West Is East, When Israel Decides

JERUSALEM — Along a wall not about to come down — a hotel no longer a hotel, but an outpost.

The three-story, 36-room Cliff Hotel used to be a favorite for Western pilgrims in search of the "authentic Holy Land flavor" because of its extensive gardens; it was a favorite also among Jerusalem Palestinians for wedding parties.

Perched on a hillock opposite the biblical Mount of Olives, The Cliff offered (still offers) imposing views — eastward through the Judean desert down to the Dead Sea and up the mountains of Moab across the Jordan River; southwards to the church spires of Bethlehem; and westwards to the walled Old City and the Golden Dome of the Rock.

Five years ago, in the wake of the Palestinian Intifadah uprising, Israel began to build its concrete security wall to fend off would-be bombers coming into Jerusalem. Border police seized the hotel and turned it into a security outpost.

Last week, the world united in celebration of the coming down of another infamous wall.

Palestinians tried to draw a parallel with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. On the northern outskirts of the city, at another site where Israel’s security wall cuts the West Bank off from Jerusalem, the protestors briefly managed to tumble one of the concrete eight-meter high slabs.

The victory was short-lived, and hardly symbolic.

Precious few Palestinians — if any — believe that kind of action can create a precedent. "Even 40 years from now, this wall won’t follow Berlin down," says Deif Ayyad. His family home lies in the shadow of the barrier and of The Cliff.

The hotel, now the outpost, belongs to his uncle Walid. His family built it in 1955.

The wall dips behind the hotel and carves its way summarily between houses at the edge of what Israel designates "east Jerusalem" and the adjacent Palestinian homes across the street in the suburb of Abu Dis which Israel decrees is part of the West Bank.

In 2004, when the Israeli government was re-surveying Jerusalem’s municipal boundary, it ruled that the hotel was not actually in the West Bank but inside the city. Deif stresses that the hotel had always paid property taxes to the West Bank town of Bethlehem, never to Jerusalem.

But, bending the rationale of their own bureaucracy, the Israeli municipal authorities ruled that since Walid Ayyad had a West Bank identity card, he was not recognized as a resident of Jerusalem. Thus, classified an "absentee owner," his property "inside Jerusalem" was therefore deemed liable for expropriation.

Walid Ayyad now lives in London. The family received no compensation for the takeover.

The despairing Palestinian mindset is written on the wall — literally. "This wall is a shame on the Israeli people, a shame for my people" reads the graffiti just meters away from the hotel/outpost/whatever-you-call-it.

Today, the building has none of its former grandeur. To say the very least.

The polished limestone walls have withstood the battering of the conflict. But little else has: all the windows are shattered, the garden is a wreck, the derelict entrance has a camouflage net thrown over it.

With the wall behind them, the few border police staffing the outpost seem secure in their flimsy prefab caravans that hide the pleasant outside stairs that used to lead up to The Cliff. Even the limp blue-and-white Israeli flag shows sign of being worse for wear.

Other building is developing, however.

On the skyline west of The Cliff, closer to the Jewish and Muslim holy places, a giant crane revolves on its turret: additional apartments are being completed in the Ras el-Amud compound that’s colloquially known as the Moskowitz Project — after the right-wing U.S. Jewish entrepreneur, Irving Moskowitz, who funds most settlement projects in the heart of the city’s Palestinian neighborhoods.

"Over there," says Deif, pointing across the adjacent hillock beneath where the wall snakes its way eastward, "you can see two homes that used to belong to Palestinians. Six settler families live there now. And, down there on the slope," he adds, "is where Moskowitz plans to set up a whole new complex. The people living in those two houses — you see the ramshackle one and that new two-story building — have been told they must move out soon."

The 21-year-old is an accountancy graduate from Al-Quds (Jerusalem, in Arabic) University in Abu Dis, just on the other side of the wall, "walking distance, really, but now, a 45-minute roundabout bus through the Israeli checkpoints simply because the campus is on the wrong side of the wall.

"There’s no hope here, no point of staying," Deif adds, "I plan to move to the U.S. to further my studies, and from there to Canada."

The prevailing sentiment about living in Jerusalem is one of impotence: "Nothing can change here — they hold all the cards." Back in 2005 just at the time of The Cliff takeover, Condoleezza Rice was making her first trip to the region as former president George W. Bush’s secretary of state. In meetings with Israeli leaders, she warned against one-sided actions that could influence the city’s status: "We do believe that unilateral steps in Jerusalem, particularly those that might appear to prejudge future discussions, would be unhelpful at this time."

Same when Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, made her first visit to Jerusalem earlier this year.

Nothing changed indeed, except a deepening of Palestinian incapacity, and of pain — as the wall graffiti says, around "This Wall of Tears."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.