Blue and white flags are up shops, final sound checks are being made at open air stages and soon fireworks will light up the sky. If they’ve not already, parties marking 65 years of Israel’s independence will soon get underway. It’s going to be a late night for many in Jerusalem.
So far in the Old City things are looking peaceful. But in 1948 when independence was declared it was a different story. Tonight (we hope) we’ll hear music, 65 years ago it was gunfire. Back then Arab armies flooded into the new country of Israel in protest at its formation, with particularly bloody fighting in Jerusalem.
The Old City, with it’s maze of narrow streets and religious buildings, was taken by Jordan, who quite literally made the Jewish Quarter uninhabitable; homes and 22 out of the 27 synagogues destroyed. The 2,000 or so Jews that were living there were forced to flee and many of the best fighters were taken back to Jordan as prisoners.
For 19 years, Jerusalem, like Berlin, was a divided city. Today, I walked through what would have been ‘no man’s land’ – walls separated the Old City and East Jerusalem (held by Jordan) and West Jerusalem (part of Israel). I saw the traces on bullet holes on both sides of part of surviving barriers where soldiers would have got caught up in fracas as they defended their respective quarters.
For Jews in particular it was a painful experience; not only were many forced to flee the Jewish quarter, but they also could no longer reach the Western Wall – their holiest site, at the foot of Temple Mount.
But in the Six Days War of 1967 Israel captured the rest of Jerusalem from Jordan, thus unifying the city. The seizure was controversial in the Arab world to say the least in that Israel had now far exceeded what the UN had permitted in 1947.
Israel would of course say that the 1967 war was necessary defence in that there incursions into the country by its neighbours. But whatever the debate about the causes and Israel’s motives, you can say with certainty that many in Arab world became increasingly angry.
As soon as peace returned to Jerusalem, there was a massive re-building programme with particular emphasis on the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, which had been little more than a waste ground today for 19 years. The modernisation programme means that its stands out and seems cleaner against the other three, tireder looking quarters.
One highlight for many tourists visiting the area is the Hurva Synagogue which was only re-opened in 2009, having been blown up by the Jordanians using 200kg of dynamite during the war of 1948. The re-building programme in the area has also meant that some important archeology has taken place – there’s 3000 years of history on display at Whol Archeological Museum in the Jewish Quarter.
Jerusalem’s Old City seems a peaceful place to visit, but my experience of walking around the historic streets today suggests that the glue holding everything is very fragile. When air raid sirens sounded at 11am signalling the start of a minute’s silence, Jews stopped where they were (even if this meant stopping their car in the middle of the road) while groups non-Jews did their best to shout and make a lot of noise.
For the second group, there is no reason to celebrate today; 1948 for many Arabs was nothing short of a catastrophe. And just as many Israelis died in the fighting in 1948, so did many Arabs. But what many of the latter group faced with independence was eviction from their homes, and sometimes into refugee camps.
Unlike other places in the Middle East, Jerusalem survives today through its inhabitants showing respect for their neighbours, whatever their religion. There are four distinctive quarters in the Old City, but people are largely not restricted to a particular one i.e. Christians can live and work in the Arab Quarter.
This mutual understanding for one and other should never be taken for granted. But perhaps it can also be a blueprint for how peace can be achieved in the wider region. Here’s to hoping things remain calm tonight in Jerusalem and wider Israel.