress, and despite the tensions between the various communities within it — the city has not enjoyed such a position of import since its heyday as a kingdom…”
And many, many statements from the two Jewish-Israeli rulers of annexed Jerusalem — Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert — about how wonderful, how ‘normal’, how liberal and enlightened their city is…
I hear a clop-clopping under the window. What, still some old horses or mules in East Jerusalem? Given the terribly run¬down, de-developed state of the place, I would not be surprised. I go to the window. A posse of five well-armed Israeli riot policemen is patrolling slowly on horseback along the street, flak-jackets slung over their mounts behind them. I peer along the street and see three ‘Border Police’ standing in a tight knot, the long muzzles of their rifles at the ready as they keep a wary watch over Salah Eddin street. One of the Border Policemen has the coffee-colored skin and fine features of an Ethiopian. Does his dark-colored presence among the Cossacks perhaps satisfy their desire for ‘liberalism’?
It’s time to take a walk.
I turn right onto Salah Eddin, then quickly left, past the Saint Georges Hotel, and up to Nablus Road. Clogged with fuming buses as usual. And then, the heart-rending scenes outside the Interior Ministry building where two or three hundred Jerusalem Palestinians spill hopelessly out of the wire pen constructed to protect the entrance, and wait in a tight but heaving mass in the blazing sun of the street for their numbers to come up. It is here that they have to come to renew their all-important identity cards as city residents. How is it that a liberal west that revolted at the pass-book system in South Africa has kept so silent over the same pervasive and inhuman form of control right here? It is here that Jerusalem Palestinians have to line up for ‘permission’ to use Ben-Gurion airport, and here that (a disquieting but open secret among the Palestinians) an increasing number of them have come over the past year to apply for Israeli citizenship…
Old men, grandmothers, the middle-aged, the young, men, pregnant women, all jostled together in the sun without regard for age, healthy, or basic humanity. Jerusalem’s rulers seem determined, above all, never to lose their capacity to dominate, humiliate, and control.
Walking on, I skirt the Old City. (I will, of course, come back to it later.) I trek across the eight lanes of traffic on the new ‘Route One’, that sweeps Pisgat Ze’ev’s people into the heart of the city without having to set eyes on a single Palestinian face. Up the hill by Notre Dame, and a right turn along the Jaffa Road. I am well into pre-‘67 (West) Jerusalem now. And this is where Mayor Olmert is now reaping the benefit of a grand urban project initiated by Kollek: Safra Square, the new municipal center.
The Square is an extensive conglomeration of new and old architectural forms — all faced in stone and grouped around a broad, majestic plaza. I look around. Over to the right, there are some interesting older buildings in the complex, one, a lovely long building whose gracefully arched windows have been slashed through, visually, by a thick rectilinear walkway whose heavy, checkerboarded second story seems to have zero functional purpose. I am about to walk on, shaking my head in esthetic horror, when I see a blue and gold plaque attached to the building. Writing in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. I approach. Under a cutely trilingual heading, ‘Jerusalem, the Built Heritage’, it reads, “The building apparently dates from the late 19th century, when it contained shops and residential units…” Nothing about who it belonged to then, who built it, whose architectural genius it embodies… I look around. Blue plaques on all the buildings around here, presumably as part of the gussying-up of the city for the visitors expected for ‘Jerusalem- 3,000’.
Another thought strikes me. The old Russian compound is near here. I hurry past numerous other blue plaques: “A luxurious residence typical of late-l9th century Jerusalem …” “Former site of the southern gate of the Russian compound, now moved fifty meters further north …” And now I am on Heleni Ha-Malka Street. Gentrification is intensively underway here. Most of the street is torn up, its buildings a mass of rehabilitation. I go past the Tuhavot Israel Mortgage Company, wondering how many government-subsidized mortgages they’ve given out to Israeli settlers so far today. And then, the ‘Sergei Builing’, still part of the ‘Russian’ complex, where I have a slightly pointless conversation with a young English-speaking woman in the bookstore of the ‘Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel’. (She probably still believes that government-designated ‘green’ areas are of benefit to all.) I come out of the Sergei Building, and there, across Heleni Ha-Malka to the south, is what I came to look for: Jerusalem’s infamous ‘Moscobiyya’ prison.
The prison is separated from the street by a ramshackle but sturdy stone wall, topped by a wire fence whose rusty barbed-wire topping stands fifteen feet above the pedestrians making their way quite normally along the street. A glimpse inside the large gate shows a courtyard crammed with police cars and vans, and surrounded by two- and three-story buildings with small windows, set far apart. No blue plaque by that gateway. But perhaps further round to the east? As I walk slowly along beside the prison wall, I see a series of four or five windows in the building nearest to me that have been completely cemented up. In the upper right-hand corner of each of the former openings, a metal box about fifteen inches by thirty has been inserted, all its sides solid except for a scattering of small ventilation holes in its downward-sloping lid.
I have read plenty of the affidavits from Palestinian political prisoners who, like Faisal Husseini’s young helper, have been held in the Moscobiyya over the years. They, along with Palestinians held with or without charges in Israel’s numerous other jails, have been subjected to isolation, the extreme sensory deprivation of having stinking bags tied tight over their heads, white noise, extremes of heat and cold, prolonged holding in extreme positions, and worse.
What is going on behind those metal boxes as I look? Nobody else in Heleni Ha-Malka street today, and that includes young Miss Tamar Zamir in the Society for the Preservation of Nature (whom I had asked specifically about this matter), shows any concern at all at this question.
I come around the corner. There is a gracious, pediment-¬topped entrance in the center of the wall along this eastern side of the prison, framing a heavy, ominously-locked, red metal door. And beside the entrance –yes! –the same, distinctive blue-and-gold plaque.
“Elizabeth Hostel for Men,” it tells us. “A courtyard structure built in 1864 as a hostel able to accommodate about 300 pilgrims. Above the neo-classical main entrance are inscribed ‘Elizabeth’s Courtyard’ and the emblem of the ‘Imperial Russian Orthodox Palestine Society’. Architect: Martin Eppinger.”
That’s all. Nothing about the building’s present uses…
Millions of people have come to Jerusalem throughout the centuries, searching for a metaphor for their lives. But here, at the door of a political prison tucked into the heart of
‘normality’, ‘unification’, and even ‘urban esthetics’, I found my most potent metaphor for the state of the city itself.
–end of part one

2 thoughts on “Reporting from Jerusalem, July 1995”

  1. The leaked documents simply confirm what many of us have believed about the moribund “peace process” for a long time. Abbas and Erakat and their illegal Fatah team sold out the Palestinian people long ago in order to retain their personal perks. While the Guardian has major coverage – it has the scoop, of course – the US MSM is doing its usual thing. As of noon Monday, the NYT finally posted a vague little piece by its Israeli shill, Ethan Bonner. The WAPO apparently hasn’t decided how to play it yet. It will be very interesting to see just how it is finally played in the MSM.

  2. i don’t know how i missed this til now. i was just searching for something on your blog.
    thank you, how helpful. i’m looking forward to part 2. i wish i had been reading you back in 95.

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