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A city that is not at unity

30 January 2015

Gerald Butt considers the complexity of the divisions of Jerusalem

Jerusalem Unbound: Geography, history and the future of the Holy City
Michael Dumper
Columbia University Press £24
Church Times Bookshop £21.60 (Use code CT597 )

DURING the three years when Jerusalem was my temporary home, every Israeli and Palestinian I met wanted to know where in the city I lived. A foreigner's choice of district was regarded as a political statement. Had the newcomer opted for Jewish West Jerusalem, Arab East, or areas in and around the East which had been taken over by Israelis? The answer given would very often determine the tone of the subsequent conversation.

The beauty of Professor Michael Dumper's richly informative book is that he demolishes the generally accepted and simple stereotype of how Jerusalem is divided. In an exploration of the evolving history of the city, he makes us see it in a different light and realise that we had no clue of its true complexity. It is, and always has been, a "many-bordered city" where the "lack of congruity leaves many areas of East Jerusalem in a twilight zone where citizenship, property rights, and the enforcement of the rule of law are ambiguous."

A key element in the survival of East Jerusalem as a home to Palestinians, in Dumper's view, is the part played by foreign governments, and Arab and international NGOs, in funding health, education, and social projects there. This external intervention provides Palestinians with "parallel structures of organisation to Israeli state agencies, which constrain the exercise of Israeli authority and jurisdiction".

Outside funding can hold back the tide for a while, but only a political agreement will save East Jerusalem - something that, Dumper says, is highly unlikely in the near future. Indeed, he concludes his book with a prospect that should force the international community to sit up and take notice. For the moment, he writes, the Dome of the Rock may still be "the iconic monument of the city". But the "dark brooding presence of the separation barrier" between Israel and the West Bank may all too soon replace it.

Dumper, an expert on divided cities, has produced a book that is packed with both fact and personal observations - a "must read" for anyone with even the slightest concern about the fate of this fiercely contested holy city. 

Gerald Butt is the Middle East Correspondent for the Church Times.

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