The Gaza War Has Left Jerusalem More Divided Than Ever

A journey to both side of the Holy City’s ‘racist abyss.’

Ammar Awad/Reuters,© Ammar Awad / Reuters

JERUSALEM — There’s nothing holy about Jerusalem. Its civility has been crushed; its fragile peace has been blown apart by the mindless toxicity of a summer of violence.

Nowhere is this chasm more jarring than along the broad avenue that scythes through the city dividing its Jewish and Palestinian parts. Here, indecency reigns, with residents of these rival neighborhoods tripping over one another to broadcast their racism.

“Most Arabs are just criminals. How can we live with them?” asked a man who identified himself as Binyamin from the poor, largely Ultra-Orthodox Shmuel Hanavi district.

Up the hill and into East Jerusalem, Sherif Hammoud is equally convinced of his neighbors’ intrinsic nastiness.

“There’s something wrong with Jews. They’re bad people. We hate them,” he said, from behind the counter of his family’s juice stall. In ordinary circumstances, he’d be swamped with tourists seeking sanctuary from the fearsome midday sun, but in their absence, bored youths lounge around and eagerly nod their assent.

Life along the Armistice line showcases some of the worst excesses of both sides. The city was divided by barbed wire and gun emplacements from 1948, when the line was drawn, until the June 1967 war, when Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and the east of the city. Then the fortifications in “united Jerusalem” were taken down, but the psychological and political barriers remained.

Many of Shmuel Hanavi’s outer apartment blocks, which were built with walls three feet thick to withstand shelling, are pockmarked with potshots from across the road. Most recently, in early August, a Palestinian man drove an excavator into a public bus in an apparent terror attack within the district’s boundaries.

Some residents here are no saints themselves though.

On many afternoons, small groups of conservative Haredi Jews traipse through the neighborhood and congregate in front one of the main approach roads to East Jerusalem. There, against a backdrop of anti-Semitic graffiti and wary watching Israeli policemen, they scream obscenities in Yiddish at passing Arabs.

Jerusalem’s religious significance has often acted as a siren call for extremists of all stripes, and it’s rarely been a paragon of interfaith cooperation. But seven weeks of intermittent war in Gaza, and months of simmering tensions in the West Bank have hardened attitudes and cast the conflict along even clearer communal lines.

“Jerusalem is at its most divided since 1967,” said Gershon Baskin, a longtime Israeli peace negotiator, and a relative anomaly among Jerusalemites in his willingness to stray onto the other side’s ‘turf.’

“The geography of fear, which has always existed in this city, has been compounded tremendously since the kidnapping and murder of the Israeli teenagers, and then the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in revenge, and of course, the war in Gaza,” he said.

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A cursory stroll through West Jerusalem’s buzzy commercial hub is enough to throw these community divisions into stark relief.

Until recently, many Palestinians worked in Jewish areas and patronized Jaffa Street’s frozen yoghurt parlours and shoe shops, but a fear of assault from extreme Nationalist Israelis has made hijab-clad shoppers something of a rarity.

It’s a similar situation on the other side, where the threat of violence—real and perceived—has long deterred most Jewish Israelis from setting foot in East Jerusalem. Nowadays, however, even those who sympathize with Palestinian grievances steer clear of the more inflamed areas.

“I don’t want to be a martyr,” said Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer who focuses on Israeli settlement violations in the West Bank. “I’ve never seen the mood so ugly,” he added.

This increasing self-segregation is tragic in more ways than one.

With fewer forums in which ordinary Palestinians and Israeli Jews might mingle, moderates in both camps have had a tougher time tempering the pyromaniac tendencies of their respective fanatics.

Avigdor Liebermann, the Israeli foreign minister and leader of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, has called for boycotting the businesses of Israelis of Arab extraction if they protest his government’s military action in Gaza. Meanwhile, in East Jerusalem, some hardline Palestinian officials now appear to be actively stoking the fires for political gain.

“The Palestinian Authority [PA] don’t have any control, so they don’t prevent the dissent, and in a way, it’s almost encouraged. It’s a window to the world, it’s a friction point with the Israelis,” said Gershon Baskin. Meanwhile, as he noted, settler-only roads and policing by the PA’s security forces has reduced the potential for serious clashes with the Israeli military in the West Bank.

If Jerusalem’s authorities are truly intent on mollifying aggrieved Palestinians then they’re going about it in a foolish-looking fashion. Periodic bouts of rock and Molotov-cocktail throwing have been met with rounds of arrests—600 young men over the last month, at the same time as Jewish settler crime in East Jerusalem has gone largely unpunished.

With emotions running so high, community leaders who favor a return to the calmer—though still impossibly strained—conditions prior to the most recent Gaza flare-up face a Sisyphean challenge.

Rabble-rousing songs calling for the destruction of Tel Aviv (and in some instances, the extinction of the Jewish people), blare from many East Jerusalem stereos, while the presence of large numbers of southern Israelis who’ve fled the threat of Hamas rockets and tunnels—and packed hotels that would usually be jammed with foreign visitors —has fuelled Jewish residents’ venomous mood.

“It’s a mutual mistrust. This is why they say Jerusalem has gone back 25 years,” said Hosam Naoum, dean of the Anglican St. George’s Cathedral, which stands steps from the Armistice line. The start of the church school’s scholastic year will likely be delayed if tensions don’t recede.

As if the breakdown in communal relations wasn’t complete enough, even projects designed to fuse the city’s disparate constituencies have become props in its implosion.

The Jerusalem light rail was built to service Palestinians and Israelis alike, but it now tears straight past most East Jerusalem stops, after rioters in the Shuafat neighborhood smashed up a tram and a few stations, insisting it was merely a tool for integrating Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas.

Elsewhere, the bi-communal separation continues, with fierce nationalists seemingly intent on cementing this divide.

Malha Mall on the city’s west side has long attracted a sizable bloc of Palestinian day-trippers, but advocates in East Jerusalem are now pushing for them to spend their disposable income in Arab enterprises in the Old City or on the main Sala-ad-din and Nablus shopping drags.

“They should help our shops, and not give money to their mall. That just normalizes relations,” Sherif Hammoud said.

In the midst of Jerusalem’s descent into a racist abyss, it’s worth noting that the holy city’s contested status and appeal to religious purists has never allowed for some of the warmer relations mixed neighborhoods in Haifa and Jaffa enjoy.

Many Israelis openly disdain their capital’s toxic climate: “I can’t stand Jerusalem. None of us on the coast can,” a secular friend in liberal Tel Aviv told me.

Certainly, if there’s to be a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much of the constructive input’s going to have to be generated elsewhere, because Jerusalem’s far too wrapped up in its petty squabbles to help.

But with the Gaza war now collapsing into a bloody attritional struggle, racist sentiments seeping into the Knesset’s political mainstream, and protests in the West Bank assuming an unstintingly anti-Semitic bent, Jerusalem’s lethal brand of hatred is fit for export elsewhere in Israel and Palestine.

Dean Naoum, for one, thinks the conflict has reduced the city to an unseemly spectacle. “We’re now all like animals in a zoo. People just come to the Middle East to look at us,” he said.