Jerusalem — As a tourist visiting the Old City of Jerusalem, seeing Christians, Jews and Muslims walking side by side, hearing church bells ringing and Muslims being called to prayer, you might think the place is a model of tolerance.
As a resident of the Old City of Jerusalem, you think differently.
Last Sunday, I was taken on a tour by Nadera Shalhoub-Kervokian, a Palestinian and a professor of criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who has lived in the Old City for the past 30 years. Her home — a tastefully furnished second-floor apartment, where she and her husband raised three daughters — is in the Armenian quarter.
It’s also right at the edge of the Jewish quarter, which was rebuilt, expanded and repopulated after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war and its occupation of East Jerusalem. According to one study, [pdf] in 2006 37,060 people lived in the Old City, including 27,500 Muslims, 5,681 Christians, 3,089 Jews and 790 Armenian. To this day most groups live in their own quarters, but as Nadera explained, Israeli Jews have increasingly been moving into other areas as well.
As we walked around the Christian Quarter, Nadera pointed out all the buildings and single rooms that have recently been taken over by Israeli Jews. Exploiting the economic straits in which Arabs find themselves, Orthodox Jews (many with money from American relatives) have been buying a room here, a house there.
To gauge the takeover all you need to do is climb the metal stairs behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and walk on the roofs surrounding the church’s. Most of the houses you see — some newly built with licenses obtained from the very municipality that denies them to Palestinians — are inhabited by Israeli Jews or house Jewish religious schools. Box-like prefab guard rooms are ubiquitous; there are surveillance cameras and Israeli flags at every corner. Aside from us, the only pedestrians walking on these roofs on this unseasonably hot Sunday were Israeli Jews in religious garb.
Later, after we were back on the street and approaching the narrow lane leading to Nadera’s house, she stopped to check two metal sheets drilled on the wall on either side of the lane. Could this be where the new rumored checkpoint will be placed? With no Palestinian representative on the city council — since the illegal annexation of the Old City to Israel in 1967, the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem has been boycotting municipal elections — Nadera has little information about what is going on in the city. She will just have to wait and see.
Also nearby, just a few yards away from the entrance to Nadera’s apartment block, is a large car park. After 1967 the Armenian patriarchate of Jerusalem, who runs the Armenian Quarter, leased it to the Jewish Quarter Development Corporation for public use. But since 2010, for no apparent reason, “public” has been defined as exclusively Jewish. All of Nadera’s Jewish neighbors park their cars there, but she and her Armenian family have been told that they may not. They have to leave their cars a long way away and carry home all their groceries.
Who are these Israeli Jews anyway? Who are they to want to live among Palestinians, so at odds with their neighbors that they feel the need for 24-hour security, for putting iron bars on their windows and doors, for making their houses look more like cages than dwellings?
One day on her way to work, Nadera asked one of them, a man in his 30s wearing a kippa, “Why live like this?” He said, it’s a mitzvah, a religious duty.