THE cars coming from the opposite direction were backed up as far as the eye could see. But the traffic in my direction was moving freely, so I would get to the university on time.
If this were Los Angeles I wouldn't be surprised. But this was the Israeli-occupied territory. Cars coming from the northern areas of the West Bank into Jerusalem were held up not by normal traffic, but by the Israeli Army checkpoint. All Palestinian cars going into Jerusalem were checked. Only Jerusalem residents, women, children, men over the age of 40, or workers granted special passes were admitted. All others were turned back, not allowed into Arab East Jerusalem. They could not go to Al-Aqsa Mosque to pray. They could not attend the public forums on the peace process. They could not conduct business or visit family members who live there.
The closure of Jerusalem makes travel between the southern and northern areas of the West Bank very difficult. Raed, a Birzeit University student who resides in Bethlehem, came rushing breathlessly into the seminar room, apologetic. Unable to simply travel directly through Jerusalem to Ramallah, he had to ride the tortuous winding road that bypasses the city. It took him more than twice as long and cost four times as much.
I had not been in the occupied territories for three years, so I expected some semblance of normalcy now. It is almost a year since the Oslo agreement and the White House handshake. I looked forward to the social life of East Jerusalem. But there was little trace of it after the shops closed at 6 p.m. True, there were fewer Army jeeps out; but the streets were as deserted as they had been during the height of the intifadah (uprising). Ramallah came to life at night. But in East Jerusalem, because of the Israeli-imposed closure, there was not enough business to keep restaurants or movie houses open. The permanently shuttered shops were another poignant reminder of the damage wreaked by the 16-month-old closure.
The closure of East Jerusalem is but one sign of Israeli designs on Jerusalem. The Oslo agreement specifies that negotiations begin as soon as possible but no later than the start of the third interim year, but the Israelis are trying to impose their maximalist interpretation. And while the Palestinians wait, the city is slipping from their grasp.
THE hills around Jerusalem are sites for massive new Jewish settlements. Highways to them are carved through old neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. But Arabs do not get the same privileges, and the population suffers from housing shortages and overcrowding. New Jewish settlers are exempt from municipal taxes for five years and then pay a reduced rate. So while Palestinian residents there pay 26 percent of the municipal services, they receive only 5 percent of them.
Three years ago, Palestinians lamented, ``What will be left of Jerusalem?'' Now, the Israeli takeover of East Jerusalem seems a virtual fait accompli - a flagrant violation of international law and UN resolutions. Still, the Palestinians will not willingly relinquish their legitimate claims to East Jerusalem. Perhaps even more than its religious significance, East Jerusalem is laden with emotionally charged symbolic importance for them. A recent poll reveals that general Palestinian support for agreements with Israel would be reversed if the issue of Jerusalem continues to be deferred. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's move to cede control of Jerusalem's holy sites to Jordan will not bring peace any more than will the ongoing Israeli program of a ``Greater Jerusalem.''
The status of Jerusalem must be negotiated. The sooner the better. At the minimum, until the negotiations are concluded, the world community must demand that Israel lift the military closure of Jerusalem, desist from further expropriation of lands and buildings, and cease the establishment of Jewish settlements within the area of East Jerusalem.
Otherwise, what indeed will there be left to negotiate? The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.