Postcards from Abu Dis (3): Where is the “there” in Jerusalem?

A letter published in yesterday’s New York Times makes a bitter complaint about the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the location of Jerusalem:

To the Editor:

Re “Justices Reject Passport Law on Jerusalem” (front page, June 9):

Jerusalem is where the Knesset, Israel’s legislative body, is. Jerusalem is where Israel’s prime minister, cabinet and president have their offices and meet. Whatever some governments, world organizations or politicians might say, these are facts.

Ignoring these facts harms the prospects for peace in an increasingly violent, destabilized Middle East. Israel’s ancient capital, Jerusalem, is not a negotiating pawn to be offered up by the American president or the State Department as they may see fit.

To treat Jerusalem as other than Israel’s capital throws gasoline on the fires already raging across the Middle East.


Davis, Calif.

Here’s a prior question: Where is Jerusalem? What are its city limits?

To answer that question, take a look at this map of Jerusalem and environs, from Google Maps. Intuitively, where should the eastern boundary of “Jerusalem, Israel” lie?

Intuitively, it ought to lie on the 1949 Armistice Line, indicated on the map. But it doesn’t. Israel has unilaterally annexed swatches of land to the east of that line in an incremental fashion so that it’s simply unclear where Israeli Jerusalem is supposed to end on its eastern side.

So “Jerusalem” now includes the Old City (Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Western Wall, Al Aqsa Mosque), the Mount of Olives, Silwan, Ma’alot Ir David Street, the uninhabited portions of Nahal Kidron, etc. right up to the separation wall at Abu Dis and Eizariyah, miles into the West Bank, and miles away from what any naive American would have regarded as the eastern border of Jerusalem. (It doesn’t matter what naive Americans think; we don’t think. We just brainlessly foot the bill for others’ sectarian-nationalist projects.) The total arbitrariness of these boundaries doesn’t bother the Israeli government. Nor is it bothered by the fact that its de facto boundary is miles into the territory of the would-be state that it claims to regard as a partner in the so-called “two state solution.” We Americans haven’t quite come to grips with the fact that our favorite ally in the Middle East is a country whose demands are more determinate than its borders.

A look at the map should also reveal how an opportunistic Israeli city planner might decide to take things further still. To the east of the Mount of Olives, south of Hebrew University, and west of the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim lies a planning zone enumerated “E1.” Here is how the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem described the master plan for E1 in 2009. I’ve italicized the key sentence (be sure to click the link to watch the video embedded in it):

Ma’ale Adummim is the largest Israeli settlement in its jurisdictional area (some 4,800 hectares) and the third largest in population size, after the ultra-Orthodox settlements of Beitar Illit and Modi’in Illit. Its city limits, which include the city’s neighborhoods and the Mishor Adummim Industrial Zone, encompass a vast swath of land deep in the West Bank. Many Israelis consider Ma’ale Adummim an Israeli city that will remain under Israeli control in any final-status agreement reached with the Palestinians.

In accordance with this conception, Israeli governments have taken measures in recent years to strengthen the spatial and functional ties between Ma’ale Adummim and Jerusalem. The planning authorities have approved an outline plan for residential neighborhoods in E1, an area that lies within Ma’ale Adummim’s city limits and borders Jerusalem’s jurisdictional boundary. Due to objections made by the US Administration, the neighborhoods have not yet been built. However, despite the American opposition to construction in E1, Israel moved the Samaria and Judea Police District headquarters there. While constructing the police headquarters, Israel paved roads and built infrastructure to serve hundreds of housing units planned to be erected nearby.

The route approved by the government for the Separation Barrier in the area will leave more than 6,000 hectares on its “Israeli” side, including not only Ma’ale Adummim’s built-up area (400 hectares), but also extensive swaths of land for future expansion of the settlement. Although construction of the Barrier has stopped – officially due to budgetary constraints – the plans to complete it along the designated route, thus annexing extensive areas of land to Israel, remain in place.

I am not sure what the exact status of E1 is right now. But supposing it’s built according to plan, will the developed areas lie  “in Jerusalem”? Is E1 “in” Jerusalem? Well, strictly speaking, E1 is within the municipal boundary of Ma’ale Adumim. But much of the zone is closer to Jerusalem than it is to Ma’ale Adumim. So it’s part of “Greater Jerusalem,” which is defined (or described) as follows by a pro-Israeli source:

The area known as “Greater” Jerusalem usually refers to an approximately 100 square mile space surrounding the Old City of Jerusalem. This area includes both West and East Jerusalem, including the adjacent neighborhoods outside of the municipal boundaries of the city.

Greater Jerusalem usually refers to an approximately 100 square mile space not limited to east Jerusalem but including unspecified adjacent neighborhoods outside of the municipal boundaries of the city. So don’t assume that if someone says, “Jerusalem ends here,” it ends there. It ends wherever Israel wants it to end, when it wants it to end, whenever that is. Meanwhile, its supporters insist that anyone born “in it” is born in Israel.

Here’s “Greater Jerusalem” circa 2003, getting “greater” with every passing year. (There’s a more recent map online, but I couldn’t get it to reproduce very well. What else would you expect of a CIA map?)

