'We are fighting for every stone here'

Jerusalem and religion. An extract from Richard Crowley's new book, No Man's Land.

The French-run Secours Catholique operates out of an imposing old stone building just beyond the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. Its grounds cover the side of a hill, and from the carefully cultivated gardens you can view the entire city of Jerusalem. In the middle distance, three sides of the walled Old City can be seen. Father Michael O'Sullivan enthusiastically points out the holy sites inside the walls. Over there are the two domes of the mosques built on Haram Al Sharif, in front the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall. Beyond that, to the right, he directs my gaze to where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is clearly visible above the flat roofs.

From the roof of the building, he points out where the Jewish settlements have begun to appear here and there. The gleaming new buildings, and the presence close by of heavily armed Israeli troops, stand out among the grubby old structures of the Arab population. As Israel extends its power over this half of the city, Father O'Sullivan tells me he believes that the future of Arab East Jerusalem is very bleak.

‘I only see an Israeli Arab East Jerusalem, because if the present Israeli policies continue, then it will be totally cut off from its natural hinterland in the West Bank, and the only option for the Palestinians living here will be to swallow the Israeli pill and have Israeli nationality forced upon them. Many people have already done so. It's a submission to the status quo: they have no other option.'

When the Israelis illegally annexed the city, the annexation expanded Jerusalem's so-called municipal boundaries. The government drew up new maps and planned new developments, to give the political act some tangible expression. New settlements were built, roads were opened up, and whole areas on the eastern side of the city became Jewish neighbourhoods. About two hundred thousand Israelis now live in parts of East Jerusalem which were seized from the Arabs in 1967. There are so many of them, and they have been there for so long, that where they live – places like Gilo and Talpiot – are no longer referred to as settlements. Even when many of the foreign media refer to numbers of settlers, they mention the 250,000 who are living illegally in the West Bank. Most do not include the Israelis who are living in East Jerusalem. To all intents and purposes, the line between East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem has become harder to distinguish than ever before.

Born in Kilrush in County Clare, Father Michael worked in Arab North Africa for a decade before coming to the Holy Land. He is a member of the White Fathers Order, attached to Saint Anne's Church, a beautiful twelfth-century church in Jerusalem which was built by the Crusaders, and he is director of Secours Catholique, the French Caritas. Father Michael is, quite literally, in a great position to view the changing character of East Jerusalem. As the Palestinians are gradually being pushed out of the centre of the city, Jerusalem is losing its Christian as well as its Muslim population. And as the Israelis and the Palestinians jostle for position here, the institutional Christian churches are stuck in the middle. When the original plan for the partition of Palestine was drawn up sixty years ago, the idea was that Jerusalem would remain an open city, to be shared by the two nations and all three religions. It is nothing like that now: Israel's consolidation of its power following the illegal annexation in 1967 has resulted in the city becoming not just less Palestinian but less Muslim and less Christian too. At the same time, the rise of a more radical, fundamentalist Islam amongst Palestinians is adding to the pressure on the Christian community.

‘The Christian community in Jerusalem is a community that is in the process of disappearing,' Father Michael tells me. ‘That's due in the main to the occupation and to the economic situation which has imposed itself because of the occupation. Today, you have only between five and seven thousand Christians, divided up into fourteen different churches, and that's significantly down from even a few years ago.' Apart from the Armenian population, the Christians see themselves as essentially Arabs, and they have sided with the Muslims in the political process, despite the friction between the two faiths. Traditionally the merchant classes, the wealthier Christians have been among the first to leave Jerusalem. ‘Many of them have been educated in Christian schools in Europe,' says Father Michael, ‘and they have seen and got used to a better life, so they are emigrating.' Those who cannot afford to leave the country are being forced further East. ‘The Arab population is being squeezed out because of the Wall and the building of the settlements in East Jerusalem. Because of this, the normal hinterland of the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Hebron and Bethlehem is no longer accessible from here. Instead of travelling in and out, they tend to move there,' explains Father Michael.

When the Israelis annexed East Jerusalem and its environs in 1967, they incorporated some 200,000 Palestinians into its jurisdiction. The Palestinians were offered Israeli citizenship but, not surprisingly, they declined. They saw accepting Israeli citizenship as bowing to the occupiers and not just accepting the annexation but giving it legitimacy. They were issued with the so-called blue ID cards, making them ‘permanent' residents of the Israeli state but not citizens. They paid their taxes to Israel, and in theory they could benefit from Israel's social welfare system, including state-funded hospitals and schools, but in practice what they were able to access was the inferior end of a clearly two-tier system. In theory, as residents of Israel they have access to Israel, but increasingly the practice is that they don't have the same freedom to travel as Jewish Israeli citizens and are being increasingly enclosed in Jerusalem. Some of them have opted to move temporarily to Ramallah to try to find work, but if they are found to be living in the West Bank they are deemed to be West Bankers, and their East Jerusalem ID is taken away from them. This means that they lose their social-security benefits, their children's allowances and medical care, and so on.

