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‘Palestinians are losing their right to Jerusalem’

+972 speaks with Yudith Oppenheimer, executive director of Israeli NGO Ir Amim, about the possibility of two national capitals in a shared Jerusalem and how the city should or could be divided between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yudith Oppenheimer, executive director of Israeli NGO Ir Amim (Photo: Matt Surrusco/+972)

Sitting in her West Jerusalem office, above the traffic on King George Street, Yudith Oppenheimer, 52, remembers the Jerusalem of her youth, a city physically divided. She recalls taking the bus to school each morning, going up King Solomon Road before turning toward Jaffa Road.

“I remember the bus making the turn around this curve, and the wall. A concrete wall separating the side where I was sitting on the bus and the other side, the other Jerusalem, Jordanian Jerusalem,” she says.

Oppenheimer grew up in Jerusalem in the late 1960s and 70s, after she moved from a kibbutz with her Orthodox family when she was six years old. Today, she is the executive director of the Israeli NGO Ir Amim, an organization whose mission is to “change the Israeli discourse on Jerusalem,” Oppenheimer explains. The goal of Ir Amim, which means “City of Peoples” or “City of Nations” in Hebrew, is to create the conditions for a political compromise for Jerusalem that would allow for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Jerusalem cannot be sustainable without acknowledging, recognizing and facilitating the pluralistic nature of the city,” Oppenheimer said. “The only way to work toward a sustainable city is to work toward this [pluralistic] vision.”

Read +972′s full series: ‘Q&A: The state of human rights in Israel and Palestine’

How have the political realities of Jerusalem changed since Ir Amim was founded in 2004?

In terms of government construction, not so much has changed, but what we are seeing in the past year and a half or so is the realization of long-pending construction plans. The effect of the recent approval of the Givat HaMatos neighborhood, and construction underway of Har Homa C, which expands Har Homa to the east and south, is the sealing off of Jerusalem’s southern perimeter, which will not allow for the necessary contiguity between the Bethlehem area and East Jerusalem, and will not allow East Jerusalem to function as a viable capital for the entire West Bank and Gaza.

Another major development is the settlements inside Palestinian neighborhoods in and around the historical basin of Jerusalem, the construction of national parks that impose a very strict, nationalist Jewish narrative and the whole way in which we are imposing an Israeli presence and narrative on the Old City and its surroundings and trying to eliminate the Palestinian presence.

Third is the attempt to realize the vision of the greater metropolitan area of Jerusalem, which adds to Jerusalem three settlement blocs, the Givat Ze’ev area in the north, the Ma’ale Adumim area in the east, and the Gush Etzion area in the south. This vision was first realized through the construction of the separation barrier. In the last decade, the construction of the barrier had a major effect on East Jerusalem, cutting it off from the West Bank. East Jerusalem used to be the political, cultural and commercial center of the West Bank. Now you see major socio-economic deterioration. East Jerusalem is ready to become a huge slum as a result of these policies.

If all these developments take place, this will actually seal off the possibilities for the two-state solution.

Ir Amim map of Greater Jerusalem

What issues facing Jerusalem residents concern you most right now and why?

Two major issues, and they are interconnected. One is the growing attack on Palestinians’ permanent residency status. It reflects Israel’s policy as of 1967 to absorb East Jerusalem without fully absorbing the people of East Jerusalem, denying them political rights, citizenship and everything that entails. There is nothing permanent about permanent residency and people live in fear of losing their status. More than 15,000 Palestinians lost their permanent residency over the past 15 to 20 years, and the rest have to prove that their center of life is in Jerusalem. They were born here, they lived here for generations, and now we treat them as if they were always temporary residents. They are effectively losing their right to the city.

The second issue is the restriction on planning and development. While Israel is building neighborhoods for 200,000 Israelis in East Jerusalem, it hasn’t built one new neighborhood for Palestinians, and puts severe restrictions on construction within existing Palestinian neighborhoods. Israel is constantly pushing Palestinians to neighborhoods behind the separation barrier – but still within the Jerusalem municipality – where services do not exist and quality of life conditions are very poor.

