Last time I visited Jerusalem I met an Arab who said he’s ready to die in a nuclear holocaust as long as the bomb destroys Israel.
Every time I visit the country I try to talk to Arabs so that I don’t hear only the Jewish perspective. Not that there’s only one Jewish perspective, of course. Anyone who pays even the slightest attention to Israel knows the politics there are famously fractious. The overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis agree on some things, however, and you either have to talk to people on the lunatic fringe of the spectrum, to radical foreign activists, or to Palestinians if you want to hear something different. A Palestinian man who asked me to quote him as “Ghazi” did not disappoint when I sought something different.
He sells jewelry in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, a place I like to go once in a while to talk politics with the shopkeepers. They’re unfailingly pleasant to sit with, and they’re interesting. They don’t always say what you’d expect. Ghazi certainly didn’t.
Some of them, though, don’t want to talk about politics whether or not I tell them I’m a journalist. It isn’t their job. That’s not what they’re there for.
The first man I talked to on my most recent trip shook his head when I asked if I could interview him. He sat on the steps outside his shop and had the posture of a man hunkering down while waiting for a storm to pass over.
“Can you at least tell me if the political situation is good or bad?” I said.
“It’s bad,” he said, but he wouldn’t elaborate. “Somebody around here will talk to you,” he said and gestured by flicking his eyes.
Perhaps he felt overwhelmed by Zionist-imperialist colonizers. Maybe he was dismayed by his fellow Palestinians and their eternal rejectionism. He may have had a different set of complaints altogether, a set of complaints that I can’t even imagine. I don’t know, but whatever it was, he did not want to tell me.
Ghazi, though, said I had come to the right place when I asked if we could talk politics. I made it clear, though, that I didn’t want him to tell me what he thought Americans wanted to hear. Every journalist worthy of the title eventually figures out that this sort of thing happens a lot in the Middle East and needs to be factored in. I wanted to know what Ghazi really thought, and I said so.
“Promise you won’t get mad at me,” he said.
“I’ve been working in this region for years,” I said. “I’ve heard everything. So, no, I won’t get mad, and I won’t take it personally.”
“Promise me,” he said again. The last thing he needed as a shopkeeper catering to tourists was an American yelling at him in his store.
“I promise you I won’t get mad,” I said and grinned. I liked where this was going and that he was nervous. He was gearing up to be honest.
“You’re sure?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m a journalist, and I’ve heard it all. There’s no point talking to you if you won’t be honest with me.”
“Okay,” he said, relieved. “Then I will tell you what’s in my heart.”
Around 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs. Unlike their brethren in the region’s refugee camps, they remained in Israel after the Jewish state’s declaration of independence from the post-Ottoman British Mandate, and so they were naturalized. Some people refer to them as the Palestinians of 1948, and they’re politically and culturally distinct from the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, most of whom will eventually become citizens of Palestine rather than Israel.
Israeli Arabs get precious little attention in the media, and as a consequence are largely ignored and even forgotten outside Israel. There’s a third group, only a few hundred thousand in number, that gets even less attention than the Palestinians of 1948, and they are who I think of as the Palestinians of 1967.
I’m referring here to the Arab residents of Jerusalem. Like Israel’s Arabs, they were offered citizenship, only this time in the wake of the 1967 war rather than the 1948 war. In June of that year Israel defensively took the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, but it never annexed the territories. Both remain beyond the borders of Israel not only according to the “international community,” but also according to the Israeli government.
Israel did, however, annex the formerly Jordanian-occupied parts of Jerusalem. Everyone who lived in those neighborhoods at that time were Arabs because Jordan ethnically-cleansed the Jewish residents when it completed its conquest of the eastern half of the city in 1949. Victorious Israel didn’t ethnically cleanse anyone, though, so annexing east Jerusalem meant annexing its people, and the Palestinians there were offered Israeli citizenship.
Some happily accepted, but most turned it down. Unlike the Palestinians of 1948, they weren’t interested in living in Israel. They said no to annexation and therefore no to naturalization. Since the Israelis didn’t want to impose citizenship upon the unwilling, the government declared them “residents of Jerusalem,” issued them the same identification cards Israelis use, and gave them all the rights of citizenship but one. The only thing they can’t do is vote for members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, unless they first take out citizenship.
Recently, more and more of Jerusalem’s Palestinians have taken Israel up on its offer. The number was but a trickle for decades, but it increased dramatically a few years after the second Intifada.
