OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution

Issue 3.3 | June 2000

ISSN 1522-211X


Jerusalem at the Millennium: The City of Unfulfilled Expectations

By Saliba Sarsar

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Jerusalem has consumed the hearts and minds of Jews, Christians, and Muslims for centuries. The city's sacredness, meaning and magic, traditionalism and modernity have engulfed people's respective beliefs, emotions, and histories. Conflicts and wars have been waged in its name. As the ongoing second Intifada and Israeli actions indicate,(1) Jerusalem is the altar over which Jewish and Palestinian nationalists are struggling. "It is in Jerusalem," John L. Esposito and Mohammed A. Muqtedar Khan write, "that the temporal, spiritual, political, cultural, and territorial converge. Jerusalem is both modern and traditional. It is modern in its status as the aspiration of Jewish and Palestinian nationalism, and it is traditional in its sacred significance to three religions."(2)

Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs speak of Jerusalem with love and respect, but as well with concern and fear about its future. Jewish writers call it the "torn city" and "the city of stones,"(3) "the embattled city" and "the city of mirrors."(4) Palestinian writers view it as blessed and bemoan its loss to the Israeli Jews. Some refer to it as the "phantom city."(5) Israeli leaders have vowed never to return it to its pre-June 1967 status. For them, it is the eternal capital of the State of Israel, which should be cherished and preserved for generations. Palestinian leaders have promised that it, at least the eastern part, will be the sacred capital of the State of Palestine. Deviation from this position is anathema to Arabs and Muslims all around the world.

Although answers to "whose Jerusalem?" have been suggested time and time again, none has been satisfactory to most Arab and Jewish national groups or all the monotheistic religious sects.(6) Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin postponed consideration of the city's fate at Camp David in 1978. Contending Israeli and Palestinian leaders did the same in Oslo in 1993 and reached a deadlock at and since Camp David II in Summer 2000. While Jews feel most secure in an Israeli-controlled city, Muslims argue for placing it under Palestinian control, and some Christians believe that an international or Vatican-like rule would be most appropriate.

Unlike any other issue, the question of Jerusalem has created a wide gap between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. The hope that the passage of time will heal the wounds of division between them or will verify each other's true intentions has not materialized. The impasse in the peace process and the uneasy and even violent relationship between Israeli Jews and Palestinians are making everyone tense, and this is clearly reflected in attitudes and behaviors and in daily issues.

This report focuses on some of the daily challenges the inhabitants of Jerusalem face and the way they have addressed the question of national identity, conflict, and peace. Implied is the need for both Palestinians and Israeli Jews to realize the facts and not to lose another opportunity for compromise and conciliation between them. Working together in a realistic way to resolve common issues and envisioning a better future for themselves and their children are preferable than continued conflict and violence.

The Challenge of Daily Existence

Numbering around 646,000, the inhabitants of Jerusalem are Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims and Christians, or foreign nationals belonging to one or another religious or foreign mission. (Table 1) Jews and some Muslims and Christians hold Israeli citizenship. Others of mostly Palestinian origin carry only an Israeli "Jerusalem" ID card. The remaining populations are on tourist and work visas.

Table 1: Total Population of Jerusalem, ca. 1998-2000
  Jews Palestinians Total
    Muslims Christians  
Population according to
a Palestinian source*
- settlers in East Jerusalem
- settlers in Haredim

ca. 180,000
ca. 120,000



Population according
to an Israeli source**

Source: *Statistical Yearbook of Jerusalem, 1998, cited in the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA), Directory 2000, p. 286.
**Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, cited in Newsweek (July 24, 2000): 26. This source also identifies 4,000 people as "other," bringing the total population number to 650,000.

Most inhabitants face stresses ranging from fear of the unknown to difficulties in living conditions. Many are anxious and living on edge. This is expressed in the way they exclude each other or live together separately as indicated by the lack of real interaction among the four living quarters--Armenian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim--of the Old City or the eastern and western sides of the city. It is apparent in the way they distrust each other's words and deeds as witnessed by ideological harangues and ecumenical paucity during Pope John Paul II's pilgrimage to the city in March 2000. People's anxiety is even reflected in the way they drive--tailgating, honking the horn for the least infraction, and passing on the right.

