Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Battle on the Mount of Olives

In war, a battle can be won or lost based on which side holds the high ground. Thus tiny differences in geography, shaped after millennia of rain, wind, and heat, come to mean life or death. This is true today of the Mount of Olives: two embittered foes vie for control over the place on which the Messiah is said to one day appear...

When I studied abroad in Jerusalem, I would often go on runs around my campus on Mount Scopus (Har Harzofim), the tallest peak of the ridge that makes up the Mount of Olives. The most beautiful part of my run was always at one particular outlook that looked eastward, towards the arid Judaean hills and Jordan River valley. I often would take a break to stop and pray, enjoying some quiet time with God among the olive trees.
The slope on the east side of Mount Scopus. Isawiyya is off-screen on the left, and Al-Tur is near the center-right of the frame (Berg, 2011). 
The dramatic landscape makes it a popular stop for tour groups (Berg, 2011).
The panorama at this point was much different from earlier on the run, which overlooks the congested, dirty Palestinian village of Isawiyya. Isawiyya, while technically in East Jerusalem, falls under strict Israeli regulations and building codes designed to keep suffocate the Palestinian population of the city. Isawiyya is cut off on one side by the 10-foot tall concrete wall Israel constructed to impede suicide bombers. One of the two checkpoints into Isawiyya was recently closed, adding 20 minutes to any Palestinian worker's commute to Jerusalem. Palestinians cannot build new houses, or build additional floors. Thus Isawiyya, like the nearby town of Al-Tur, is rampant with overcrowding, garbage, and illegal construction (together the two towns have approximately 30,000 inhabitants). 
On the left, the modern Hebrew University of Jerusalem. On the right, in the valley, the dirty Isawiyya slum (Berg 2011).  
Isawiyya as seen from Mount Scopus on Nakba Day (Berg, 2011).
Human rights organizations both in Israel and abroad protest the Israeli government's ban on Palestinian construction, while countenancing the illegal construction of Jewish settlements on private Palestinian territory. They had argued for years for the rights of Palestinians to build on land they owned on the eastern slope of Mount Scopus. However, last week, the Jerusalem city government declared all that privately owned Palestinian land to now make up a national park.
View from Isawiyya looking west up to Mount Scopus. You can clearly make out additional land Palestinians could build on, and there is much more land out of frame off the left side of this photo (Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity, 2011).

A map of the proposed national park plan.
This section of land, while picturesque, is far from worthy of being a national park. It's only comprised of a small "wadi" (valley carved into the land from the winter rains) and a scattering of scraggly thorn bushes and wild olive trees. Many observers speculate that the real reason behind the park is to cut off any hope of expansion for Isawiyya and Al-Tur, thus dooming them to even more over-crowding in the future. In frustration, residents of Isawiyya (usually children) have been known throw rocks at nearby or police forces, burn tires, and even toss Molotov cocktails. Here you can see some smoke from a burning tire on Nakba day, the day the Palestinians protest their forced exodus in the 1948 war (filmed by Berg, 2011).

The war over this tiny slice of land on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives is representative of Israel as a whole: tiny pieces of land are ultimately so much more than that. They can mean peace or war, life or death. This seems to be a theme for Israel: infinite value packed into just a couple of square miles. The Temple Mount. The Valley of Meggido. And the Mount of Olives.

One day, Jews and Christians believe, the Messiah will descend upon the Mount of Olives. It shall split in two, and a river will flow between the halves eastward to the Dead Sea. Tradition says dead will be raised and follow the Messiah into Jerusalem. He Messiah will usher in a new age of justice and peace, and all the evils of humans will be reversed. I hope that those who have control over Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives will remember this, and therefore deal justly with its inhabitants. Every person's actions will be judged, and only those who have treated their neighbors with love will be able to stand. Thus, I believe the Israeli government should reverse its decision and instead allow Palestinians to build on the eastern slope of Mount Scopus. 

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