With peace talks restarted, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said all final status and core issues would be on the negotiating table. How will the parties be able to come to an agreement on the final status of Jerusalem when Israel claims the city as its undivided capital and Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state?

It cannot be reconciled. If we had a responsible leadership they would start gradually telling the Israeli public that as painful as it is, we will have to consider a compromise on Jerusalem and that at the end of the day it will be in the interest of Israel.

What type of final status agreement would you hope to see result from negotiations?

I first of all want to see a mutual recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the two nations. It’s not easy to implement it in practice. There are different ways of division and separation; it can be administrative. It does not have to be with solid fences and walls – we can be creative. Jerusalemites will not necessarily want to see their city physically divided again with concrete walls. It might be necessary for a time but I think there is a growing understanding that there are other ways of sharing the city.

So to say one united Jerusalem is a kind of euphemism; it’s not realistic?

It’s not realistic. It’s not just. It will perpetuate the conflict forever.

Could you tell me about your memories of Jerusalem as a child?

I was very young. One of them is I was walking with my parents on a Saturday afternoon and approaching Yemin Moshe, which overlooked the walls of the Old City. My parents stood there looking toward the Old City and said to one another that they wished they would get to see the Wailing Wall again in their life. And they said it like when you talk about the Messiah, something that you long for but it’s too far away. They could never have imagined that within a few months they would be walking inside the Old City to the Wailing Wall.

When I compare my memories with younger people, for them the Green Line is a concept. They have no idea where it actually runs. For me, it’s very clear; I feel the Green Line. I know what’s mine and what is not mine. I think this actually brought me to work with Ir Amim. I’m aware of Palestinian Jerusalem. It’s an entity that we cannot deny. A people that we cannot deny. It’s not a concept for me. It’s a concrete reality.

Which Jerusalem neighborhoods do you see as examples of true coexistence and which do you see as examples of segregation?

I don’t see neighborhoods of true co-existence. That does not exist in Jerusalem. But you know what? I’m not sure that I’m looking for co-existence. Historically, Jerusalem was a city of diversity, culture and multiple groups living side by side, not with one another. If we could go back to that vision, I would say it’s very much in the nature of Jerusalem.

We should aim to respect the right of the two sides to live in this city and to maintain their own cultural, political, social, religious diversity and separateness. That’s okay to start.

There were no home evictions for a few years in Sheikh Jarrah, in which time there was a lull in solidarity protests. But evictions restarted a few months ago. Do you see a renewed push to settle Jews in Sheikh Jarrah?

We knew it was a matter of time before they started again. We know the settlers are very determined; the state is behind them. It’s intensifying the tension between Israelis and Palestinians in the city.

It’s also bringing into the fold the question of Jerusalem before 1948. How long do you think you can say what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is also mine? That your house is mine because Jews owned it before 1948 – so what about all the properties that Palestinians owned before 1948 that are located in West Jerusalem. Here we say, “No, no, no.” Israeli law only allows for the claiming of Jewish property in East Jerusalem, but not for Palestinians claiming property in West Jerusalem.

For how long can this asymmetry go on? Even if it works within the Israeli legal system, it will not work within the international legal system so it’s only a matter of time before this will be taken to the international court.

What has been Ir Amim’s greatest accomplishment under your leadership?

The fact that 30,000 people, the majority of them Israelis, participated in our study tours and questioned the concept of the eternal, united capital of Jerusalem. I’m not saying every one of them accepted our view, but I know the majority of them went home and started to question the notion that seemed taboo. They are now speaking about Jerusalem from a more informed perspective. We helped to change the discourse.

Resource: The failing East Jerusalem education system 
A divided Palestinian neighborhood, torn in two by an Israeli highway
Resource: What is the E1 area, and why is it so important? 

