JERUSALEM,: “On the edge of wilderness.” That is how one of Israel’s most famous authors once described the area where the new US Embassy opened in Jerusalem on Monday. Others remember it very differently.
Standing in the valley below the hillside where Israeli and US flags were being hoisted, Palestinians said the land used to be the fields of Arab villagers, who grew fig trees, grapes and wheat there.
Everything about Jerusalem is contested, and always has been. The status of the holy city is at the heart of a bitter conflict.
Upon one thing Israelis and Palestinians are agreed: the decision of a global superpower to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – on Israel’s 70th anniversary – is a definitive moment. But there agreement ends.
Israelis believe that President Donald Trump’s administration lends weight to their long-held position that Jerusalem is the ancient capital of the Jewish people, and home to sacred sites such as the Western Wall and the Jewish temples of antiquity.
But Palestinians are outraged at the US stance on a city that is home to more than 300,000 Arabs, and is the third holiest city in Islam.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to meet American officials, and said the United States can no longer be regarded as an honest broker.
And as a microcosm of the wider argument the little patch of land chosen for the embassy has its own bundle of complexities, sitting as it does in Arnona, now a mostly Jewish neighborhood south of Jerusalem’s Old City.
NO MAN’S LAND
The site straddles the line between West Jerusalem and an area known as No Man’s Land, which was created at the end of the 1948 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
After a 1949 armistice Israeli forces pulled back to the west of an agreed line, and Jordanians to the east. In some areas there was a space in between that became known as No Man’s Land.
One of those areas was an enclave between the Jewish neighborhood of Talpiot and Arab villages to the east.
The area remained a demilitarised zone until the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, later expanding the limits of Jerusalem and annexing some of the Arab villages into the city.
The move was not recognized internationally and the Palestinians continue to claim East Jerusalem, demanding that it should be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
In February, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert conceded that the embassy site “is located partly in West Jerusalem and what’s called the no man’s land”.
This was confirmed by a senior United Nations official, who was not authorized to speak publicly given the sensitivity of the issue.
“There is some uncertainty about exactly where the line runs through the property, but I don’t think there is any uncertainty about the fact that the line runs through it,” he told Reuters.
“Under international law it is still occupied territory, because neither party had any right to occupy the area between the lines.”
When Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital he left the door open for Israel and the Palestinians to divide the city between them by stating he was not taking a position on “the resolution of contested borders”.
But Nabil Shaath, a veteran Palestinian diplomat, said the embassy’s relocation could complicate future peace talks. “Setting the embassy on No Man’s Land is really a violation of the demographic and geographic division of Jerusalem,” he said last week.
However Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said the location of the embassy would be inconsequential were Palestinians and Israelis to revive the peace process.
“Ultimately if we have to reach arrangements in Jerusalem, as I hope we will do, then we will have to set a very precise line and we will have to compensate,” Beilin told Reuters.
END OF THE WORLD
On a clear day, the Dead Sea and Jordan can be seen from the street that runs above the embassy compound.
That street was once the edge of Talpiot, a neighborhood built in the 1920s by newly arrived Jewish immigrants and which housed such figures as S.Y. Agnon, the father of modern Hebrew literature and a Nobel Laureate in 1966.
Decades later, one of Israel’s most famed writers, Amos Oz, wrote in his 2002 autobiography, ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ of his own childhood memories of Talpiot.
There Oz visited his uncle Joseph Klausner, a prominent scholar and rival of Agnon, and describes his aunt and uncle on a Saturday evening walk down their street standing above the valley:
“At the end of the cul-de-sac which was also the end of Talpiot, the end of Jerusalem, and the end of the settled land: beyond stretched the grim, barren hills of the Judean desert. The Dead Sea sparkled in the distance like a platter of molten steel … I can see them standing there, at the end of the world, on the edge of wilderness.”
But Mohammad Jadallah, 96, a Palestinian from the village of Sur Baher – across the valley from the site – says he remembers his father’s generation tending the soil on that spot.
“Everything has changed. Now, it’s the existence of the US embassy here – they are against the Arabs and the Palestinians,” he said.