Abed Ghazali, a Palestinian restaurant owner, was driving back from work on Wednesday when he was stopped by a crane placing large concrete blocks across a road at the entrance to his neighborhood, Jabal Mukaber, in East Jerusalem.
Israeli border police stood guard as the blocks were lowered in a row, leaving a narrow passage for single cars – a new checkpoint that was already backing up traffic, and a new dividing line in an ostensibly united city.
“This isn’t right, they’re choking people,” Ghazali said after parking his car up the road and making his way home on foot.
Police set up checkpoints and roadblocks on the edges of several Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem on Wednesday as part of measures ordered by the Israeli security cabinet to quell a wave of Palestinian stabbings that has roiled Israel for more than two weeks.
The new checkpoints immediately set off debate on the sensitive question of a united Jerusalem, something Israel has trumpeted since it captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, then annexed the area as part of its capital. Israeli critics said the checkpoints amounted to redrawing the old dividing line that kept the Jewish and Arab parts of the city not just separate, but under different administrations.
“The whole dream about the unification of our capital is off the table because of the latest popular uprising,” wrote Shimon Shiffer, a columnist in the mass circulation daily Yediot Ahronot.
Nir Hasson, the Jerusalem affairs correspondent for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, called the new checkpoint policy “an acknowledgment of the illusion of the unification of Jerusalem,” and he warned that it could have dire economic consequences for both Jewish and Arab parts of the city.
Many Palestinians from East Jerusalem work in Jewish areas of the city – in hotels, construction, restaurants, supermarkets and shops – and many Israeli businesses depend on Arab labor. A disruption of movement between Arab and Jewish parts of Jerusalem would lead to “an immediate and severe economic crisis throughout the city,” Hasson wrote.
Zeev Elkin, the minister responsible for Jerusalem affairs in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, denied Wednesday that any steps had been taken to divide the city. Israel has long claimed all of Jerusalem, with its Arab neighborhoods, as its “indivisible capital.”
“There’s no political decision here,” Elkin told Israel Radio.
“The city is not being split along the Green Line,” he added, using the term for the pre-1967 armistice line that divided Jerusalem between Israel and Jordan. “These are security measures, and if attackers come from these neighborhoods, Israel has the right to protect the security of its citizens.”
How effective the new steps will be in cooling the violence was also an open discussion. Two more attacks took place on Wednesday as the barriers went up. In one incident, police shot and killed a knife-wielding youth outside the Old City in the east. In the other, a 70-year-old Israeli woman was wounded by an attacker as he tried unsuccessfully to board a bus, police said.
The extent of the checkpoints and closures was still unfolding. The security cabinet decision authorized police to “impose a closure on, or to surround, centers of friction and incitement in Jerusalem, in accordance with security considerations.”
The language referred to Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, from where most of the Palestinians who have carried out the recent attacks have come. Three assailants who struck on Tuesday, killing three Israelis, were from Jabal Mukaber, Ghazali’s neighborhood.
Ghazali and other neighborhood residents doubted that the new checkpoints would do much to prevent violence. They can be avoided easily by people intent on carrying out attacks. What they for sure will do, he said, is cause significant hardship to ordinary Palestinians, many of whom work on the Jewish side of town.
“If someone wants to do something, this won’t bother him,” Ghazali said as he stood near the new barrier. “He’ll find another way in. This just harms innocent people. It’s collective punishment.”
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.