Because of the restrictions on their movements, most Jerusalem Arabs rarely get to see their family members on the West Bank. If they have family in the Gaza Strip, they may never have seen them: travel to the Gaza Strip is completely forbidden. For the Christian Arabs, there is the further problem that they do not have access to the holy sites in Bethlehem. Similarly, people in Bethlehem can't get to Jerusalem. As a result, more and more Palestinians are giving up their status as permanent residents and quietly opting for Israeli citizenship. ‘Many of them say that they would prefer to be Israeli citizens, even living in an illegally annexed East Jerusalem, rather than be subject to the near-anarchy of a practically nonexistent Palestinian entity on the other side,' explains Father Michael.

For the various Christian Churches in East Jerusalem, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep their institutions running smoothly. Bringing in foreign priests is a slow and problematic process. The Churches have to apply to the Israelis for visas for the priests to come and work in East Jerusalem. Those Churches who draw members from neighbouring Arab countries, like Syria or Egypt, or even Jordan, find it especially difficult to get visas.

Denominations with European staff find things a little easier.

The new Jewish settlements that Father Michael was pointing out to me on the roof are the cause of much friction with the local population, and with the various Christian churches. ‘There is daily tension between the settlers and the religious institutions because some of our lands are up for grabs,' explains Father Michael. ‘Some churches sell buildings and lands because they need the money. They may sell directly to the settlers or they may sell to a third party, who in turn sells it on to the settlers. Plus, there are problems with the registration of lands because the papers go back generations, and so the pressure increases on the Churches to sell up.'

Given that most countries view the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem as illegal, you might think that strenuous efforts would be being made to end it, or at least to curtail its effects. Not so, according to Father Michael. ‘There is this sense that we have been forgotten,' he says. ‘The international community is not seen to be doing enough to highlight the injustices done by the occupation of East Jerusalem, or indeed to the rest of the Palestinian territories.'
He continues: ‘Even within the Vatican, traditionally seen as supporting the Palestinian cause, there is a generation of leaders which is suffering some kind of guilt complex because of what happened during the Second World War, and the same is true of certain European governments.'

Father Michael does not claim that there is an attempt by the Jewish state to ‘squeeze out' the Christians from Jerusalem. However, he says that ‘Whether one likes it or not, there are many Jews or Israelis who see Christianity as a thorn in their side. I suppose they see it as a bit of a sect. Some Jews have said to me that they respect Jesus but that it's a pity that the whole thing happened. In a sense, they were saying that the establishment of Christianity was a mistake, and so our holy places are also a mistake, and must take second place in the chosen land of the chosen people.'

There may not be a state-sponsored effort to marginalise the Christian Churches, but there are wheels within wheels, and the various state organisations have an agenda of consolidating Israel's hold over East Jerusalem, and elsewhere in the Holy Land. ‘At the moment, the Israeli parliament approved a move that would put a footpath all around the Sea of Galilee, which is about sixteen or seventeen kilometres of a walkway,' says Father Michael. ‘For us, the Sea of Galilee is a holy place. It's a place where a lot of the ministry of Jesus Christ took place, and we are certainly not in favour of turning it into an ordinary beach. Now, some of the western side of the Sea of Galilee is owned by the different Churches, and we are engaged in a big battle to reverse this decision.'

Another example of the pressure on the Christian Churches is what is happening at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City. The church has been given special status, which means that it is supposed to be exempt from the usual by-laws. ‘The Israelis have come and put security cameras all around this shrine, which again is not respecting that special status,' Father Michael says. I ask him what future Christianity has in the land of its birth. ‘We are fighting for every stone and every square metre of land here,' he replies. ‘E1' is the name of the latest and biggest settlement project in East Jerusalem. At the time of writing, the construction had been suspended after objections from several European governments, including Ireland. Even the Americans, who have in recent years done almost nothing about illegal Israeli settlements, have come out against this project. That's because, if it goes ahead, E1, which is situated between Jerusalem and the existing colony of Ma'aleh Adumim, will become the final brick in a wall of settlements separating East Jerusalem from the West Bank. Worse, it will cut the West Bank in two, dividing it into two separate cantons, one to the north and one to the south of Jerusalem. How the Palestinians might be expected to travel up or down the West Bank if E1 goes ahead has not been explained. At best, they will use underground tunnels. A vast area of land has been cleared for the building of E1. The original plan was to erect 3,500 housing units. That plan is now on hold due to opposition from the Palestinians and foreign governments. But right in the middle of this space, a fourstorey police station has been built. A four-lane highway is being constructed through the middle of the site. And E1 has been declared to be on the Israeli side of the Wall, or security barrier. In short, the project may be ‘on hold', but there is little doubt about Israel's intentions to proceed with it as soon as it can.

