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The Key to Jerusalem is Jerusalem

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Amidst bombings, hostages, and other humanitarian crises, a political quandary is developing in Israel surrounding the “day after.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has avoided outlining in detail the future from which he will likely be excluded, reflecting his obsession with absolute victory against Hamas as his only means of regaining public support. The mainstream Israeli sentiment is also that these discussions are premature before Hamas—which cannot have any place in Gaza—is eliminated.

The phrase the “day after” has inundated Israeli and international media, but its importance saves it from becoming banal. The war is heading in a direction where an eventual ceasefire will extend into a status quo peace. However, even if Israel achieves all of its strategic objectives, it is not a triumph for Israelis or Palestinians to return to October 6: The underlying issues of the crisis would continue to fester, unresolved, only to metastasize further.

With this in mind, it is imperative to develop a long-term solution now to guide rebuilding efforts in Gaza and legitimize the Palestinian leadership that should work with Israel to achieve meaningful peace. One possible and promising framework is known as a confederation. Under such a proposal, two independent states would be established and cooperate through an organized authority over shared issues like interspersed populations, recognizing the interconnectedness of the lands and peoples west of the Jordan River.

Although the confederation plan centers on Jerusalem as an open, dual-capital city, the Palestinians in the city’s east have largely been forgotten, just as they have been relegated from the greater conversation since 1967. It should be the opposite. Their ambivalent condition demonstrates the real-life possibilities—and current limitations—of coexistence; Jerusalem is a microcosm of the broader conflict and its solutions.

One of the advantages of a confederation is that it addresses the Jewish and Palestinian historical, religious, and emotional attachment to the entire land. Over 700,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Some of these settlements would be included in the Israeli state with commensurate land swaps, but not all. Many Israelis are adamant never to forsake biblical Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) again. But Palestinians also have a hatikvah (hope, the name of the Israeli national anthem) of returning to the homes from which they were exiled during the 1948 and 1967 wars. These extant territorial ties pose an existential threat to the Jewish state.

A confederation addresses this central dilemma. Palestinians would be able to realize their right to return, and Israelis would be able to remain in the West Bank, but both as permanent residents of the states they reside in. Israelis and Palestinians would be able to move, live, and work freely throughout their state of residence, comply with local law, and have the right to vote in municipal elections, all while being citizens of the adjacent state.

If any of this sounds familiar, it might be because this is the arrangement for Palestinians in East Jerusalem. After the Israeli military captured the Old City during the Six-Day War, it imposed Israeli law and administration over all of Jerusalem to assert Israeli access to key sites, like the Western Wall and Mount Scopus, which Jordan’s presence had threatened or rendered completely inaccessible after 1948. To address the demographic issue of subsuming East Jerusalem based on the city’s Jewish identity, the government recognized the Palestinians who were within those expanded municipal borders during the census as permanent residents, not citizens.

There are serious issues with Israel’s application of permanent residency in East Jerusalem that can educate and reinforce the need for a confederation. For one, permanent residency is not all that permanent. The East Jerusalem Palestinians are regarded as exempt from the Absentee Law, which enables the government to claim the property of nationals of enemy states—but only for property in East Jerusalem. The qualification of being “regarded” as but not actually immune to property seizure creates an ambiguous condition for Palestinians: Their residency can be seized by Israel if they no longer reside in East Jerusalem. Israel had revoked roughly 14,500 permits by 2017 on the grounds that these individuals’ “center of life” was somewhere outside of Israel. In further disregard for Palestinians’ property rights, the Israeli government has made it near impossible for East Jerusalemites to receive building permits, forcing them to resort to illegally constructing residences which the government subsequently demolishes.

It goes without saying that a confederation in which ostensibly permanent residence can be withdrawn seemingly on a whim is not conducive to coexistence. The Absentee Law would have to be revoked in a confederation, enabling the possibility of Palestinian return. 

Another issue with Israel’s implementation of permanent residency is that East Jerusalemites are effectively disenfranchised, politically powerless to address these issues. A negligible number participated in the Jerusalem elections, and it was only after the 1993 Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) that they could vote for a president or parliament. Contrary to East Jerusalemites’ cautious optimism after the first round of PA elections, decreasing participation today indicates their lost faith in both Israeli and Palestinian governance. PA President Mahmoud Abbas postponed elections in 2021 out of fear that Hamas would win, exploiting perceptions of Israeli corruption by falsely claiming that Israel refused to hold the vote in East Jerusalem. Palestinians protested the decision as a blatant power grab, but as time has passed, they have internalized Abbas’s claim because it encapsulates their frustration with Israeli leadership as well.