Other inhabitants have put their faith in their leaders and vicariously ride the seesaws of the conflict/peace process. Still others have surrendered to divine providence (in Hebrew, hashgakha pratit) as many Jews believe or to God's will (in Arabic, inshallah) as Palestinians say. Most, however, have not internalized the true meaning of shalom, salaam, or peace. Their overriding goal is to recapture the past and create an exclusive future for themselves.

The city's cultures, holy places, languages, lifestyles, and merchandise continue to fascinate those who tread on its streets, particularly the tourists. The sounds and smells intermingle with color to produce a golden rainbow that is often ignored by the inhabitants. It seems that they take for granted what surrounds them. When asked about historic-religious sites, many feel disinterested or unknowledgeable to answer. Daily chores and conditions sit like bricks on their shoulders.

A main problem for many is the low level of per capita income given the high standard of living and the general disparity in income between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. While the annual salary of an Israeli high school teacher might stand at $14,000, a Palestinian counterpart makes less than $9,000. Many others make no more than $5000 per annum. Last year, professors at Al-Quds University were not paid for months and doctors working for Cupat Holim went on strike for over 100 days because of low salaries and working conditions. Some work two or three jobs to make both ends meet. Those in business or tourism (when conditions are peaceful) earn more, but the question remains as to how can parents afford to buy or rent a house, feed and educate their children, entertain, and travel. The "land of milk and honey," for many, is only "a patch of garlic and onions."

Property ownership or rent is an important related issue. A "property rush" is underway in which Israeli Jews--the Israeli government, the Municipality of Jerusalem, and private investors--are expanding their holdings and demographic power by filling out every strategic plot of land. Palestinians, who view this expansion as discriminatory and illegal and who have had a hard time securing the expensive municipal building permits, have resorted to living in every "nook and cranny." Cement and metal have replaced flowerbeds and trees. Shops have been converted into houses. Palestinians point to house destruction in the Palestinian sector and house construction in the Israeli sector. Between 1987 and 1999, 289 Arab dwellings were destroyed by Israel in "East" Jerusalem, excepting those destroyed for security reasons.(7) (Table 2) Between 1967 and 1996, 70,692 housing units were built in "West" Jerusalem compared to 10,463 in "East" Jerusalem.(8) (Table 3)

Table 2: Number of Arab Dwellings Destroyed by Israel in "East Jerusalem" Between 1987 and 1999. (Excepting those destroyed for security reasons)

Year Number
1987 2
1988 30
1989 7
1990 19
1991 18
1992 12
1993 48
1994 29
1995 25
1996 17
1997 16
1998 30
1999 36

Source: Al-Quds (June 17, 2000): 18.

Table 3: Housing Construction and Residence in Jerusalem "West" versus "East", 1967-1996 (Jewish vs. Arab Sector)

  West East
Housing Units Built 70,692 10,463
Construction Density (units per dunum*) 6.1 2.2
People Density (per dunum*) 21.7 14.6
People Density (per room) 1.1 2.2

Source:Based on a translation of Nadav Shragai's Haaretz article in "Construction in Jerusalem…," as appeared in Al-Quds (June 6, 2000): 9.

*1 dunum=1,000 square meter=1/4 acre

To withstand this Israeli pressure, some Palestinians have received financial support from the Palestinian National Authority and other sources. In addition, Palestinians selling their property to Jews are threatened and put their lives in danger if they do so. Religious leaders like those of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch ate have come under intense pressure from their Palestinian Christian parishioners and others for granting Israeli Jews 99-year leases on some of the church's lands and properties.

Maintaining residency rights in Jerusalem is another crucial issue. While Jews mostly face financial hurdles in residing there, Palestinian Arabs seek living there and even find great benefits in doing so. A Palestinian woman praised Israel's generous retirement program and condemned the Israeli occupation in the same breath. Some Palestinians rent a room or a small apartment in the eastern part of the city to establish and maintain residency while continuing to live and work in the West Bank. The Israeli government is aware of such maneuvers. The Palestinians justify their actions by citing Israel's discriminatory strategy vis-à-vis Palestinians and its hegemonic plans for the city. Such plans give permanent Jewish dominance and minimal Arab presence in the city, with the latter not exceeding 29.1 percent. Palestinians obviously disagree.(9)

The property rush and residency concerns have made prices of land and residential units skyrocket. A piece of land that was bought for no more than $50,000 in the late 1980s sells for no less than $250,000 today. A two-bedroom apartment that fetched approximately $75,000 a decade ago now sells for twice as much. Prices in "West" Jerusalem are even higher than in "East" Jerusalem. For example, a condo in Jewish Abu Tor overlooking the Old City goes for close to $1 million, while an apartment in Arab Al-Thori a few yards away and "48 steps down the hill" sells for $200,000.