A similar process is under way further inside East Jerusalem. A housing estate is going up here, a block of apartments there: this creeping colonialism has continued for decades, to the point where Arabs are being slowly squeezed out of more and more areas. The settlers' plan is eventually to join up these ‘facts on the ground' and complete the removal of the Arabs from these areas.

Very often, these moves are not fully appreciated until it is too late: that is, after planning permission has been granted and the building work has begun. The extent to which Israel is prepared to ignore international protests about the legality of the settlements was hammered home with the attempt to demolish the Shepard's Hotel in the Sheik Jarrar neighbourhood of East Jerusalem and build apartments for more than a hundred families of settlers. The new settlement was to be situated within fifty metres of the British Consulate in East Jerusalem. The British lodged a complaint with the Israelis on the grounds that the settlement would not only change the Arab character of this sensitive area but also pose a security risk to its consulate. The outcome in this case has yet to be decided.

Most Arabs are extremely reluctant to sell their property in East Jerusalem to Jews. They know that an Israeli who wants to buy there is likely to be either a settler or a representative of the settlers movement. Arabs who sell to settlers are frequently attacked, and their homes set on fire. A number of them have been killed. In some cases, Palestinian landowners have pretended that they did not know the true identity of the purchaser when they were selling their land. Usually, when a Palestinian sells to a settler, he has already left the area before the transaction is discovered.
It is not just ordinary Palestinians who are feeling the squeeze as Israel continues its drive to alter the demographic balance of the eastern half of Jerusalem. The Greek Orthodox Church has been in the Holy Land for more than seventeen hundred years. With the other Christian churches, it shares control of the holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Greek Orthodox Church is also one of the largest private landowners in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Its property portfolio includes some very valuable land in Jerusalem, and in the Old City in particular – the very land that the Israeli settlers have been seeking to acquire.

The tale of how the settlers went after one valuable Old City site is like something from the time of Florence under the Medicis. The Greeks' possessions included land – on which three old hotels stood – situated right beside the Jaffa Gate of the old city walls. On Jerusalem's monopoly board, this is about as deep a shade of dark blue as you can get.
A few years ago, the then Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem, Irenaois, granted power of attorney to a man named Nicos Papadimas to make certain transactions for the church. Nicos, who is married to an Israeli woman and, according to the Israeli press, ‘loves life, fancy cars and a good cigar', was approached by an Israeli organisation, Ateret Cohanim, which promotes the establishment of new Jewish settlements in the Old City. The deal involved a long-term lease of the three hotels at Jaffa Gate to companies registered in the Virgin Islands. Papadimas signed that deal, and then another one for a second property in the Old City. Then he disappeared.

When details of the deals became public, there was uproar. The Patriarch, Irenaois, declared that he had no knowledge of the affair, but the Holy Synod of the Church voted to depose him and appointed a new Patriarch, Theophilus, in his place. But Irenaois was not about to go easily. He lodged appeals in the courts in Tel Aviv to try to stop the land deal going ahead, on the basis that the powers granted to Papadimas did not include the right to make the deal. He lobbied the Orthodox community in Israel and Palestine to support him, and in the meantime he refused to budge from his office.

So the Greeks had several big problems. Two Patriarchs. A divided community. A controversial land deal which was causing serious upset both to the Arabs and to other Christian groups. Not to mention the possible loss of some very valuable property. So the Israeli government sent in a man called Tzachi Hanegbi to mediate.

Years earlier, when he was a young student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Hanegbi was convicted of assaulting an Arab student during some scuffles on the campus. He didn't just hit him; he attacked him with a bicycle chain. Hanegbi went on to become a leading member of the Likud Party and was eventually appointed as the minister responsible for church affairs in Ariel Sharon's government. Hanegbi went to see the newly appointed Patriarch. Theophilus explained that, although his predecessor was refusing to go, he was the properly elected new leader of the Church and was seeking the necessary formal recognition from the government of Israel.