“For forty or so years,” historian Yaacov Lozowick explain to me, “between 1967 and the mid-2000s, they enjoyed having this limbo status. They didn’t even vote in the municipal elections, even though they have the right to. They were able to vote in the Palestinian elections, and most of them didn’t exercise that right either. They don’t vote because they don’t want to take sides.”
It must be excruciatingly difficult at least for some Palestinians living in Israel. They naturally sympathize with their fellow Palestinians in a general sort of way. How could they not? And yet they enjoy nearly all the benefits of living in Israel, benefits they would instantly lose if they were placed under Palestinian sovereignty.
“Their standard of living is considerably higher than the Palestinians in the West Bank,” Lozowick said. “It’s lower than on the western side of the city, but it’s moving up. And the people there did not participate in the second Intifada. They have a completely different state of mind than the Palestinians in the West Bank. And in the past three years, there has been an ever-growing movement among them to acquire full-fledged Israeli citizenship. Twelve to fifteen thousand of them have recently filed citizenship papers. And around 20,000 of them were already Israeli citizens. The number is growing all the time.
“There is tremendous social and political pressure on them from the Palestinians in the West Bank,” he continued, “not to do that because everybody recognizes that if the number of Arabs in east Jerusalem reaches a critical mass of Israeli citizens, then Israel will not be able to divide Jerusalem. The entire city will be made up of Israeli citizens.”
The man I met who called himself Ghazi, however, is emphatically not one of the Palestinians of 1967 who wants to stay in Israel.
“The whole process is useless,” he told me back in his jewelry store. “Israel has all of Jerusalem with American support. Where is our state? Where is our freedom? Everyone else has a state. The international community cares more about animal rights than Palestinian rights.”
“Are you interested in a two-state solution,” I said, “or taking back all of historic Palestine from the Israelis?”
“Israel has 80 percent of Palestine,” he said. “I’ll compromise on the 1967 lines even though I don’t like it because if I don’t compromise on the 1967 lines, I will get nothing.”
The first time I wandered into the Old City to interview Arabs, I met a very different kind of Palestinian, the kind Lozowick was telling me about, named Samir.
“When there is, eventually, a two-state solution,” I said, “do you want to live on the Israeli side or the Palestinian side?”
“The Israeli side!” he said instantly and emphatically as if there were no other possible answer. “None of us want anything to do with the Palestinian Authority. They are corrupt. They are impossible. They are not straight. No one can deal with those people.”
“Are the Israelis straight?” I said.
“No!” he said. “But they are better. Which side would you rather live on?”
Ghazi, though, had no interest whatsoever in living in Israel under any circumstances. “Of course I’d rather live in a Palestinian state!” he said.
Jerusalem’s Old City might someday be divided between Israel and Palestine. Ehud Barak offered to give the Palestinians three of its four quarters while keeping only the Jewish Quarter for Israel. Yasser Arafat, instead of taking the deal, ignited the war of the suicide bombers. Bill Clinton told Arafat in no uncertain terms that if he turned down the offer that he wouldn’t get a second chance later, but the Palestinians were offered something similar by Israel’s last prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and someday their leaders might be in the mood to say yes.
I wanted to know what that might mean to me as an American. I had just walked to the Muslim Quarter from the German Colony on the Jewish side of the city. Might I someday need a visa to make that same journey? Would a border between Israel and Palestine even be open? No one can cross the Lebanese-Israeli border, nor can anyone but a handful of Druze holy men cross the Syrian-Israeli border.
“When I come here to visit,” I said, “will I be able to quickly and easily cross the border from Israel into Palestine, or will there be a hard impenetrable border like the one up north with Lebanon?”
“You will be able to walk here,” Ghazi said. “It won’t be like Lebanon. Lebanon, unlike Jordan, is a country of men. Hezbollah fights for its rights much better than we do. Hezbollah is more honest than me. I only care about money.”
I didn’t want to argue with him, but he deals with people for a living and could see by the look on my face that I was dismayed by his praise for Hezbollah.
“There can be no real peace with Israel or with Jews, believe me,” he said. “You are dreaming of peace, but there will never be peace.”
“But you just had Jewish customers in your store,” I said, “and you were friendly to them.”
“Yes,” he said, “because I need their money and don’t care if they are Jewish. If this was a Hezbollah store, Hezbollah would tell them to leave.”