The resultant urban sprawl is accompanied by other problems such as transportation, garbage collection, drug use, robberies, and child abuse. A five-minute drive from one part of the city to another a decade ago, from Ba'ka to the Old City, for example, now takes 20. Tunnels, bridges, and small cars are helping but the congestion remains as one gets closer to the city center. It is wonderful that vehicular traffic is prohibited on some streets.

As one gets farther from the city center and the plush neighborhoods, however, the basic infrastructure and services turn poor, especially in the Arab areas. Some streets are not properly kept; others are not yet paved. People traveling the Jerusalem-Ramallah highway take their lives into their own hands as they approach to exit the city. The asphalt is dug up in several sections. Traffic lights at the al-Ram intersection, for example, are turned off after hours. Drivers often play chicken to cross. Many roads are without names and many houses are unnumbered. How a person receives mail on time or at all is a hard question to answer.

Garbage collection is uneven. Construction debris and dirt are strewn in many places, including the Old City. A cursory look at the plaza surrounding the Damascus Gate shows much garbage accumulating here and there. While the Municipality of Jerusalem has partial responsibility, it is inexplicable why people destroy or mess up what is supposedly dear to them. Electricity is shut off without prior notice. Sale of illegal drugs and drug use are becoming more common than before, and so are robberies. A social worker at a major boarding school spoke to me of serious physical and sexual abuse of children by their families, particularly male members. Social institutions are overwhelmed and require more resources and specialists. More psychologists than lawyers are needed.

Notwithstanding the above, cell phones constitute the most recent symbols of power. Some families have three or four such devices, each with its distinctive classical tune. People on buses, in the park, and on street corners connect; one wonders how they managed before the invention of the phone. Perhaps there needs to be less speaking and more listening.

National Identity, Conflict, and Peace

In poetry and prose, prayers and songs, each community transmits its memory to future generations. In experience, of which memory is a scribe, are born stereotypes along with truths, which often negatively influence relationships.

Each community has built its collective identity by defining the "other" in negative, stereotypic terms. "We" versus "them" mentality reigns in the land. It is either the Israeli Jewish or Palestinian narrative that one hears. Alternative narratives are rare. The tense situation has eliminated the presence of a real "third way" in each community in the mind of the "other." People are pigeonholed to be in either camp. In the eyes of most Palestinians, Israeli Jews are the same regardless of color and ideological predilections. It does not matter what Israeli party is in power or who the Israeli prime minister is. For Israeli Jews, Palestinians have a long way to go before they can be fully trusted or treated as equals. It is Israel that has always given with no real return from the Palestinians. It is time for the Palestinians to reciprocate.

Much pressure is being put on Israeli Jewish and Palestinian educators from their respective communities not to change their curricula and versions of history. "With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process moving nowhere fast," a report on challenges to peace activism states, "peace education pioneers find themselves working in an increasingly hostile environment."(10) When asked about involving teachers and children in peace education, a sociologist at Al-Quds University told me, "Peace is not an abstraction. How can students learn and practice peace when all around them is anything but peace?" A peace educator at Hebrew University felt hampered by a lack of funding and support for dialogue between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

Groups working for dialogue and coexistence are concerned about and frustrated by negative reactions within their respective communities and by problems of asymmetry and power inequality.(11) Their strategy is to tread carefully and avoid being overrun by extremist forces or unforeseen events. Few Israeli Jews and fewer Palestinians trust what the "other" is saying, doing, and planning. Among them are people associated with the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information and the Middle East Children's Association. They have made a conscious decision not to tolerate the status quo and to "hold hands across the divide." Others, associated with Seeds of Peace and similar organizations, work with youth on conflict resolution and understanding in the hope of mutual coexistence.

Research cooperation projects involving Israeli Jewish scholars and Palestinian and other Arab counterparts have occurred. A survey of 195 such projects indicates a widespread resistance in the Arab world to "normalization" with Israel, based mainly on the "perception that such cooperation should generally take place after the political process has resolved the major elements of the conflict." The survey, nevertheless, concludes that cooperation between academics can have a substantial impact on peace-building.(12)

Peace activists and intellectuals aside, what Israeli Jewish and Palestinian leaders experienced at and since Camp David II is felt daily on the streets of Jerusalem. Conversations relate to Jerusalem and the perennial issues of borders, security, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, and fresh water sufficiency. Many Israeli Jews believe that compromise is possible if Palestinians change their ways. Most Palestinians argue that the change has already occurred and it is Israel's responsibility to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 borders.