The permanent resident status of Palestinians in East Jerusalem fails to protect their political and civil rights because there is an unequal divide of power between the governing state and the state of which they are citizens. A confederation would only succeed if the Palestinian and Israeli states would be able to hold each other accountable for actions that impact their citizens, wherever they might reside. Through a confederation plan, all voices would be legitimized, encouraging underrepresented people to advocate more on their own behalf with greater faith that the state would do so as well.

Importantly, East Jerusalem Palestinians are living the reality of integration—and are increasingly satisfied with their quality of life within it. Following the terror attacks of the Second Intifada, Israel built a security barrier dividing the West Bank from East Jerusalem, impeding movement in either direction. Due to this lack of mobility, the city integrated further, as East Jerusalemites came to rely on Israel (for work, education, administration, and more) rather than the PA. As some of their concerns about the wall’s implications have eased, Palestinians have reported greater approval of their access to Al-Aqsa Mosque, the West Bank, and Israel, as well as municipal services like the health system, utilities, and vital records. 

East Jerusalem Palestinians’ concerns about how these essential needs will be realized shape their desires for their futures. The higher the degree of concern about the conditions in a Palestinian state, the more they would prefer Israeli citizenship, and vice versa. Above all else, East Jerusalem Palestinians care about remaining in their ancestral homes in the city. Regardless of whether their neighborhoods become a part of Israel or Palestine, only about 15 percent would want to move to the other state. And beyond the sovereignty of East Jerusalem, an overwhelming 74 percent would want Jerusalem to remain open to both Israelis and Palestinians, as it would be under a confederation.

The fact that East Jerusalemites are generally content with their standard of living, despite Israel’s violation of their rights, points to a confederation’s prioritization of fundamental needs. People want to live where they have always lived, pray as they wish, and provide for themselves and their families. Only a confederation can preserve the integrity of the states that comprise it and offer these fundamental freedoms to everyone who dwells in its midst. 

East Jerusalemites’ positive responses to their living situations also reaffirm people’s capacity for tolerance, even for another group who has traditionally been framed as the enemy. In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians’ interactions with Israelis are mostly limited to soldiers and checkpoints (the manifestations of occupation)—Israelis who are in turn primed to regard every Palestinian they encounter as a potential threat. Divided by a wall, the “other” remains a shadowed scepter that leaves death in its wake. Just as Jerusalem’s infrastructure is totally integrated, the West Bank and Gaza are similarly linked to Israel by their economies and basic supplies, like water, electricity, and gas. Yet without tangible person-to-person interaction, such interconnectedness bears no fruit aside from mutual distrust. In contrast, Israelis and Palestinians interact regularly in Jerusalem, working together and sharing public spaces and resources, like hospitals and transportation. Proximity obliges people to recognize the humanity in one another.

Cooperation in Jerusalem proves reconciliation is a possible, albeit lengthy, process. However, it is incredibly important to make the distinction between rapprochement and coexistence. An idealistic vision of a future where everyone forgets their traumas and lives together in harmony is not just unrealistic but also undesirable for both Israelis and Palestinians. People want to be able to practice their faith and culture and all the other facets of their identities rather than be absorbed into homogeneity. Nevertheless, Palestinians and Israelis must learn to acknowledge each other’s interpretations of the past and recognize their own complicity in it.

During the Israel-Hamas war, Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem have begun this process of contending with their parochial narratives. Aside from mutual mistrust, the city’s palpable tension reflects the defensiveness of people whose self-righteous resolve is crumbling. Israelis and Palestinians alike have sought refuge in disinformation or their respective traumas to avoid confronting the victim-victimizer binary. As inflamed euphoria and fear abate, justification for revenge will dissipate and only pain (yours and mine) will remain. 

The first step in disrupting this cycle of violence is empathy. This is the guiding principle of a confederation. A confederation plan would not require Israelis or Palestinians to relinquish their history or claim to the land, only recognize the legitimacy of the other’s as well. Jerusalem’s complicated past and present demonstrate that people can also move beyond their valid grievances when they believe in the prospect of a better collective future. A confederation could make this potential a reality.