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    1. Kolumn9

      The wall that she remembers from her childhood was there to prevent Jordanian snipers from shooting her parents down in the streets. The wall she can see right now around Jerusalem was built to prevent Palestinian terrorist bombers from blowing her up on buses and restaurants. This lady thinks it is preferable over the status quo to see the walls make a comeback ‘for a time’ to prevent Israeli civilians from once again being shot by Arab snipers from the ‘Arab’ side of town. That is just insane.

      As for the nonsense about a two-state solution being ‘impossible’ without dividing Jerusalem into an Israeli and an Arab part. I once again challenge anyone here to explain to me why a Palestinian state can not arise without Jerusalem, with Ramallah functioning as the Palestinian capital, as it does right now. In other words, a two-state solution is very much possible without dividing Jerusalem, it is just that some people wish to pretend otherwise with zero logical behind their position due to ideological blinders.

      Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        “I once again challenge anyone here to explain to me why a Palestinian state can not arise without Jerusalem, with Ramallah functioning as the Palestinian capital, as it does right now.”

        I challenge you to explain to me why an Israeli state cannot arise without Jerusalem, with Tel Aviv functioning as the Israeli capital, as it does right now.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Challenge accepted. Israel did arise without the Old City of Jerusalem and without the Western Wall and the Jews did accept a partition plan that would have left it outside the borders of Israel. And you know as well as I do where you would go to protest in front of the Israeli Supreme Court, the Israeli Knesset and the Prime Minister’s Residence, and it wouldn’t be Tel Aviv.

          Your turn. So, again, why can’t within the context of a two state solution a Palestinian State arise with a capital in Ramallah, which in any case serves as the Palestinian capital today?

          Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          As a matter of fact, the state of Israel did arise without Jerusalem.
          The state was declared without any sovereignty over Jerusalem. A nuclear reactor was built. Few wars were won. A dead language was revived. Et cetera, et cetera.

          Obviously, Jerusalem is of no importance for the state of Israel per se, as it is of no importance for any (future) “Palestinian” state.

          Reply to Comment
    2. hey i hope you replay as fast as possible , my name is mohammad ziad harb , i was born in jerusalem in 1990 , my mother is from jerusalem and she has the blue ID, my father is from hebron and he has the Green ID which as the palestianin ID , but he moved to jerusalem 23 years ago , i myself was born in jerusalem , but i don’t have the full right they forced me to get the Green identity and to have the temporary “permission paper ” which called in hebrew “ishor yehahod mashbekha” , but that doesn’t give me full rights as jerusalemite to to for EG. drive in the city , i cannot get the “driving lience ” can you help me to get the blue ID even though according to their law in general i have the right to get, but recently they made a speical laws for the people who their fathers from the west bank to not be able to live in jerusalm , and this law is from the ethinc cleansing policies that israel imposing on us , i hope you response as fast as you can , thank you

      Reply to Comment
    3. Tomer

      The so-called Filastines or whatever call themselves these days have chosen to boycott Israel by not taking on Israeli Citizenship. They then complain that they face discrimination. Duhhhhh ?????
      These people are really stupid???

      Reply to Comment
    4. mkkjjh

      I have no idea why you would want to give away Israel’s capital. Please stop though, go save some kittens or something useful

      Reply to Comment
    5. “Israeli law only allows for the claiming of Jewish property in East Jerusalem, but not for Palestinians claiming property in West Jerusalem.” : This makes true citizenship for East Jerusalem Palestinians impossible. Equal protection racially denied denies citizenship.

      Reply to Comment
    6. When it comes to the question of Jerusalem, the Palestinians have a much stronger claim.

      There is also the little matter of law. The Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) states that an occupying power has no right to interfere with the lives of the occupied and no right to settle in occupied territory. Israel stands in gross violation of international law on so many counts on East Jerusalem (not to mention Gaza and the territories), Netanyahu should really be on trial. He might well be if it wasn’t for the protection of Washington – another rogue state where international law is concerned – that has enabled Israel to place itself above international law in key respects.

