They say Jerusalem can never be divided. But after a week there, it feels like the most divided city on earth. Barriers crop up everywhere: Gates that block ultra-orthodox neighborhoods from secular ones on the Sabbath, so no one can drive in. Boulders that seal off a Palestinian neighborhood, so that nothing — not even a school bus — can drive out. An enormous wall gerrymanders its way around the whole city, cutting off the finger of land that contains the Shu’afat refugee camp.
But the biggest barrier here is invisible: the line that runs along the light rail train between the Jewish communities in West Jerusalem and the Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem. Since June, when two Palestinians murdered three Jewish teenagers, it’s become a battle front. In West Jerusalem, far-right thugs beat up Palestinians and shout “death to Arabs” at soccer matches. In July, they burned a Palestinian teenager alive. In East Jerusalem, Palestinians pass out candy when someone takes revenge by killing Jews.
Even justice is divided here: The homes of Palestinians who kill Jews are destroyed. Entire families pay the price. But what Israeli would destroy the home of a Jew who killed a Palestinian?
Every day, Palestinians — who make up 37 percent of the city’s residents — cross the line to work as waiters, maids, taxi drivers. At night, they go home to neighborhoods few Jews ever visit. But in recent years, well-armed settlers have begun to move in. Atop the Mount of Olives, a fortress of a house flies an enormous Israeli flag, near the place Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to build a military college. The message is clear: Jerusalem is ours. Don’t dream that any part will ever be the capital of a Palestinian state.
Nowhere has this division and encroachment played out more explosively than in the Old City: Jews pray at the Western Wall. Muslims pray at the golden Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Although Jews revere the mosque’s compound as the site of two ancient temples, it’s widely considered too holy to enter. A sign from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate warns that Torah Law forbids it.
But lately, settlers and activists have been entering anyway. They visit during tourist hours, flanked by security. Some say they merely want the freedom to pray. But others publicly fantasize about demolishing the Dome of the Rock so they can build the third temple.
This used to be seen as a fringe idea, espoused by extremists. The third temple should be built when the Messiah comes. You can’t rush God. But the movement to take control of the site is becoming more mainstream, championed by Deputy Knesset Speaker Moshe Feiglin.
It’s a key driver of recent violence. In October, a Palestinian gunman shot Yehuda Glick, an activist who’d just held a “Temple Mount” conference.
After the shooting, Israeli security barred Muslim men younger than 45 from the mosque. The rule, which has since been reversed, spawned bottomless bitterness.
“My son tried to pray in the entrance,” a shopkeeper in the Old City told me. “They beat him and broke three of his ribs. They demanded ‘Say sorry.’ My son said ‘For what?’ They told him ‘Because your mother gave birth to an Arab.’”
In the week that followed, a Palestinian driver plowed into the light rail, killing a woman and a baby. Then a second driver killed a police officer.
Netanyahu blames the attacks on “incitement” by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, a claim so disingenuous it was contradicted by his own intelligence chief. In Jerusalem, I didn’t hear one person mention Abbas. But I heard plenty about al-Aqsa. One young taxi driver told me his Jewish friend from Tel Aviv sent him a photo of Jewish people singing near the Dome of the Rock, as a joke.
“You already have all the land,” he said. “Fine. Take it. But why do you have to disrespect our holy place?”
Relatives say similar pictures on Facebook angered Rasan and Oudai Abu Jamal so much they went to West Jerusalem and slaughtered four rabbis during prayer. The act was unspeakable and inexcusable. But this is what separation sows. Older generations respected one another’s sacred spaces. This generation can’t see the humanity of the other side.
That’s why this new brand of terrorism is so scary: It’s leaderless, spontaneous, almost impossible to prevent. Nevertheless, a new checkpoint has sprung up in Jabal Mukabbir, where the Abu Jamal family mourns in a house that’s slated for destruction. A Palestinian flag wilts on a balcony nearby. This valley is crowded with families who’ve lived here for generations, but do not have land titles, or citizenship in the country that’s encircling them. On the hillside, a crane looks down on them from a construction site. A sign, written in Hebrew, announces 65 new apartments.