Also discussed are issues pertinent to the internal politics of each of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, such as the role of religion in Israeli politics and the coming democracy and new wealth on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At the Biblical Zoo, a Jewish bus driver spoke to me of Israeli politics with exasperation: "Israel has celebrated its 50th anniversary but it has problems of a 500-year-old nation-state. A few people are controlling the lives of millions…. They forget where they have come from and where they are going, and mess up the present in the meantime." Many Palestinians wonder how democracy might flourish in a patriarchal, religious, and traditional milieu and how public officials and party activists can govern more responsibly.

Both Israeli Jews and Palestinians have an exaggerated image of the United States. Israeli Jews are "experts" on American life; they are fascinated by it but do not buy into its rushed lifestyles at a time when Israel is becoming more and more like the United States. Palestinians hold that the "Jewish lobby" controls American politics and are unappreciative of American favoritism toward Israel. Most are angered by American plans to relocate the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Many, nevertheless, wish to send their sons (and daughters) to study in the United States. Several asked me to find them academic scholarships.

The Second Intifada

Life has become extremely difficult for the inhabitants of Jerusalem since the start of the second Intifada. Several have been killed or injured in Jerusalem. On the Palestinian side, almost every Palestinian family has been adversely affected. Palestinians have shouldered the greater human loss, not only in Jerusalem, but also on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.(13) Access to and from Jerusalem has been curtailed. Palestinian families from Jerusalem have been separated from their relatives on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Weddings and other celebrations have been hushed and have become devoid of pleasure. Intermittent closures of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the low level of tourism have lessened economic activity and resulted in financial hardship to many. Most Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem, while more vigilant and very selective in where they shop and travel, have maintained their daily routines.

The second Intifada has also mobilized people on both sides of the divide. Joint Palestinian-Israeli research has slowed down. Conferences and seminars have been postponed. Circumspection and distance have replaced dialogue and cooperation. The chief rabbis of Israel declared that the Temple Mount, the plateau considered holy by both Jews and Muslims, must remain under Israeli sovereignty. Their declaration was in response to a statement by Sheikh Ikrama Sabri, the mufti of Jerusalem, that Islamic law prohibits any non-Muslim sovereignty over Al Haram al Sharif.(14) Moreover, over 300,000 Jews from around Israel rallied in Jerusalem to pledge their allegiance to Jerusalem as "Israel's eternal undivided capital.(15)

Palestinians in Jerusalem, Muslims and Christians, have affirmed their unity with Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and have called upon Israel to respect international law and withdraw from East Jerusalem. Patriarchs and heads of the Christian communities of Jerusalem have also maintained a unified stand, exhorting all parties to respect Jerusalem's sacredness and to insure peace with justice and security for the "two peoples and three religions" of the Holy Land--Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. The Women's Coalition for a Just Peace has organized a peace march in Jerusalem. Chanting "Peace?" "Yes."--"Occupation?" "No.", they called for the ending of violence. Other Jews, those in Gush Shalom, have reaffirmed their view that peace will reign when Jerusalem becomes "united, open to all and belonging to all its inhabitants, without borders and barbed-wire in its midst…with West Jerusalem the capital of the State of Israel and East Jerusalem the capital of the State of Palestine."(16)


Both Israeli Jews and Palestinians have invested much to actualize themselves. Each national community is in a tremendous hurry to capture space and time to guarantee its continued existence. Each is using Jerusalem as a battleground on which to affirm its national identity and its conception of peace.

Serious disagreements and conflict between both national communities have festered for more than 100 years. Expecting peace in one month, one year, or one decade might be unrealistic. As the pendulum of the conflict/peace process swings, people must have realistic expectations as to outcomes. Overwhelming pessimism and total optimism are misplaced emotions. A moderate approach to peaceful change and results is more likely.

When new realities emerge, the monolithic image that each community has created of the "other" gets challenged. Writing about Israeli identity, Dan Bar-On, a noted Israeli psychologist, argues that as the monolithic image disintegrates, it evokes "defense mechanism, confusion, and even existential fear: who am I if I don't have an 'enemy' or 'other' who is clearly different from me, who defines me as 'absolute good'?"(17) The same could apply to the Palestinian community as it moves from a stateless nation into a nation-state.

