East Jerusalem’s walls are turning our city into one, giant prison

These walls have already built unseen fences of hatred and will continue to exist in our midst as a malignant poison. Where we have built walls, we will have to build even higher and higher walls.

By Yudith Oppenheimer

Israeli police and stop and check Palestinians going out of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber, October 15, 2015, Jerusalem, Israel. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)
Israeli police and stop and check Palestinians going out of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber, October 15, 2015, Jerusalem, Israel. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Let’s talk about life for a moment, about how we can live in this city. Let us set aside for now the differences of opinion on sovereignty and eternity and talk about this moment, in which we can still steer matters to their semi-sane course, and can still safeguard with the fragile, imperfect, problematic reality that we had here until a few days ago. It is difficult to believe, but we may yet miss this reality as a yearned-for island of near-normalcy that we have lost for some time.

Let us make no mistake. Even if in a week, two weeks, a month, a year, the concrete barriers are removed that are now blocking the entrances and exits of the Palestinian neighborhoods and separating them from their Jewish neighbors and from the city that is their only home – we will no longer be able to erase the stinging memory of the concrete barriers that we set up between us and them. The ones that have turned their home in the heart of the city into a series of shunned and isolated ghettos.

These walls have already built unseen fences of hatred and will continue to exist in our midst as a malignant poison. And where we have built walls, we will have to build even higher and higher walls. After all, a decade ago we already built a barrier and turned eight Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem into enclosures of humiliation and poverty, displacing residents in their own city. Now we are building a barrier between one barrier and another — and between these barriers and the barriers to come. In the end we will know only more and more fear.

Indeed, we are frightened to the very bone. Who isn’t? Who is not frightened today in this city, where the streets of have become traps of fear not only for Jews but for anyone who walks down them, drives and rides, buys and sells, requests or provides service. We have been intermingled with one another for close to 50 years and our fate is intertwined. Without the Palestinians, life in the city will shut down, from sanitation and transportation to rescue services and operating rooms. With them, we are mutually dependent, barely living in a state of sanity, for madness constantly lurks around the corner.

Israeli police and stop and check Palestinians going out of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya on October 15, 2015, Jerusalem, Israel. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)
Israeli police and stop and check Palestinians going out of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya on October 15, 2015, Jerusalem, Israel. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

As the past few days have shown, this city can be set ablaze in a moment; all it takes is two kids from neighborhoods who have been encircled by a wall for the past decade, because hatred and despair will breach any barrier. And in this city, pyromaniacs who invoke either the name of Allah or the name of the God of Hosts can always be found. Only in the trauma units do we all return to being the children of the God of Mercy, when we are in the tolerant hands of Omar and Omer, David and Daoud, Yousef and Yosef, Amira and Amira.

Let us not delude ourselves. This is not a partitioning of the city, and there is no hidden plan here for a possible arrangement that is being imposed on us unwittingly. This is a unilateral separation that is carving up and crushing the Palestinian expanse without any consideration for everyday life or for a possible future compromise. It is a nightmare that is turning our entire city into one vast prison, where we are all jailers or inmates, guards and imprisoned. Control is only getting tighter, but we differ from one another only in the relative freedom of movement between one barrier and another. It will not be long before we close down our streets and then our homes, and wherever we look we will see only barriers and  and hatred and despair, and a city that has shattered into fragments.

And one day we will wake up, pained and crazed in the midst of this nightmare and ask ourselves: couldn’t things have been different? How is it that despite the horror and the fear we did not grit our teeth and search for ways to calm the situation, to compromise and engage in dialogue. How is it that we let this madness devour our future? Where were the social services, the educators and school principals, the community leadership, the public figures, the rabbis and the qadis? Where were the city leaders whose professional and public obligation is to see beyond the moment and beyond the fear?

This madness can still be stopped. We can still talk and engage one another; we can still, with a great deal of restraint and mutual tolerance, restore relative sanity to the city. We can still hope that if we overcome this nightmare, it will be possible, slowly and with understanding — by surmounting many obstacles and difficulties — to create a different future for Jerusalem. One with full political and civil equality, within agreed-upon borders, in an open city.

Yudith Oppenheimer is the Executive Director of Ir Amim.