One of the benefits of being a student at a leading university is the opportunity, almost any given day of the week, to benefit from the wisdom, even brilliance, of others: to see movies, hear lectures, attend seminars, visit museums and just plain ol' bump into people who can teach you a great deal.
And it's not always purely academic. Such was the case yesterday, when I went to a presentation by Amos Gil, former executive director of Ir Amim (City of Peoples; City of Nations), a nonprofit "civil society" group working for a "sustainable political future for the city of Jerusalem." In its "City of Peoples" aspect, Ir Amim is concerned with the needs of Israelis and Palestinians "on the ground" -- people who need services, decent housing, ingress and egress, and the ability to go to sleep at night in their own beds without fearing for their lives or their homes. In its "City of Nations" aspect, the organization is concerned with the political challenges of Jerusalem as a city comprised of some 250,000 Palestinians (about 30 per cent of the total Jerusalem population), a city in which some live in squalor and some in splendor, and a city in which previously segregated neighboroods are becoming increasingly diverse, which presents challenges of its own (more on that below).
In his presentation, Gil was pragmatic, non-ideological, extremely clear and concise, well informed, and realistic. He gently but firmly deflected questions of an ideological bent, defused emotion and corrected popular misconception.
Most important, he gave a roomful of (mostly) American students a thorough and detailed look at the geographical, cultural and political complexities of the city of Jerusalem as a capitol city -- one he hopes will in the not-too-distant future be the capital of two sovereign states -- as an administrative entity, as an interlocking system of neighborhoods, as a security challenge, a collection of holy sites, and as a profound urban planning challenge.
He began by asking those in attendance how they would define "East Jerusalem." Fortunately, the first person called on gave what Gil said was the best definition he'd ever gotten from an audience: "That portion of Jerusalem that was under Jordanian control from 1948 to 1967, and which came under Israeli conrol after the 1967 war." What he was after was probably the description we so often hear on news broadcasts: "Arab East Jerusalem." The reality, with East Jerusalem as with the rest of the city, is far more complex. One of the largest complexities is that East Jerusalem is home to tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who became permanent residents (possessed of all civil rights of Israel, other than the right to vote, and not obligated to serve in the Israeli army) when, in 1988, King Hussein of Jordan relinquished all his country's historical claims to the city. The Palestinians in East Jerusalem are citizens of the city, but of no nation.
Gil's presentation focused on the geopolitical complexities that arose in the years after the Second Intifada, which began in September of 2000. In four and a half years, more than 1,500 Israelis were killed in suicide attacks, about one third of those in West Jerusalem. In response, the Sharon government launched plans to build what Gil said is best described as "the security barrier." The government insisted the barrier was not a play for land, but a last resort to enhance security and keep civilians from getting killed in terror attacks. By defining the area contained within the barrier as "Greater Jerusalem," Sharon put an undeniable political lens over all future maps of the city.
Gil said, protestations of the government notwithstanding, the barrier's route showed a clear political agenda: in hilly country, it tends to occupy high ground. It extends, in the South, to the edge of the large concentration of Palestinians around Bethlehem, and, in the North, to the edge of Ramallah. In so doing, it carves out a wider area for the expansion of the population of Jerusalem -- especially the Jewish population.
Gil said ir Amim understands the rationale behind these measures. As a "civil society" group, its area of focus is not so much what was done, as how it was done, and the ramifications, for ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, not only now, but for all efforts at urban planning and management, and conflict resolution, going forard. The process for determining that a barrier would be built, and for determining that barrier's route, created harsh divisions and unescapable new realities in which the citizens being affected could not participate. It forced the segregation and isolation of many communities, and made others the subject of fierce competition behind ideologically oriented groups of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Furthermore, the barrier's defensive strength in limiting suicide attacks is also its weakness: the wall creates a barrier from behind which rockets can easily be launched. Perhaps suicide bombings will be less common, but the barrier may have facilitated other, equally terrible kinds of attacks.
The barrier has also helped empower Hamas in the southern (poorer) areas of East Jerusalem. Gil said Palestinian "civil society" groups fear the increasing power of Hamas far more than they chafe under Israeli occupation. They far prefer to remain under Israeli control, although they don't say so "for pragmatic reasons." This, Gil said, was a mistake that began with George W. Bush, who compelled Israel to agree to let Hamas participate in Palestinian elections. In portions of East Jerusalem now, ultra-religious Jews and Muslims are living in close proximity to one another. "Something," Gil said, "is bound to explode."
Gil said whereas a two-state solution was anathema five years ago, it is now widely accepted as the solution that must be pursued. Because of the increasing complexity of Jerusalem, including the complexity that the barrier inadvertently created, one consideration that must be considered is "combining physical unity with symbolic division."
Such a combination of unity and division, as understood by Israelis, is a far cry from the clear ideological and geographical divisions we see form a distance. Most Western media portrays as a "settlement" any neighborhood of Jews beyond the Green Line. Many of these neighborhoods are widely considered by Israelis and Palestinians to be settled Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. The areas that Israelis consider "settlements" are those blue areas on the map that the barrier (the blue line" juts out in order to encompass.
What was refreshing about Gil's presentation was the complete absence of shrillness, and the frank distinction between ideology and pragmatism it maintained. Ir Amim strives to make Jerusalem, in the words of its web site, "a city that ensures the dignity and welfare of all its residents and that safeguards their holy places, as well as their historical and cultural heritages – today, as well as in the future." That much was clear.
It is a clear task but an impossible task -- one that Jews and Muslims, Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians, daily confront. Still, Ir-Amim and its Israeli and Palestinian partner organizations are, if Gil is any indication, ideally suited to the impossible: pragmatic, tough, smart, realistic without being pessimistic, positive without being naive.
It is with such people that change really begins.
A note to all readers: I find strident ideological commentary, of any stripe and on any issue, profoundly tiresome, and I will unhesistatingly delete any comment that descends to that level. All other comments are most welcome.