The minister explained that his government was kindly disposed towards recognising the appointment and putting the whole nasty business behind it. All Theophilus had to do was to agree to the land deal and sign the properties over to the settlers. Theophilus declared that he could not (or would not) do so, and the meeting ended. It later transpired that Hanegbi had conveyed a similar message of support, with the same condition attached, to Irenaois. Irenaois's response is not known. The saga is currently ongoing, and is now bound up in legal disputes and inquiries by government committee. There has also been a serious deterioration in the relationship between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Arab leaders. There has been one further significant development. Tzachi Hanegbi has been convicted on corruption charges unrelated to this affair, and may have to be released from jail to testify.
After a few years living in Manchester, Irishman Guy Gordon moved to Israel and married an Italian woman, Nicole Nitsa. Together with their four-year-old daughter Maya, they now live in the Baka area of West Jerusalem. But Guy doesn't call it ‘West Jerusalem'. He calls it ‘Jerusalem'. Like most Israelis, he sees Jerusalem as the permanent and indivisible capital of the Jewish state. And, like a clear majority of Jews, he is not inclined to give it up.

Guy Gordon, who is thirty-three, left Ireland in 1996. The move had been on the cards for some time. I first met Gordon's family twenty years ago, while I was making a TV documentary about the Jews in Ireland. Guy's father David told me that he was intent on taking the family to Britain because, given the size of the Jewish community in Ireland, it would be difficult if not impossible for his four sons to marry within the faith if they stayed. ‘I never encountered any animosity growing up in Dublin but I always felt different,' Guy remembers. ‘I felt like a Zionist and seemed to know that it was a question of when I would come here rather than if. For Guy, Israel meant ‘a place which [Jews] could call their own, where they did not have to feel different or threatened, or as the guests of another people'.

Guy remembers wearing the Jewish skullcap, the kippa, around the streets of Dublin and being stared at. ‘There was a bit of slagging,' he recalls. ‘Fellas used to say “Oh here comes the Pope”, but there was nothing nasty about it.' Though he has lived outside Ireland for ten years, Guy says that he keeps in touch with what is happening there. He says that he would not feel happy wearing his kippa on the streets of Dublin today. ‘With the increasingly extremist Muslim elements who have settled in certain areas of Dublin, I would be a lot more nervous,' he says. He tells me he misses what he terms the ‘gentility and civility of Irish life'. He misses, too, the warmth and friendliness of the Irish – which he contrasts with ‘the gruffness and rudeness' you get from Israelis, at least at first.

Guy recalls that he was ‘much more religious' when he came to Israel first. ‘Now I tend to lean more towards the secular,' he says, ‘but at the beginning there was a certain kind of messianic religious element to my religious beliefs. Now we are a nation like any other, and there is much more of a civic element to my Zionism than a religious one.' Like all young Israelis, Guy did his army service, and he is still a reservist. During ‘Operation Defensive Shield', the mass incursion into the West Bank in 2002, he served as a sniper with one of the IDF's elite infantry units. ‘My job was to kill the bad guys before they killed us,' he says. On the question of Jerusalem, Guy is adamant that Israel can give no quarter. He says that the Arabs can have part of East Jerusalem but that the Old City is not for negotiation.

‘There are constant attempts in the Arab media to try to rubbish the Jews claim to Jerusalem,' he says. ‘They try to deny our historical claim, and we have to stand our ground.' ‘When it comes to the Temple Mount [which the Arabs call ‘Haram Al Sharif ‘], there is no way that we can concede control. Some of [the Arabs'] claims for religious connection to that area are very, very specious indeed. Only latterly have these links to the site been written into their histories, only in the last century, whereas Jerusalem has been at the centre of Jewish prayer and literature and history for the past two thousand years.'

So, if you cast doubt over the validity of the Arab claim to the Old City as home to Islam's third-holiest shrine, where does that leave the Palestinians? ‘Well, obviously they would have to have total access to this shrine, but we, the Israelis, certainly can't relinquish sovereignty over it. There can be no compromise on the Temple Mount.' This raises the whole question of the Jews' biblical claim over the land of Israel – not just the holy sites but the mass of the land itself. Religious Israelis refer to the West Bank as ‘Judea and Samaria': places which were supposedly given by God to the Jews. Does he agree with that view? ‘I don't think it provides a basis for a political claim. But I don't think history can be consigned to the dustbin. We have a historical claim, we have a link to the land going back for thousands of years, but I do not think we have a divine right to the land. We don't own it because God promised it to Abraham. That kind of thing might warm my heart but it doesn't cut the mustard in the modern world.'