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Lovely Jerusalem is haunted by injustice


Picture a beautiful city that has a small neighborhood with nice little pubs and restaurants only five minutes walking distance from the downtown district. Imagine sitting in a chic bistro in that neighborhood, sipping cool draft beer while soft music plays in the background. You are with friends, talking about work, sports or politics.

Continue with the image and assume that less than 100 yards from the restaurant is a detention center. It is a warm April evening, and while you enjoy dessert, only the thick, soundproof walls of the cells keep you from hearing the screams of a political prisoner being tortured there.

Tragically, this is not an imaginary city but a real one -- Jerusalem. On April 25, 1995, Abd al-Samad Harizat, a computer scientist, was "shaken" to death in the detention center known to Israelis as the Russian Compound and to Palestinians as Jerusalem's Moscobiyyah. According to Amnesty International, a British forensic pathologist who attended the autopsy concluded: "There is no doubt whatsoever about the cause of death ... he died from torture." Restaurants and pubs outside the prison were open that night, cheerfully serving their clientele. Harizat was not the first to die there.

It isn't hard to discern the deadly undercurrent at work in this city: the prevailing inequity between Jews and Palestinians, and the injustice it brings in its wake. Jerusalem is not the only "mixed city" where Palestinian residents are discriminated against -- Haifa, Jaffa and Acre are other examples. Yet the abuses of Palestinians living in these cities haven't been in quite the same league as those to which the East Jerusalemites have been subjected.

Jerusalem, one might also recall, differs from the other "mixed cities" because of its religious importance. Thus there is a disturbing correlation between the spiritual significance of the city and the injustice taking place within it. This frightening convergence between spiritual ethos and injustice is a direct consequence of Israel's 30-year-old imperative: The city that is holiest for the Jews must be dominated by the Jewish state regardless.

Accordingly, the objective of every Israeli government -- backed by the religious parties -- has been to gain full control of Jerusalem. This drive for mastery and domination of Jerusalem is at the root of Israel's effort to subjugate its Palestinian residents, and the many violations committed against them is a natural result of this objective. The decision to build 6,500 apartments on Har Homa is only the most recent indication of this strategy.

B'Tzelem, an Israeli information center for human rights, points out that in the past 30 years some 38,500 housing units were built on lands expropriated from Arabs and taken over by Jews. Instead of easing the housing shortages for the overcrowded Palestinians, the municipal planning authorities have drastically restricted development and limited the area designated for Palestinian neighborhoods. At the same time, construction of Jewish neighborhoods throughout East Jerusalem continues to flourish, and Jews are encouraged to settle in them. The Jewish population of East Jerusalem, which stood at zero in 1967, will be a decisive majority by the year 2000.

Israel's policy is to surround the Palestinians, choking off Arab neighborhoods. The idea is simple: Encircle East Jerusalem with Jewish neighborhoods, and in this manner foreclose any possibility of it evolving into the capital of Palestine.

Adding insult to injury, Prime Minister Netanyahu lied when he proclaimed that the government approved the designation of 3,015 apartments for Palestinians. No government decision has ever been made to that effect.

Netanyahu's deceit is not a new phenomenon. Barton Gellman of The Washington Post reports that the "last time Israel expropriated a large chunk of East Jerusalem for Jewish construction, in March 1980, it pledged to authorize 18,000 Arab apartments in Beit Hanina neighborhood alongside a new Jewish neighborhood, Pisgat Zeev. The municipal planning board stalled the plan for years, cutting it to 16,000 units, then 11,000, then 7,500, but still leaving it unapproved. Seventeen years later not one apartment has resulted. Pisgat Zeev, by contrast, is today a suburb of 35,200 Jews."

Israel's policy of systematic and deliberate discrimination against the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem in all matters relating to land, development and housing construction is but one manifestation of its will to dominate. This will has been translated into policies ranging from torture to bureaucratic restrictions, which in turn have transformed Jerusalem into a city where injustice is rampant and where Palestinians are dehumanized. Since spirituality and widespread injustice cannot coexist, a 2,000-year-old symbol of spirituality is being destroyed.

Israel's decision not to relinquish control over any part of what it considers its eternal and indivisible capital has altered Jerusalem, inexorably transforming it into this generation's golden calf. In the vicinity of a golden calf, the Book of Exodus reminds us, it is not unusual for violence to erupt.

Neve Gordon teaches in the Department of Government at the University of Notre Dame and is the coeditor of Torture, published by Zed Books.

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 1997