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An Israeli leader wants to put Jerusalem’s Arabs behind new wall

Opposition official Isaac Herzog’s plan would effectively banish 200,000 Palestinians from Jerusalem, critics say.
Opposition official Isaac Herzog’s plan would effectively banish 200,000 Palestinians from Jerusalem, critics say.Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images/File 2016

JERUSALEM — Saying he wants to save Jewish lives, the leader of the Israeli opposition is proposing to divide Jerusalem with more high walls and checkpoints, effectively banishing 200,000 Palestinian residents from the city.

The proposal by Isaac Herzog, formally adopted last month by the Labor Party, imagines building miles of new concrete barriers and smart fences to separate 28 Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem from Jewish neighborhoods and Jewish settlements in the city.

Even a discussion of carving up Jerusalem can stir apocalyptic warnings — illustrating the explosive potential of floating plans to change a status quo in an ancient city where three of the world’s major religions lay claim.

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Yet Herzog, who describes his plan as “we’re here and they’re there,” says the walls must be built inside the city to stop Palestinians from killing Israeli Jews in knife, gun, and car attacks.

The plan would transform vast stretches of Jerusalem from a demographically divided but physically contiguous metropolis into an archipelago of sectarian cantons served by roads and tunnels designed for either Israelis or Palestinians.

If the Herzog plan were to be implemented, Israel would reduce the Muslim population of Jerusalem from more than a third of the city today to about 10 percent.

“They will put us behind a wall and say that 200,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem need a special permit to visit Al Aqsa mosque? That is a religious war,” said Aziz Oubid, co-owner of an auto parts store in the Palestinian neighborhood of Issawiya just a few miles from the Old City.

“They can’t be that crazy,” he said.

Palestinians complain that the Herzog plan is impractical, radical, and racist — that it amounts to “collective punishment” for hundreds of thousands of Arabs for the actions of a few dozen assailants, and would separate lifelong residents of Jerusalem, both Muslim and Christian, from their jobs, schools, hospitals, and holy places.

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“We are more than suspicious. Even talking like this increases the frustration, increases the anger,” said Darwish Darwish, the traditional leader, known as muhktar, of the Issawiya neighborhood.

Darwish agreed that if the Palestinians someday were given their own state, his village would probably end up on the Palestinian side of a new border — and he said he supports that. What he doesn’t support is being pushed out of Jerusalem before he has a state.

“Herzog is telling Palestinians of East Jerusalem that we don’t give a damn about them,” said Daniel Seidemann, founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, a group that tracks development in the city.

“The threat to Jewish Jerusalem isn’t the Palestinians,” Seidemann said. “It’s the occupation.”

Herzog’s plan would face many obstacles, not the least of which is that the Labor Party leader would have to join the government, which he failed to do in the last election.

Herzog says his plan is part of a broader effort to preserve the viability of a two-state solution, whereby Palestinians might be awarded their own country in the future. He said a lack of Palestinian leadership and ongoing violence means peace talks must wait.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said anyone who thinks it possible to divide Jerusalem was suffering from delusions.