A way must be found to cause Israeli Jews and Palestinians not to shun peace. Whatever equation is used, each national community must move beyond its internal contradictions of the "self" and the external stereotyping of the "other" and come to terms with the existence of the "other." It took much intelligence and many sacrifices to defend "the homeland." Peacemaking deserves even more.

Both Israeli Jews and Palestinians have been mistreated by the past. The present is not only full of dangers, but also opportunities. The future is in their hands.

This article was written at the end of summer 2000 following a 40-day and night sojourn in Jerusalem. It is based on direct observations and informal talks with Israelis and Palestinians from all walks of life. The article was updated in early January 2001 to include recent events, mainly the ongoing second Intifada that began on September 29, 2000.


1. The second Intifada, referred to by Palestinians as Al Aksa Intifada is the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of Arab lands, mainly East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. It started on September 29, 2000 as a result of the heavily guarded visit the day before of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli general and hawkish leader of the Likud Party, to Al Haram al Sharif (the Muslim Noble Sanctuary, the site of Al Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine) in Jerusalem. The first Intifada took place between 1987 and 1993.

2. John L. Esposito and Mohammed A. Muqtedar Khan, "Religion and Politics in the Middle East," in Deborah J. Gerner, ed. Understanding the Contemporary Middle East (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000), p. 329.

3. Meron Benvenisti. Jerusalem, The Torn City (Jerusalem: Isratypeset, 1976) and City of Stone: The Hidden History of Jerusalem (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

4. Amos Elon. Jerusalem: City of Mirrors (London: Fontana, 1991), pp. 1-7.

5. For example, see Salim Tamari, ed. Jerusalem 1948: The Arab Neighborhoods and their Fate in the War (Jerusalem: Institute for Jerusalem Studies and Badil Resource Center), 1999, pp. 1-9.

6. For recent analyses, see Jeffrey Goldberg, Israel's Y2K Problem," The New York Times Magazine (October 3, 1999): 38-43, 52, 65, 76-78; John Kifner, "The Holiest City, the Toughest Conflict," The New York Times Week in Review (July 23, 2000): 1, 4; Kenneth L. Woodward, "A City that Echoes Eternity," Newsweek (July 24, 2000): 25.

7. Al-Quds (June 16, 2000): 18.

8. Based on a translation of Nadav Shragai's Haaretz article in "Construction in Jerusalem…," Al-Quds (June 6, 2000): 9.

9. A translation of Nadav Shragai's Haaretz article in "Three Alternative Israeli Solutions for Jerusalem," Al-Quds (June 14, 2000): 28.

10. Isabel Kershner, "Teaching Kids Not to Hate," The Jerusalem Report (March 13, 2000): 24.

11. See Ifat Maoz, "Issues in Grassroots Israeli-Palestinian Cooperation: A Report on the NGO Discussion Panels" in Sami Adwan and Dan Bar-On, eds., The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations in Peace-Building Between Palestinians and Israelis, a publication of PRIME, the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East, January 2000, pp. 63-67.

12. See Paul Scham, "Arab-Israeli Research Cooperation, 1995-1999," Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal 4, 3 (September 2000) at http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/besa/meria/journal/2000/issue3/jvol4no3in.html

13. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), 322 Palestinian civilians and members of the security forces were killed and 10,555 were wounded between September 29 and December 29. (See the PRCS web site at http://www.PalestineRCS.org.) Of the dead, around ¼ are minors aged 17 and under. According to the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, 39 Israeli civilians and members of the security forces were killed and 524 were injured during the same time period. (See the web site of B'Tselem at http://www.btselem.org.)

14. The New York Times on the Web, January 5, 2001.

15. The Internet Jerusalem Post, January 9, 2001.

16. See the web site of Gush Shalom at http://www.gush-shalom.org/jerusalem/.

17. Dan Bar-On, The 'Others' Within Us: A Socio-Psychological Perspective on Changes in Israeli Identity, unpublished manuscript.

Saliba Sarsar, who grew up in Jerusalem, is an Associate Professor of political science and the Associate Vice President for Academic Program Initiatives at Monmouth University in New Jersey.

OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution is published by the Tabula Rasa Institute, www.trinstitute.org.