He admires Hezbollah, but isn’t necessarily willing to emulate them or to run off and join Hamas as a fighter or suicide bomber.
“I don’t want to fight,” he said. “I just want my rights.”
He could acquire the final right of Israeli citizenship—the right to vote for members of the Knesset—just by filling out paperwork, but that’s not what he meant. He wasn’t talking about individual rights, which are far better established in Israel than in any other country around. No, he was referring to community rights, the right of his community to be sovereign in at least part of the Holy Land.
“You don’t sound optimistic,” I said.
“There will never be peace here,” he said.
“It’s quiet now, though,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “because we can’t fight. Hezbollah can, though. Israel is not ready to fight Hezbollah. The Israelis could invade Syria and have lunch in Damascus tomorrow, but they can’t fight Hezbollah.”
Even though he’s a Sunni he wasn’t bothered in the least when I reminded him that Hezbollah, which is Shia, invaded Sunni West Beirut in 2008.
“Hezbollah is more honest than me,” he said.
“How so?” I said.
“They will fight,” he said, “and they will die for what they believe in. I care about my shop and supporting my family, my children.”
I’m not sure “honest” is precisely the word he was looking for. Perhaps what he meant is that Hezbollah fighters are more true to themselves than he is.
American counterinsurgency officers under the command of General David Petraeus helped middle class shopkeepers with microgrants precisely to turn radical would-be insurgents into people like Ghazi. Iraqis with families and a stake in the local economy, those with responsibilities and something to lose, are far less likely to fight or to tolerate fighting.
I needed to know how many of Jerusalem’s Palestinians secretly or not-so secretly had opinions like Ghazi’s compared with those with more moderate opinions. With only a few notable exceptions, hardly any of them have committed acts of terrorism, but might they in the future in a worst-case scenario? What if there’s a third Intifada? Can Jerusalem’s Arabs behave as neutrals indefinitely?
There’s no way I could find out just by talking to Arabs at random on the east side of the city. So I met up with Hillel Cohen, an Israeli who knows the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem better than almost anyone. He used to be a journalist, but now he’s a university lecturer. He has written a number of books, and his newest one available in English is a translation of The Rise and Fall of Arab Jerusalem where he describes Palestinian politics in the city, mostly since the Oslo Agreement, but also during and after the second Intifada.
“So you’re an expert on the Arab side of the city,” I said.
“In Israeli eyes, yes,” he said.
“What about in Arab eyes?” I said.
“They say I’m an expert on Israeli issues,” he said.
“No,” he said, “I’m serious. I wrote a column for years about Israeli affairs. And of course everyone knows their own society better than they can ever know somebody else’s.”
Still, he knows Palestinian society far better than I do, and I hoped he could explain it to me in Western terms.
“Is it true,” I said, “that the Arab Nationalist wing of the Palestinian movement in Jerusalem is more or less finished?”
“No,” he said, “but it’s hollowed out. They’re much weaker than they were before. They’re isolated. The Palestinians in Jerusalem, including members of the nationalist movement, are physically separated from the main body of Palestinians in the West Bank. Many of them are detached from politics. They’re not less attached to Palestinian ideology, but they are less likely to practice it.”
“What’s the political mainstream now among Jerusalem’s Arabs?” I said.
“Passivism,” he said. “They’re passive. This is actually true of most people in most societies, but here you feel it more. They used to be extremely politicized, but now they are much less so.”
I know that he’s right about that. Hardly any of Jerusalem’s Arabs participated in the second Intifada, and they interact politely and peaceably with Israeli Jews every day in the Old City and in the historical basin’s adjacent areas.
“There has been a development of a new identity,” he said. “They have a separate identity within the larger Palestinian identity. There are many sub-identities. They can be Christian, Israeli, Gazan, from the West Bank and the Diaspora. Now there is a Jerusalem-Palestinian identity.”
Much hay is made out of the fact that a Palestinian identity did not really exist before the creation of Israel, and that’s true, but that hardly means it doesn’t exist today. The Jordanian identity is also new in the world and stands in marked contrast with the Palestinian identity that coexists uneasily in the same country. (An enormous percentage of Jordanian citizens are Palestinians.) And it’s equally true that, like Cohen says, there are sub-identities including the Jordanian-Palestinian identity that he forgot to mention.
