Today, an Arab teen was killed in Jerusalem in an apparent act of revenge for the recent deaths of three Israelis in the West Bank. The murder invites a possible worst-case scenario for one of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s most explosive points of contention.
Jerusalem is disputed territory. Israel took the city’s mostly Arab Jordanian-occupied eastern half, which included the entire Old City and Temple Mount, during the 1967 Middle East War. Israel offered citizenship to East Jerusalem Arabs shortly afterwards, and unilaterally declared Jerusalem unified in 1980 — effectively annexing the city’s eastern half.
But Jerusalem itself has been remarkably peaceful in spite of Israeli efforts to give a more permanent character to its rule over the unified city. There isn’t happy coexistence between Jews and Arabs, but there’s a more or less manageable status quo: The Jerusalem light rail goes to Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and Arabs shop in West Jerusalem’s Jewish downtown. Arabs and Jews ride the same bus lines and use the same hospitals. They both attend Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. There are even neighborhoods, like French Hill, with a mixed Jewish-Arab population. According to some researchers, instances of East Jerusalem Arabs requesting Israeli citizenship are increasing.
And Jerusalem has developed in recent years as if it’s a single, unified city. As Ya’acov Lozowick has written, treating the city as a single entity when division would be so politically and practically difficult — even with a peace agreement — is pragmatic approach, as much as anything else: “If it’s truly peace one seeks, Jerusalem must be tampered with only when the tampering will not ignite a fireball.”
The status quo doesn’t solve the dispute over Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state. But it avoids the fireball scenario, keeping things stabilised while a peace agreement can potentially be negotiated. If there is simmering intercommunal hatred, the city is at least able to function in spite of it. There’s a logic of basic mutual toleration that’s held out even after the Second Intifada, when Palestinian suicide bombers killed hundreds of people in the Jerusalem alone.
Events like yesterday’s killing could shatter that logic. Jerusalem lacks the all-against-all-type mentality of other divided cities. It’s not Baghdad or even Belfast during The Troubles. But there’s an alarming potential for generalized inter-communal hostility. In the early 2000s, barriers had to be built around the East Jerusalem Jewish neighbourhood of Gillo to protect the residents from gunfire from nearby hills. In a sign of decreasing tensions, they were removed in 2010.
But things can escalate rapidly. Today, rioting broke out today in Shuafat, an Arab neighbourhood connected to Jewish West Jerusalem by the city’s light rail line. It’s also part of a belt of Arab areas that cuts off the post-1967 East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev and Neve Ya’acov from the city’s core (see the map at right, from 2013: Jewish neighborhoods are in red, Arab neighborhoods in yellow).
Shuafat is a fault line. It’s on the forefront of efforts to integrate the city’s halves, and is sandwiched between Jewish neighbhorhoods that post-date Israeli control of East Jerusalem. It also isn’t far from Qalandia, site to one of the major crossing points between Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority-controlled segment of the West Bank.
If the city’s relative calm is going to rapidly unravel, it would happen in a place like Shuafat: a politically thorny and somewhat mixed area that’s neither far from Jerusalem’s developed center, nor far from its poorer and more restive periphery. That calm might be disintegrating already.
So far, Israeli leaders are condemning the teen’s murder. Maybe they’re aware of the alternative to Jerusalem’s recent years of stability. Once the basic day-to-day trust and tolerance that’s held the city together is gone, it will be very difficult to rebuild.
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