      The idea of some biblical or “eternal” right to Jerusalem is sheer fantasy. The Jews aren’t even “a people” in any homogeneous sense but rather peoples from various parts of the Mediterranean, Africa and elsewhere with no direct ties to Palestine (as recent genome research indicates) who converted to Judaism, many during the Hasmonean period. This is equally the case for East European Ashkenazi Jews who have more in common with the Volga than the Jordan.

      Given its checkered history of occupation many peoples could stake a claim to Jerusalem. It was ruled by the Babylonians, by the Achaemenids of Iran, by the Ptomelies, the Romans… but most interesting was the Muslim conquest in 638. The Muslims ruled Jerusalem until 1099. When the Crusaders took the city they kicked out the Jews along with the Muslims. Saladin reconquered Jerusalem in 1187, and it was he who allowed the Jews to return. Jerusalem was ruled by the Muslims for 1,192 years until the end of World War 1.

      Fantasy version aside, Jewish Israelis have no claim that even begins to match that of the Palestinians. Jewish connections to the Temple can’t be used to lay claim to the entire city. As even Ben-Gurion acknowledged, after the Bar Kochba revolt failed, over time some ninety percent of the Jews who remained in Palestine converted to Islam in order to survive.

      As the original inhabitants – and in a true indigenous sense “a people” – the Palestinians have every right to their ancestral land.

      Reply to Comment
      • CigarButNoNice

        Yes, they who only suddenly remembered they were “a people” after 1948 have a stronger claim than a people whose existence has been documented for over 3000 years. Right. /sarc

        “Losing their right to Jerusalem”? Ha! As if they ever had any! Arabs aren’t Palestinians; Arabs go back to Arabia for the sake of justice and stop colonizing and stealing the Land of Israel from its only true owners, the Jews! No justice, no peace!

        Reply to Comment
        • JG

          I don’t know exactly what’s in your cigar, but probably you should stop smoking it, it obviously makes something not good to your brain

          Reply to Comment
    7. Larry Snider

      It seems to me that Kerry and Livni and Erekat will have to create a shared Jerusalem whether the physical borders change or not to produce a viable peace. I think it will take a philosophical solution more than a geographic solution to square the circle and create two capitols which should include the reopening of the Orient House.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Mark

      The biggest weapon the Palestinians in Jerusalem have is their right to vote in municipal affairs. They constantly refuse to do so and right-wing nuts get free reign to strip away their rights. Palestiniansmake up 35% of the city population. They can’t complain about loosing their rights in the city when they don’t vote. If they want their voices heard in Jerusalem, they should use their voting power to elect a mayor that will stop house demolitions, stop land confiscation, ect. Their excuse of not voting due to not recognizing the annexation is symbolic, and it isnt scoring them any sort of victory.

      Reply to Comment
    9. XYZ

      Once again, we see Oppenheim giving us the myth of the “peace camp” that “if only we give up the occupation of 1967 we will have peace” in her statement that refusal to agree to the destruction of Jerusalem, i.e. its division, will not let us have peace. The real “elephant in the room” is the right
      of return of the refugees.



      I repeat: division of the city would mean its destruction. Both Jews and Arabs of Jerusalem know that and that is why most Jerusalem Arabs, as much as they may dislike Israel, do not want east Jerusalem cut off and attached to a presumptive Palestinian state.
      No doubt seeing the city destroyed would please some of those who post or comment here…some have stated as much. This small group doesn’t care about the people in the city…they just want to see Israel knocked out. Fortunately, most Israelis are not like that, therefore they will never allow the nightmare scenario to occur.
      PS-it is important to note that division of Jerusalem would end up destroying a Palestinian state because by having the Jews volunatarily give up their holiest places, the radical Islamists would be emboldened noting how if the Jews give up their most important place, they will give up Tel Aviv and the rest if enough pressure is applied. This would destablize a Palestinian government, Iraq or Syria-style and bring civil war on them.

      Reply to Comment