In Jerusalem, Divided We Celebrate

JERUSALEM – "What kind of celebration is this," said Bat-El, 22, engulfed in a sea of blue- and-white Israeli flags in a huge procession marking Israel’s self-celebrated Jerusalem Day, the anniversary by the Hebrew calendar of Israel’s conquest of East Jerusalem 43 years ago during the 1967 Arab-Israel war.

Members of the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva youth movement from the West Bank settlement of Efrat were all decked out in the national colors for the march Wednesday. They paraded, and sang in unison — patriotic songs of war and of "rewards" of war; much less of peace, of the "price" for peace, the international community’s demand that Israel relinquish its occupation of East Jerusalem. 

They danced their way through Jerusalem’s flag-lined streets. But, only the streets of west Jerusalem. That’s what was tempering Bat-El’s joy. 

"Netanyahu insists he’s the strong leader of the national camp. Then, how come we’re not allowed to march around the Old City through East Jerusalem? Are we abandoning our national heritage to the Arabs?" 

As usual on Jerusalem Day, Israeli leaders were basking in their commitment to "Our united capital for eternity." 

But, it was the restriction imposed on Bat El and the thousands of marchers that marked this day as different from the celebrations of previous years. In effect, not more nationalistic, but less. 

Against their own political inclinations, even the most nationalist Israeli leaders are being confronted by a new political reality that threatens their uncompromising mantra about Israel retaining its hold over the whole city forever. 

Netanyahu led a parade of politicians addressing a special session of the Israeli Knesset. "Jerusalem will never be disunited," declared the Israeli Prime Minister, then tried hard to demonstrate Israel’s special attachment to the city. 

"Jerusalem" and its alternative name "Zion," he said, "appear in the Old Testament Bible no less than 850 times. In the New Testament it’s mentioned 142 times; in the Quran none of the 16 Arabic names for Jerusalem is mentioned at all," he said. 

Netanyahu may have proudly called Jerusalem by name. Purposefully, however, he held back from calling the creeping new political reality by name — unacknowledged restrictions he has reportedly himself imposed on building in the Jewish settlement neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city as long as the just-resumed "proximity" peace talks with the Palestinians continue. 

Nor did he relate to the halt in house demolitions of "illegally" built Palestinian homes to which he informally committed himself six months ago. Or respond to the complaint of Bat-El that, on this day of celebration of so-called unified Jerusalem, Jews for the first time were being kept out of Palestinian neighborhoods.

Also at variance with reality was Netanyahu’s Interior Minister, Eli Yishai. He maintained that Israel will never freeze construction "anywhere" in Jerusalem. "We will build everywhere in the Capital of the Jewish nation’s everlasting homeland. I have clarified this to our American friends," declared Yishai. 

His approval in March of 1,600 new Israeli homes in East Jerusalem during the visit by U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden is precisely what had sparked major tension in U.S.-Israeli ties. 

Yishai’s bravado contrasts with a quiet commitment to Washington that Israel will do nothing to affect the political reality on the ground. 

"If either side takes significant actions during the proximity talks that we judge would seriously undermine trust, we will respond to hold them accountable and ensure that negotiations continue," a State Department statement read. 

A third prominent cabinet minister sought to soothe the growing misgivings on the Israeli Right that, despite the U.S. strictures, it will be business as usual in Jerusalem. 

In a clear discrepancy with what has become reality for the past half year in the occupied part of the city, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch insisted Israel will, "in the coming days," again begin razing Palestinian homes — despite the renewal of U.S. brokered talks with the Palestinians. 

The minister stressed to the festive Knesset session that the demolitions had only been "postponed" because some felt the timing was wrong. "If there was a postponement, it has now ended," he said categorically. 

Out on the streets, the parade was dying down near the Old City Walls. Bat-El and Tiferet, her fellow leader, had gone into a grocery to buy water for their group. The radio was carrying a report on the remarks of the Israeli politicians from the Knesset. 

This re-ignited the ire of the two young religious women. 

"They talk so much about loving Jerusalem, of keeping it united, keeping it wholly ours. But on the ground we sense something else, that it’s all just talk, no action," Bat-El lamented. 

"What I really worry is that they’ll collapse under the pressure and re-divide the city," added Tiferet. On their way out of the store she said half to herself, "Soon, we won’t be allowed to act in East Jerusalem, even not be there at all." 

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.