Jerusalem’s Train to Nowhere

Jerusalem’s light rail trams, once a haven of normality, have come under attack in recent months. Credit Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times

On Tuesday, two young Palestinian men from East Jerusalem attacked a synagogue at the city’s western edge. Wielding butcher knives, axes and a gun, they murdered four Jewish worshipers and wounded several others, including a policeman who later died. They were both shot at the scene.

Palestinian extremists praised the brutal killings; Palestinian moderates denounced them. Israel responded by demolishing a different terrorist’s house and vowing to destroy the killers’ homes, too. Meanwhile, Israeli officials made their usual declarations: Terror, they promised, would not tear apart a “unified Jerusalem,” the eternal capital of the Jewish people. But what exactly does unity mean in a divided city?

Jerusalem has been the center of Jewish life for millenniums; it is also sacred to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, and it is here that Jesus was crucified. Its Old City is the most symbolically burdened square kilometer in the world.

Throughout its recorded history, Jerusalem has been constantly conquered and liberated by peoples who sought to keep it for themselves.

In 1947, the United Nations voted to partition British-ruled Palestine and declared Jerusalem an “international city.” But the British drew maps ensuring that no holy Christian sites would be controlled by Jews or Muslims.

Following Israel’s 1948 war of independence, armistice agreements handed East Jerusalem to Jordan, and West Jerusalem to Israel; barbed wire and ugly swaths of no-man’s lands cut across the city. Jews were forbidden to visit their holy sites and Arabs were barred from their former homes.

In the 1967 war, Israel recaptured the Old City and the East from Jordan, annexed it, and decreed Jerusalem unified.

In an attempt to ensure that the city would remain “unified forever,” which is officialese for Israeli sovereignty with a Jewish majority, Israel ringed the city with Jewish neighborhoods and built extensively in the newly annexed and occupied parts of East Jerusalem. Extremists set up Jewish enclaves in Arab neighborhoods. But as recent events have painfully shown, cities can’t be unified by fiat or by force.

Officially, the 300,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem, about 37 percent of the city’s population, are “permanent residents,” a status that entitles them to work and travel freely throughout Israel, to receive welfare and health benefits and to vote in municipal (but not national) elections. Unlike citizenship, residency status can be canceled — and often is — by the Israeli authorities.

In practice, East Jerusalem receives few public services and even fewer building permits for its growing population. National pride trumps urban expediency. Palestinians refuse to grant legitimacy to Israeli authorities and don’t vote in local elections or interact with City Hall. West Jerusalem is a jumble of ancient architecture and modern sophistication; East Jerusalem is a jumble of urban neglect.

Over the years, Jerusalem has largely managed to maintain this unhappy status quo, except for occasional periods of violence. Until a few months ago, it seemed that at least one thing brought Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites together: the light rail system, with its sleek electric trams gliding from the west, past the Old City walls and through the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. It was pointed to as proof that technology could unite the city and make it normal, all for less than $2 a ride. Jews and Arabs rode together on their way to work, largely ignoring each other, but at least rubbing shoulders during rush hour.

Now this ostensible symbol of urban normalization has become a trail of blood — and the city seems more divided than ever. On July 2, near a tram stop in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat, 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and later burned alive by Jewish extremists, apparently in revenge for the killing of three Israeli teenagers in late June.

Nearby, on Aug. 4, during the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem rammed a construction vehicle into a bus, killing one and injuring five.

On Oct. 22, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem drove his car into a crowd of people as they got off the tram, killing a 3-month-old baby and mortally wounding a 22-year-old woman. In early November, a Palestinian Jerusalemite drove his car into a group of civilians, near another station, killing one and wounding 13.

Meanwhile, Jews have attacked Palestinians riding the trams or walking through West Jerusalem. These days, people stay on their own turf, fearing a lone vengeful terrorist or vigilante who could attack without warning.

Modern technology alone, we’ve learned, cannot bring normalization. Israeli officials promoted the light rail network as a symbol of coexistence that would create interactions between Arabs and Jews. Palestinians denounced it as a tool of colonization that entrenches Israeli occupation because the trams cruise through Arab neighborhoods en route to Israeli settlements. Since the gruesome kidnapping and immolation in July, the network has been constantly attacked. By last month, 15 of the line’s 23 trams had been damaged by stones and firebombs thrown by Palestinians.

And all the while, Israeli officials have continued to declare that Jerusalem will remain Israeli, while Palestinian officials insist that Jerusalem belongs to them.

Yet, with all their talk of Jerusalem’s indivisibility, neither side has a plan to enable everyone to live functional, productive lives here.

Both sides profess their love for this city, but they love it as a violently jealous man loves a woman: If he cannot control her, he would rather see her dead.

But Jerusalem cannot be controlled. To survive, it must be creatively shared — and that means it must be clearly politically divided before it can be geographically and functionally united.

Jerusalem must become the capital of two independent states, Israel and Palestine, in order to calm the strong nationalist and religious sentiments of its residents. East and West Jerusalem could be separate municipalities answering to the needs of their respective constituencies and administered and coordinated by a larger regional structure. And a joint administration could be created inside the Old City, with international support and supervision.

There are models. A transborder metropolitan zone exists on the Italian-Slovenian frontier. And old icons of urban conflict like Belfast, Sarajevo and Beirut have all been united to different degrees, and are now mostly at peace.

To function as an earthly place rather than a heavenly symbol, Jerusalem needs a common urban infrastructure that allows people and goods to flow freely. If that happens, then maybe our trams can become just another routine form of public transportation, rather than a symbol of conflict and conquest.

Eetta Prince-Gibson is a former Washington Post special correspondent and the editor in chief of The Jerusalem Report from 2007 to 2012.

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