The Middle East Channel

East Jerusalem settlers and Israel’s never-ending War of Independence

East Jerusalem settlers and Israel’s never-ending War of Independence

A few nights ago I drove the short distance from my home in West Jerusalem in search of the city’s latest flashpoint:  the Palestinian neighborhood Jabal Mukabar, overlooking the Old City, and the latest Palestinian home taken over by Israeli settlers.

Not knowing the precise location of the house, I asked a Palestinian resident, who pointed me in the general direction. Then, as I neared my target, out of the dark and down the neighboring slope (ironically called "the Hill of Evil Counsel") emerged a column of young settlers, some carrying light weapons, marching towards their newly-acquired urban asset.

Why this dramatic entrance? The settlers’ new property lies on a regular street. I had no problem driving into the neighborhood, asking directions, and then parking by the front door. But these settlers acted like they were living in a different era, reliving the legendary "Convoy of 35" (the Haganah soldiers killed while attempting to break the siege of the Etzion Bloc in 1948). And this was no isolated incident: similar settler patrols, their members dressed in the de rigueur khaki shorts and high boots of Israel’s 1948 irregular forces, have been recently spotted in other Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Settler takeovers in East Jerusalem are generally portrayed as a battle over real estate, but in truth they are much more. For the settlers, they are part of the not-yet-ended skirmishing of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence — a war that, in their eyes, will be won only when Israeli hegemony is imposed in East Jerusalem, with the re-creation of what the settlers themselves refer to as the "Realm of Ancient [Jewish] Jerusalem" — a realm being established in the midst of, and in place of, the existing Palestinian neighborhoods.

The scenes of settlers reenacting a romanticized past is reminiscent of the strange American subculture of Civil War re-enactors, with one key difference: Civil War re-enactors re-play history; the settlers are trying to change history.They not only re-live the battles of 1948 but they carry those battles into the present day. Their stage is not an historic battlefield in the hinterlands of Virginia, but the very real Palestinian neighborhoods around the Old City. The families being displaced are not fellow re-enactors but present-tense Palestinian refugees. And their weapons are not period-piece facsimiles loaded with blanks.This mix of Biblical epic, historical role playing and contemporary conflict produces kitsch, but make no mistake: this is kitsch that can kill.

These settlers of East Jerusalem — whether patrolling the hills of Jabel Mukabar or displacing Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah — are not marginal. They are deeply embedded in the policies of the Government of Israel, policies that are radically transforming the character of one of the most important religious and cultural sites on the planet. Their endeavors dovetail with official government efforts to incorporate the Old City of Jerusalem and its immediate environs into an untrammeled Israeli sovereignty, informed by the exclusionary settler visions of a pseudo-Biblical past and a mythical war of independence.  

Jerusalem is where the tectonic plates of Jewish, Christian and Muslim civilizations grind against one another. Handled responsibly, Jerusalem speaks in its multiple voices, an embodiment of the counter-paradigm of Huntington’s "Clash of Civilizations."  But the policies unleashed in recent years render Palestinian neighborhoods communities-at-risk, and marginalize the Christian and Muslim equities in the city. In doing so, Israel is contributing to the transformation of a resolvable national-political conflict into an intractable mix of jihad, war of mitzvah, and Armageddon — a religious war driven by the Biblical imagery that is so close to the settlers’ hearts. These policies embolden Israel’s bitterest enemies in the Muslim world, who also aspire to a religious conflict, and weaken the forces of moderation.

Critics of the Obama administration have suggested that the clashes between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over Jerusalem are proof of the President’s hostility to Israel. Precisely the opposite is true. By pressing Israel to curb irresponsible acts in Jerusalem, Obama  is being the truest possible friend of Israel.

In reality it is Netanyahu who, by permitting and supporting these policies, is acting recklessly with Israel’s vital national interests. By engaging in policies that, deaf and blind to the other stakeholders in the city, declare "Jerusalem is ours and only ours," the government of Israel discredits the genuine Jewish attachments to Jerusalem. By doing so, Israel’s leaders undermine the validity of Israel’s claims in the city and directly contribute to the de-legitimization of Israel.

Today, Israel should be moving towards a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians that would represent the successful culmination of Israel’s battle for independence and its crowning achievement: the universal recognition of its capital in Jewish parts of Jerusalem, along the lines suggested in the Clinton Parameters. True friends of Israel — in the White House, the American Jewish community, and beyond — do Israel no favor when they sit by quietly as, instead, settlers abuse otherwise authentic Jewish religious and historic ties to Jerusalem in an effort to render any such agreement impossible. And true friends of Israel, wherever they may be, do Israel an injustice if they fail to object to the perpetuation of the 1948 war in the streets of contemporary East Jerusalem.

Daniel Seidemann is a Jerusalem-based lawyer and expert on Jerusalem, and the founder of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem.