As a Palestinian who lives in the Old City of Jerusalem, I must admit, I am so glad I’m not going home today. Instead of making my usual journey back to Jerusalem via the miserable Qalandiya checkpoint, I will be staying on this side of the wall. Today, of all days, I do not wish to be in the Old City because I just don’t need the heartache.
Today is what Israel calls “Jerusalem Day,” commemorating the day the Old City fell to Israeli forces two days into the 1967 War. Since that day, Israel has been celebrating the “unification” of Jerusalem and its “return” to Jewish hands. The day is marked by tens of thousands of Israelis marching through the streets of the city, down through the narrow alleyways of the Old City, through the Muslim quarter to the plaza of the Western Wall. Hoards of young and overzealous settlers sing loudly, dance and carry huge Israeli flags through Palestinian neighborhoods, banging provocatively on closed shops and ringing the doorbells of bolted up homes.
As you may have guessed, it’s not a pleasant sight. I have lived in the Old City for 13 years and every year I have been confronted with this offensive scene. The second year I moved to the Old City, my then-infant son was in my arms when I unknowingly walked into the nightmarish party of settlers just a few hundred meters from my house. As they pranced around singing and chanting in Hebrew, some with their guns slung across their shoulders or stuck into the backs of their pants, I instinctively pulled my son closer to me as I tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Nothing is more uncomfortable than walking into what felt like a pit of snakes, especially when I was on usually familiar ground.
So that is why today I will stay away from Jerusalem. If anything, today’s march will be more zealous than ever, what with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and west Jerusalem mayor Nir Barakat vowing to keep Jerusalem united and to continue building [Jewish] homes in the city.
"Jerusalem was united, and will never be divided again,” Israel’s premier defiantly declared in front of a group of yeshiva students. “Next year in a more built up Jerusalem,” he vowed.
His message couldn’t be clearer. Regardless of international law, pressure from the United States, the United Nations, and just about the entire international community, Netanyahu is basically telling everyone to “stick it.” Israel will never release its clutches from Jerusalem.
Besides this being racist, unjust and completely undemocratic, to say the least, this is also extremely narrow-minded. Netanyahu, just like his predecessors, are insulting the very essence of Jerusalem. It is not Jewish, but it is not solely Muslim or Christian either. That would be selfish and intolerant. Jerusalem and its layers of history, humanity and religious significance cannot be claimed by one. To do so is offending the significance of its walls, its mosques, its churches and its historic stones.
Jerusalem, quite frankly should be an open city. This is really the only solution that would do justice to all those who wish to worship in it, to relive its history and to appreciate its beauty. Jews claim they are finally able to return to the Western Wall to pray. That would be fine if that were the case for other religions as well. Palestinian Muslims from the West Bank and Gaza cannot pray in Al Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam and Palestinian Christians just kilometers away cannot worship in the church where Jesus was crucified. If anything, Jerusalem has been increasingly isolated from its Palestinian surroundings through Israel’s system of exclusion, manifested in the separation wall, the checkpoints and the permit system firmly in place for Palestinians.
To put it plain and simple, Israel cannot claim for itself what it denies to others and still call itself a democracy. Neither can it hold a monopoly over a city of such significance to all peoples and faiths such as Jerusalem.
So today, as Jewish settlers and die-hard Zionist patriots march arrogantly through the ancient city streets, I will be somewhere else, waiting for the day when Jerusalem will be free of such absolutism.