Meir Margalit is not just any observer of the transformations experienced by Jerusalem in recent decades. An Israeli Jew born in Argentina, from 1998 to 2014 he was a member of the city council for the left-wing Zionist party Meretz. Among the founders of the ICAHD association, the committee against the demolition of Palestinian homes by the Israeli authorities, in his book Gerusalemme la città impossibile (“Jerusalem, the impossible city,” Edizioni Terra Santa) he described Jerusalem as what he called a “non-city,” a model of institutionalized inequality.
How has Jerusalem changed in recent decades?
It has changed for the worse, because of the conjunction of three dangerous elements: Trump and the pressure of fundamentalist evangelism; the Netanyahu government and the pressure of small right-wing parties that want to prove they are more nationalist than he is; and the administration of the religious nationalist mayor Moshe Leon. Three elements that have brought the humiliation of the Palestinians to levels never seen before.
This is why such an explosion was only a matter of time: the Palestinians were not only deeply affected economically and socially by the pandemic, because many of them worked in the tourist sector, in restaurants and hotels and lost a source of livelihood that they have not recovered, but also because they have been experiencing unprecedented humiliation for years.
Moreover, in recent months, the settlers have been making a huge effort to occupy Palestinian homes before the Biden administration can get organized on the issue. A colossal effort in Sheikh Jarrah, in Silwan, in the old city. They are convinced that things are going to change soon, so they are using unprecedented violence.
In your book, you describe Israeli politics in Jerusalem as a web of micropowers, bureaucrats and anonymous officials, and as a social laboratory of control.
This occupation could not have materialized without an army of officials who take charge of repressing the Palestinians on a daily basis, pushing them to leave the city and move to the West Bank and thus strengthen the Jewish majority. Many of these officials are not bad people, many even vote left, but this is the dynamic: during working hours they obey political directives, an obedience that the employee will have learned in the years of military service: do what they tell you. Then they move this culture into the workplace.
Thus, in every state and municipal public office, everyone works for the right. And since the right has been in government for years, it’s either that the right chooses managers from among its own, or it’s the employees themselves who move to the right to move up the ladder. It’s a very brutal pattern, but it’s a silent one: nobody tells the employee to mistreat the Palestinians, but the employee knows that’s what the government or the mayor wants.
As a result, things happen like what we saw this week: the police prevented Palestinians from sitting on the steps in front of the Damascus Gate. Not because someone ordered them to do so, but because the policemen know that this is what the Ministry of Internal Security expects. This results in some paradoxical situations.
The militaristic occupation in Jerusalem takes different forms: administrative, cultural, political, architectural. Is it possible to speak of two cities, one Israeli and one Palestinian?
Jerusalem is a non-city, because a city needs a common denominator among its inhabitants, which does not exist here. There are three cities: a Palestinian one, a secular Jewish one and a religious Jewish one. These are different planets: there are contacts, because some Palestinians work in the western side, but there are no human relations. The war is continuous, and the periods of tranquility between one battle and another are ephemeral because the occupation continues to exist.
This is having an effect on the Israelis: if a country lives like this for more than 70 years, people evolve in the midst of violence. They become dehumanized. That’s why Israelis are indifferent to Palestinian suffering: violence has become normalized, naturalized. And that’s why the right is so strong in Israel. We would need a vaccine against militarization, or psychiatric therapy for all of us Israelis. It’s certain that without the international community, we will not get out of this quagmire.
If Jerusalem is a model for what happens in the rest of Palestine, what is the solution? There are those who are talking about moving past the two-state solution in favor of a single, democratic and secular state.
Jerusalem is the microcosm of the conflict throughout the Middle East. I consider the end of the occupation and a two-state solution the only one possible. Much of the left is frustrated and has already raised the white flag in the face of reality, but I try to remain a part of this struggle. If you ask me what my utopia looks like, sure, it’s a single democratic and secular state for all. But right now I think it’s more realistic to think of a division into two independent states. And perhaps to think about a confederation in the future. Jerusalem could be converted into a micro-model of a unified city, but divided into two capitals: the western Israeli capital, the eastern Palestinian capital, open and united. A complex and unique micromodel, a functional division and not a territorial one: it would be foolish to think of drawing a border divided by a wall.
Coming back to these days, with tensions that have spread to Gaza, what do you expect? A return to a quieter occupation or a visible confrontation?
I cannot say what will happen tomorrow. What worries me is that at this moment, on the Israeli side there is a clash between macho-style leaderships, which is certainly helping Netanyahu react in a more violent way; and on the Palestinian side, the postponement of the elections has produced a climate of further division, with Hamas able to present itself as the only ones able to fight for Jerusalem, giving the parties of the Israeli ultra-right more room for action. Unless the international community intervenes and says “enough is enough.” Without an external intervention, a European one, an American one, if it depends on Israel alone, the occupation will never end.