One city, two realities: five questions about Jerusalem

For several weeks Jerusalem has been the scene of increasing tensions. Hundreds have been injured in confrontations between Palestinians from East Jerusalem and the Israeli police. Five questions about the escalations, and about where the anger comes from.

Why is Jerusalem divided in half?

This has to do with the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. When the UN decided that the former English mandate of Palestine should be divided between Jews and Palestinians, both sides claimed control of the city. In the war that followed, the Israelis conquered West Jerusalem; East Jerusalem came into the hands of Jordan.

During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel conquered the eastern district along with the rest of the West Bank. Today Israel considers East Jerusalem to be Israeli territory; the international community sees it as occupied Palestinian territory.

West Jerusalem is almost entirely inhabited by Jewish Israelis. Israelis also living in Palestinian East Jerusalem, because they also see the district as an Israeli territory. The Palestinians and much of the international community see these people as settlers.

Why is Old Town so important?

The old walled center of Jerusalem, also known as the Old City, is an important place for three major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is also the location of several sacred places, including the al-Aqsamoskee, where Friday night the violence between Palestinians and the Israeli police flouted.

The Old City is divided into five areas, including four districts for Christians, Jews, Muslims and Armenians. The fifth part, the Temple Mount, has a special meaning for all religions and therefore has a special status. Formally, the Temple Mount is under the administration of a Jordanian foundation, because East Jerusalem was Jordanian territory until 1967.

Because Jerusalem is such an important area for all populations in the region, political choices around the city are often controversial. Israel and the Palestinian Authority both claim Jerusalem as the capital. Former President Trumps decision to relocate Tel Avivs US Embassy to Jerusalem, reinforcing the Israeli claim, came across a lot of international resistance.

Why is there protesting?

Last weeks protests revolve around the Sheikh Jarrah district, about two kilometres north of the old town. This district mainly houses descendants of Palestinians who were expelled from their villages and cities in 1948, something the Palestinians call the Nakba or catastrophe. By this term, they refer in a broader sense to the 750,000 Palestinians who were expelled or fled during the formation of the State of Israel.

When East Jerusalem was still in the hands of Jordan, the land was given to the Palestinians. In the years following the Israeli occupation, Israeli settlers have filed and won several lawsuits against Palestinians, claiming that the land belongs to them. Last week, an Israeli judge ruled that four Palestinian families should leave their homes to make way for Jewish Israelis.

The Palestinians who are now demonstrating say they are afraid of a new Nakba. “They dont want Arabs in Sheikh Jarrah, or anywhere in East Jerusalem,” said one of the Palestinians being kicked out to The New York Times. “When the Arabs are gone, they can surround the Old City.”

On what basis do both sides base their claim on East Jerusalem?

The Palestinians who came to neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah during the Nakba came there as a refugee. Jordan gave the territory to the Palestinians who had built houses there. Some families have lived in these areas for generations.

The Jewish Israelis say that their ancestors were expelled from the area: before Jordan took the area in 1948, it was in Jewish possession. The deputy mayor of Jerusalem compared the current Palestinian residents to squatters. Prime Minister Netanyahus government sees the fuss surrounding evictions as a real estate issue. According to Israeli law, Jewish Israelis are allowed to claim territory that has been lost in wars.


do Palestinians have the right to claim their original homes from before 1948 in Israeli territory. Therefore, when colonists bring lawsuits, they are often right. Following the unrest over Sheikh Jarrah, the Supreme Court postponed the hearing on this case by 30 days.

If this happens more often, why is there so fiercely demonstration now?

The fact that the protests of recent weeks have been so massive has to do with Ramadan. In the Lent month, confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis are more frequent.

Yet the timing is not the only reason for the violence: the evictionsare symbolic for many Palestinians of a hardening in the relationship between Palestinians and Jews. The closure of a square in East Jerusalem led to riots in April, involving extreme right-wing Jews. Meanwhile, Hamas from the Gaza Strip and the Israeli army bombed each other with missiles and air strikes.

The political situation does not promise any improvement either. Israel has been at a political deadlock for years, and escalation between Palestinians and Israelis can work in favour of Prime Minister Netanyahu. There is much frustration among Palestinians because President Abbas has postponed the first Palestinian elections in fifteen years. According to Abbas, he is doing so because Israel does not want the Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote. Many Palestinians also reproach Abbas for working too closely with Israel. These frustrations are also expressed in the demonstrations.