The Palestinians of Jerusalem are very different indeed from the Palestinians of Hebron, for instance, who must be physically kept away from Jewish settlers in the city with ghastly security measures.
Jews and Arabs there don’t even mix coldly and rudely. Hebron has the hardest of the hard-core Israeli settlers, including the infamous Baruch Goldstein who massacred 29 Palestinians at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994, and a number of violent rejectionists on the Palestinian side, including a sniper who shot a baby in a carriage clean through the head. Hebron is a dark, violent, and hate-stricken, but Jerusalem, by comparison, is a city of light on a hill.
“There are many different streams in the society,” he said, “but this is also true of many individuals. There are two different political lexicons among the Palestinians, and you can hear both from the same people. A person will tell you the Jews should be killed because they’re the enemies of God, they don’t have any rights here, and so on. But the next day he’ll say we’re all brothers, we’re all human beings, we have to co-exist here in the Holy Land. I hear both from the same people.”
“What do you make of that?” I said.
“I don’t understand it,” he said. “If they say one thing to one person and something different to somebody else, that I can understand. I don’t have an explanation for why I hear such different things from the same person. The culture does have two different lexicons, though. It has one of peace and one of struggle, one of human rights and one of…I don’t know what.”
The only explanation I can think of is that they have two contradictory yet sincere thoughts in their hearts and their minds at the same time. Most humans have mixed feelings about some things, and it only makes sense that a Palestinian who lives in Israel and has nearly all the same rights as Israeli Jews will be pulled in opposing directions more than most people are.
“Do you think they’re sincere when they say each contradictory thing?” I asked Cohen.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Do you have ever ask them about this?” I said.
“Yes, of course,” he said.
“What do they say?” I said.
“Nothing memorable,” he said. “I don’t remember anything significant. I became aware of this many years ago. Of course, at the beginning I was shy to ask, but then I started asking the people I knew better before I finally had to stop. They’re confused, but they don’t have anything interesting to say about it. They’ll say something like, ‘Yes, you know, well, this is Islam, it’s written in our book, so we have to say it, but we don’t always mean it.’ They’ll also say, ‘in Islam you can also find other things, not only that we should kill the Jews.’”
He wanted to know why I came to him to learn about Arabs, which is a very good question. And I have a good reason.
“Because you’ll tell me things that they won’t,” I said.
“That’s because they tell me things that they won’t tell you,” he said.
“Exactly,” I said.
“They’ll tell you about the Jews, though,” he said. “They will tell you many interesting things. They wanted to say ‘Stop using Muslim blood in your Matzoh’ at their demonstrations, but it didn’t pass the slogans committee of the Israeli left.” He laughed. He’s a jokey kind of guy even in a serious interview. I don’t know if he was kidding about both halves of that sentence or only the second part.
Jews and Arabs are integrated in Haifa. They live in the same neighborhoods, hang out in the same coffeeshops, and go to the same parties. People on both sides of the ethnic and religious divide are proud of the fact that they’ve overcome most of their differences. There’s a coexistence center there that I intend to visit next time I’m in town.
In Jerusalem, relations are cooler. They aren’t ice cold by any means, and they certainly aren’t violently hostile as they are in Hebron, but each community for the most part keeps to itself. I almost never see Arabs in Jewish restaurants, or vice versa, outside the Old City.
“The only relations are in places where Jews and Arabs work together,” Cohen said. “You will often see very good relations among people who work together, but it doesn’t mean they like each other or that it has any political significance. When Palestinians talk about the period before the first Intifada, they’ll say we used to work together. They say, ‘we used to have many Jewish friends, they used to come to our weddings.’ And it’s true. There were many cases like that, usually with the lower-middle class in Israel, or with Mizrahi Jews. It’s easier for them than for upper-middle class Ashkenazi Jews.”
I can’t help but think the Arab side of the city will never be integrated with the Jewish side. Very few friendships exists across that civilizational divide. Aside from the Old City, hardly anyone crosses from one side to another unless they work on the other side, which also is rare. Aside from the Old City and its immediate surroundings, east Jerusalem doesn’t even appear on most tourist maps of the city. It’s as though the Arab side is not even there. Beirut is also divided by religion, with Christians on the east side and Muslims on the west side, but it’s still a single living city and downright homogenous compared with Jerusalem.
“Jews and Arabs famously get along so well in Haifa, though,” I said. “I hear this all the time. Why do you suppose the two groups are more separate here?”
