Israel's Closure of Territories Cuts Intimate Link Between East Jerusalem, West Bank
JERUSALEM — AS the closure of the occupied territories enters its third month, Palestinian residents of Arab East Jerusalem say the Israeli government is throttling that section of the city in order to cement its incorporation into the Jewish state.
Under the closure, which Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered March 29 and 30 to quell political violence, Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are banned from entering Israel, including East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after its capture in the 1967 war.
"Jerusalem is the center of Palestinian life - politically, culturally, religiously, and commercially," explains Samir Abdallah, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team at the Middle East peace talks.
Now cut off from the 1.7 million West Bankers who once fueled their businesses, East Jerusalem's Palestinian traders are facing hard times. The main shopping thoroughfare, Salah al-Din Street, is quiet, and shopkeepers say their sales have fallen by as much as 50 percent.
"When customers came from the West Bank to Jerusalem, they came intending to buy," recalls Azmi Taha, who runs the clothes shop his father established on Salah al-Din 60 years ago. "And if someone came just to visit a friend, he would pick something up on the way, even if it was only a sandwich. Now that is finished."
Business in East Jerusalem is down by between 35 and 40 percent, according to a survey by Jerusalem's Arab Chamber of Commerce. "We have sent two memorandums of complaint to the prime minister," says Chamber President Faiek Barakat. "Unfortunately, we have not received a reply to either of them."
Jerusalem, a city without much industry, has always depended on surrounding villages to provide a market for its goods and services. "East Jerusalem and the West Bank are like a chain, all one entity linked together," says Nabil Feidy, a Palestinian money changer. "People live in the West Bank and own businesses in Jerusalem, and vice versa."
Such people, and others with an urgent need to visit Jerusalem, are issued temporary permits, explains Amir Heshin, Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek's Jewish adviser on Arab affairs. But "the permits make it seem as if East Jerusalem and the West Bank are two different entities, and this is a very artificial definition."
Jerusalem is key to Palestinian life in every field, and each one has been disrupted by the closure, which Israeli officials say is now permanent policy.
Religious life in the holy city has been turned upside down. Palestinian Christians from such West Bank towns as Bethlehem were forbidden to attend Easter services at the Holy Sepulcher. West Bank Muslims have only recently been allowed to pray at the Dome of the Rock, and then on condition that they are bused directly to the mosque, and immediately bused away at the end of the service each Friday.
Political life, too, is complicated by the closure, as Palestinian peace negotiators struggle to convince their people that the talks are worthwhile. Meetings cannot be held in Jerusalem if any of the participants come from elsewhere on the West Bank.
"Now we ourselves have to move to find people, and it is not easy to find offices that can host meetings in the villages and towns," Dr. Abdallah says.
Medical services have also been disrupted; Jerusalem hospitals are now off limits to West Bankers unless they wait in line for hours for a special Israeli Army permit, an ordeal for many sick people. Patient numbers are down at all Jerusalem hospitals, and at the largest, Mokassed, "more than half our patients say they have come illegally, going up mountains and down valleys to bypass the checkpoints," says hospital director Amin Thalji.
"The closure is political, to send a message that Jerusalem is part of Israel, to force facts on the ground outside the negotiating room," Dr. Thalji complains.
Mr. Heshin, Mayor Kollek's adviser, has no doubts that the whole of Jerusalem must remain Israeli, but he says his government has not thought out the implications of the closure.
"The Israeli authorities' attitude to East Jerusalem must be changed 180 degrees," he argues. "The closure has shown us beyond any doubt that East Jerusalem cannot be divorced from the West Bank. But this does not mean as far as we are concerned that East Jerusalem is part of the West Bank."
That outlook, of course, is diametrically opposed to the Palestinians' view that Jerusalem is their capital, and to the international community's view that East Jerusalem is as much occupied territory as the West Bank.
By closing East Jerusalem, along with the rest of Israel, to West Bankers, the government "is trying to preempt the outcome of the negotiations," argues Abdallah, and make it clear that Jerusalem's status has been left off the peace agenda.
"We can put up with the economic hardships and the social problems that the closure causes," says Ismael Tazziz, a pharmacist on Salah al-Din. "What really worries me is the destiny of Jerusalem. We will never accept that it is part of Israel, but what the Israelis are doing is a de facto situation."