Metropolitan Jerusalem - 1.jpg (1600×1153)

I’ve seen other maps that simply incorporate Ma’ale Adumim into Jerusalem, but they’re hard to reproduce here.

Jerusalem, the letter writer has the audacity to tell us, is not a “negotiating pawn.” No, it’s a moving target conceived in such a way that the Israelis can keep annexing land to its east, putting “facts on the ground,” and subverting the purpose of negotiations altogether. The Palestinians have insisted on a settlement freeze (which wouldn’t really touch any of the above), but that’s been brusquely dismissed. The U.S. was given the opportunity to vote on settlements at the UN in 2011, but cryptically vetoed a draft resolution condemning settlements despite the consistency of the resolution with official U.S. policy.

Given that, I think we should be able to grasp the U.S. State Department’s very mild objection to describing “Jerusalem” as being “in” Israel. Jerusalem is only “in” Israel in the sense that its roving eastern border is “in” the fantasies of Israel’s land-use planning authorities. The status of the city is disputed, and has to be resolved in final status negotiations. (Of course, it’d be nice for State Department spokespersons to be able to explain what the policy is. And though it’s easy to find pro forma references to our Jerusalem policy, I had some trouble finding a formal statement of it via either the State Department’s website, or that of the US Embassy in Israel.)

I’m writing this from the town of Abu Dis in the West Bank, about half a mile from the separation barrier that constitutes what the Israelis regard as the eastern border of “Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, you might say, is a stone’s throw from my daily walk to the university. This so-called “Jerusalem” right next to Abu Dis is an uninhabited waste ground of rocky hills and escarpments. (It’s depicted in one of the header photos I’ve put up.) In other words, it’s not Jerusalem at all, except in the minds of opportunistic city planners and irredentist fanatics. But it’s considered Jerusalem all the same.

The irony, however, is that, according to Google, to get to “Jerusalem”–meaning the actual city of Jerusalem, the place where you find buildings, streets, and people, including the Knesset, and the offices of the cabinet and president–you have to spend 100 minutes on a bus that takes a gigantic U-turn to Maale Adumim and then into “Jerusalem.”* Incidentally, if it weren’t for the wall, this would be a 20 minute ride traversing about two miles, but the wall makes that impossible. As it happens, there’s a road just on the “Jerusalem” side of the wall, but West Bank Palestinians are not permitted to access it, even though it’s in the West Bank. So close and yet so far away! They don’t call it an “apartheid wall” for nothing.

The outrage back home about the Supreme Court decision on Jerusalem is a classic case of wanting to have things all ways at once: When Israel’s defenders want to insist that Jerusalem is “in Israel,” they talk about the part of Jerusalem that is obviously in Israel, the western part. When they want to defend Israel’s expanding Jerusalem to the east, they ignore the fact that that “Jerusalem” is not in Israel–or only “in it” by Israel’s fiat. The point seems to be that our government should equate Israeli fiat with reality, and write it into our laws, our policies, and our passports.

As it happens, the Supreme Court’s decision is only the tiniest gesture in the reverse direction, toward reality. But just as you can lead a horse to drink without making it drink, you can gesture toward reality without making anyone perceive it. The reality is that Israel is encroaching on land that is often private Palestinian property, and was supposed to be part of a Palestinian state. It’s putting up a concrete barrier to make Israeli planning and development easier and Palestinian planning and development impossible, cutting neighborhoods in two, and cutting them off from one another. It’s about time that Americans took the effort to see what’s really going on here.

Gertrude Stein supposedly said of Oakland, California: “There’s no ‘there’ there.” The comment more obviously applies, though in a sense different from the one Stein had in mind, to Jerusalem. There’s no there there because there’s no where for the there to be. It sounds convoluted because it is: it’s a convoluted place ruled by a government which thrives on convolutions. But when you apply a policy of convolution to boundaries, what you get is a recipe for systematic boundary crossings. Welcome to “Jerusalem…Israel.” Or wherever it is.


*A friend tells me that there are faster ways of getting to Jerusalem from here by bus; I’m just repeating the information I found via Google. Even so, the relevant point stands: the existence of the wall changes the route one takes, and the time it takes, to get to Jerusalem from here.

PS, June 16, 2015: Having taken the bus now, it’s obvious that Google was wrong: it takes about 30-40 minutes to get from Eizariah (just north of Abu Dis) to Jerusalem. But the wall substantially adds to the time it takes to get there, and makes it prohibitively difficult to get there by foot, as I discovered today from hard experience. I can see the Mount of Olives from my kitchen window (the edge of Jerusalem proper), and if the wall weren’t there, it’d be a fifteen minute walk, but there’s no way to walk it without hitting the wall.

2 thoughts on “Postcards from Abu Dis (3): Where is the “there” in Jerusalem?

  1. Pingback: Postcards from Abu Dis (8): From Settlements to Unsettlement | Policy of Truth

  2. Pingback: London Calling: H.L.A. Hart on Place Names | Policy of Truth

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