“In Haifa,” he said, “the Arabs are citizens of Israel. The Palestinians in Jerusalem aren’t. I don’t think they can be on good terms if there is no equality. That’s one reason. The Palestinians of Jerusalem are also, at least according to the narrative, in a struggle for independence. The Palestinians in Haifa aren’t struggling for independence, they’re struggling for equality inside the State of Israel. So it’s much easier for them.”
The Palestinian residents of Jerusalem aren’t allowed to vote for the Israeli Knesset unless they take out citizenship, but they can vote in Jerusalem’s municipality elections. Very few of them, however, do.
“Why don’t they vote?” I asked Cohen.
“They don’t like to vote,” he said. “They also don’t put letters in the mail. They don’t like to put envelopes into boxes.” He laughed at his own joke. I chuckled, too, partly because hardly anyone cracks jokes while I’m recording an interview. “Seriously, though, they don’t have any reason to vote.”
“But they could run their own candidates and vote for their own candidates and get representation in the government if they don’t like being governed by Jews.”
“It would be wrong, politically, from their perspective,” he said.
“What’s their political mainstream?” I said. “Is there even a mainstream?”
“No,” he said. “There’s not.”
“Which faction is the biggest?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “You’d have to conduct polls, and you’d have to ask the right questions. It’s very difficult. If you ask them if they’d rather have 1967 borders or an Islamic caliphate, well, neither is ever going to happen. But the mainstream is against armed struggle in Jerusalem. That doesn’t mean the problem will be solved soon, but I think this will continue to be the mainstream. I think it’s very difficult to be a Palestinian in Jerusalem.”
“What do you expect to see happen in Jerusalem?” I said. “If you had to guess what it will be like here in 50 years, what would you say?”
“Some war,” he said. “Some peace. Some negotiations. The usual stuff.” We both laughed. That’s more or less what everyone in the Middle East thinks.
“What do you think the Israeli government should do?” I said.
“The government should resign,” he said.
“I don’t mean the Netanyahu government in particular,” I said, “I mean the government in general.”
“So do I,” he said. “In general, the government should resign.”
“And I mean governments in general,” he said, “not only in Israel.”
Both of us laughed. But one man who doesn’t think any of this is funny is Ghazi back in the Old City.
Ghazi gave me a glass of water and a chair and let me sit behind the counter with him, but asked me to quietly let him work whenever a customer came into the store. I heard him speaking Arabic, French, Hebrew, English and Russian to various customers. When I asked him how many languages he knows, he said he also speaks fluent Italian.
At one point a very rude and aggressive French speaker came in. Ghazi’s blood pressure rose, and soon the two men yelled at each other about what a necklace should cost. The customer eventually threatened to take the necklace for 200 shekels by force. Ghazi gripped him hard around the arm and physically shoved him into the street. “Get out!” he said. “Get out of my store!”
His face flushed red, but he drank some cool water and calmed down.
“Where were we?” he said.
“We were discussing politics,” I said, “so let me ask you what you think of Barack Obama.”
“I will cut off my hand if Obama makes peace in this country,” he said. “He can’t. And when he’s gone, the next president will be the same. Obama is on Israel’s side. I don’t know if it’s because of the Jewish lobby or what, but he will never force Israel to give us a state.”
“All our recent presidents,” I said, “including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, supported a Palestinian state.”
He dismissed what I said with a wave of his hand.
“What about Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza?” I said.
Again, he dismissed what I said with a wave of his hand.
I asked him about Barak’s and Clinton’s offers for a final settlement in 2000, which would have given the Palestinians all of Gaza, almost all of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, including the Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters of the Old City.
“They wouldn’t give us the mosque,” he said.
“The Al Aqsa Mosque,” I said.
“Yes, the mosque,” he said.
“Israelis don’t care about keeping the mosque,” I said. “They just want to keep the Western Wall of the temple.”
“I hope Iran gets the bomb,” he said. “Then we’ll be equal.”
“Don’t you think that will make the Middle East even more dangerous than it already is?” I said.
“I am ready to die,” he said. “If Israel can be destroyed, I am willing to die.”
Ghazi may be part of a political minority among the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. But how many who live in the West Bank and Gaza think like he does?
“I’m not ready to die,” I said. “And I don’t want to die here.”
He placed his hand on my arm and said, “then you should go back to your country.”
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