“Arab East Jerusalem” vs Eastern Jerusalem

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News media outlets commonly use the terms “West Jerusalem” and “East Jerusalem,” or at times “Arab East Jerusalem,” “Palestinian East Jerusalem,” or “occupied East Jerusalem.” in their terminology.

Yet, these terms are often used incorrectly and reinforce biased and misleading assumptions rather than help readers understand the situation.

Understanding Jerusalem’s history is crucial in choosing terminology appropriately.

Jerusalem is a holy city to all three major Abrahamic faiths — it’s Judaism’s ancient capital and home to its two ancient Jewish Temples, it’s the city where Christians believe Jesus preached and was executed, and it’s home to the al-Aqsa mosque, where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven.

The Temple Mount and Western Wall — the last remnants of the ancient Temples, the last of which was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago — have been Judaism’s holiest place for thousands of years, while the Dome of the Rock & al-Aqsa mosque which stand atop the same spot were built in the 7th century and have since become Islam’s third-holiest site.

This contentious and venerated spot is located in what’s known as Jerusalem’s “Old City.” While Jerusalem’s exact boundaries have shifted repeatedly over the millenia, the “Old City” has been its core for at least the past 500 years, when Emperor Suleiman, whose Ottoman empire was occupying the land, built the walls that currently surround it. The Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian communities have all lived there for centuries — each in their own traditional neighbourhoods or ‘quarters.’

This status quo remained unchanged until the mid-19th century, when British Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore built the first modern infrastructure and established the first modern neighbourhoods outside the Old City’s walls. Over time, this expansion and development transformed Jerusalem into a modern urban municipality, and saw the amalgamation of nearby villages and historical/holy sites into its boundaries. There was never any formal boundary between the “West” and “East” halves of the city — until 1948.

Under the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan – which was accepted by the Jewish delegates, but rejected by its Arab neighbours – Jerusalem was envisioned as an international zone. But upon Israel declaring its independence in 1948, its Arab neighbours launched an attempted war of annihilation against the new State of Israel, and the invading Kingdom of Jordan conquered and illegally annexed the eastern portion of Jerusalem (including the Old City), ethnically cleansing the tens of thousands of Jewish residents who lived there, demolishing historic Jewish synagogues and graves, and forbidding all Jewish pilgrims from anywhere in the world from visiting their holiest sites.

This changed in 1967, when Jordan invaded Israel a second time (as part of another annihilation attempt). Israel’s defensive response led to possession of various territories — including the remainder of Jerusalem. Understandably, Israel viewed eastern Jerusalem as part of its rightful capital that Jordan never had the right to unilaterally occupy. As such, it functions under normal Israeli law with no distinction on the ground between areas that Jordan once captured and those it didn’t. This includes full Israeli civic and residency rights for local Arab residents, as well as full access to holy sites for all religions — including Jews.

In 1980, Israel formally annexed eastern Jerusalem, bringing the entire city under undivided Israeli sovereignty.

During the era of Israeli sovereignty, further expansion and development has occurred. The city today is an eclectic mix of all these different aspects of its history and peoples — making it practically meaningless on the ground to try and distinguish between past iterations of its political barriers.

For all these reasons, as well as the obvious sensitivity of the issue, the final political status of eastern Jerusalem has always been tabled as something to be determined at the very end of negotiations, once everything else is agreed upon.

As such, “East Jerusalem” can mean many things. A Jewish tourist visiting the Western Wall, Mount of Olives, or City of David, a Muslim living in what they’ve historically considered their local village, a secular Israeli living in a modern neighbourhood, an Orthodox Christian monk guardian of a medieval church, a Yemenite Jew returning to property owned by his family prior to Jordan’s 1948 expulsion, a mixed neighbourhood which runs through the “Green Line,” a Palestinian-Arab local who attends state-run educational institutions — all of these vastly different realities exist side by side and share the infrastructure of one city, Israel’s capital.

Today, Jerusalem is a metropolis of roughly one million people, roughly two-thirds of whom are Jewish, and one-third Arab. While most Jews live in western Jerusalem, and most Arabs live in eastern Jerusalem, the east is still home to roughly 250,000 Jews, showing that the division between “East” and “West” Jerusalem today is no longer significant.

This is precisely why it’s important for news media outlets to understand that it’s not as simple as a “West Jerusalem” and an “East Jerusalem,” one being Israeli and the other Palestinian. While this neat and simplistic reduction might be an easier picture to draw, it does not reflect reality and erases the identities and experiences of the people of all backgrounds who actually live on both sides of the imaginary dividing line. If one must use these terms, it should be made clear that they are nothing more than markers of one particular moment in a complex political history and not an immutable decree over who has the right to live where. In reality, fairly representing Jerusalem requires room for nuance and deeper understanding.

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