Another sting in the tale of the city of scorpions

Click to follow
The Independent Online
In AD 985 the Arab geographer al-Muqadassi wrote that Jerusalem was "a golden basin full of scorpions". It has not changed. A thousand years later no city in the world is so divided by hate. And with the Israeli decision to build an exclusively Jewish settlement at Har Homa last week, the battle for Jerusalem is entering a more intense and, almost certainly, more violent phase.

A Palestinian strike paralysed East Jerusalem and the West Bank yesterday as Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, saw President Clinton in Washington to persuade him to get the Israeli decision reversed. This is unlikely to happen. By the end of March, Israeli bulldozers will start stripping the hill of Har Homa, known to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim, of its pine trees in order to build homes for 26,000 Jews.

It will be the largest Jewish settlement built in Jerusalem since 1980. Probably US officials, in a self-congratulatory mood since they brokered the partial Israeli withdrawal from Hebron in January, underestimate its potential for igniting an explosion. This is despite the fact that it is disputes in Jerusalem, venerated by Jews and Muslims alike, that have in the past led to some of the bloodier episodes in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Only last September, 61 Palestinians and 15 Israelis were killed in fighting that followed the decision by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, to open up a tunnel running under the Old City of Jerusalem into the Muslim quarter. The only real surprise was that Mr Netanyahu did not see this coming. In 1990, Israeli soldiers shot dead 17 Palestinians they rushed to defend al-Aqsa mosque after a false rumour that it was under attack by Jewish fanatics.

Superficially, Mr Netanyahu was more even-handed with Palestinians over Har Homa than over the tunnel. He announced that 3,000 homes for Arabs were also to be be built. "It is good for the Jews. It is good for the Arabs," said David Bar-Illan, his spokesman. Unfortunately this turned out to be untrue. Mr Netanyahu was recycling an existing plan to build roads, sewers and water pipes in Arab neighbourhoods. He has no plans to build houses for Palestinians. An Israeli commentator said his original announcement was the sort of "marketing gimmick" which in this government passes for grand strategy.

In theory it is difficult to see why there is any contest over Jerusalem. Israel has held the city since its army captured it from Jordan in 1967. Out of a population of 600,000, only 170,000 are Palestinians. Once wholly Arab, East Jerusalem now has a majority of Jews. The government says the historic balance between Jews and Palestinians, which it would like to maintain, is 72 per cent to 28 per cent.

But these figures are deceptive and do not reflect the real balance of forces. The present municipal boundary is gerrymandered in a way that would bring joy to a Chicago ward-heeler. Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and author of City of Stone: the Hidden History of Jerusalem, points out that on capturing the city Israel not only annexed it, but expanded it by 71 square kilometres. The new city boundary was carefully drawn to exclude 28 Palestinian townships and villages, but at the same time to take as much as possible of their building and agricultural land.

The result of the gerrymandering is a city map which looks like an upended set of bagpipes, its snout pointing north. The real population of metropolitan Jerusalem is about one million, if the whole urban area is included. The overwhelming Jewish majority is artificial. If Palestinian towns such as Bethlehem and Ramallah, each only 15 minutes by car from the centre of the city, are included in metropolitan Jerusalem, then half a million Jews are matched by an equal number of Palestinians.

This demographic point has an important political consequence. Jerusalem is meant to be the "eternal and undivided capital of Israel". Mr Netanyahu, successfully attacking the Labour prime minister in the election last year, predicted: "[Shimon] Peres will divide Jerusalem." But in every real sense Jerusalem is already divided. An Israeli taxi driver will not go to Palestinian areas. Drive north for a quarter of an hour and, without any change in the urban landscape, you are in Ramallah, which is under total Palestinian control.

It is not merely the construction of Har Homa, but the pretence that most of the half a million Palestinians in the urban area of Jerusalem are not in the city, that makes the present situation so dangerous. The Israeli Interior Ministry has put in doubt the Jerusalem identity cards of 120,000 out of the 170,000 Palestinians who hold them. Its reasoning is that a Palestinian who lives in Ram or Abu Dhis, Palestinian suburbs just outside the municipal boundary, should have no more rights in the city than if he or she lives in Indiana or Melbourne.

Every day sees another skirmish for control of the city. Yitzhak Mordechai, the defence minister, authorised at the weekend the building of 1,500 apartments and 3,000 hotel rooms to link the city with Ma'aleh Adumim, a large Jewish settlement on the road to Jericho. The far right believes it can undermine the Oslo accords, in a way that it failed to do over Hebron, by mobilising a majority of Israelis behind the slogan that Jerusalem is in danger. Already posters have started to appear on the road at the entrance to the city reading: "Netanyahu will divide Jerusalem."

Few Israelis understand that their numerical predominance in Jerusalem is the result of gerrymandered boundaries. They cannot understand why the Palestinian Authority and its security services continue to operate in the city, and demand their expulsion. They are unlikely to accept any form of power sharing or partition so that Palestinians can also have their capital in Jerusalem.

This is a pity because, on the ground, compromise is not quite as difficult as it seems. For hundreds of years, the Palestinians have controlled the great masonry platform built by Herod, on which stand the mosques of al- Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. Together with the Old City, where Palestinians also predominate, this is the heart of Islamic Jerusalem. It would be easy enough to declare these areas of de facto Palestinian control as their legal capital. But it is doubtful if any Israeli political party could accept this and survive, so the scorpions in their golden basin will continue to fight.