Unholy conquest of the ‘eternal capital’

Archival footage of Jerusalem in the early 20th century provides fascinating clues to the way cultural divisions emerged in the so-called Holy Land.

In earlier times, we are led to believe, the place was full of bearded men travelling on donkeys or crouching over holy books while they prayed.

The romantic images of early pilgrims from all three Abrahamic faiths belie the true nature of the conflict, leading one to well believe that the war has always been about God and not the land.

In fact it has been about both, with the issue of land now eclipsing the issue of religion in the 21st century.

The narrative of filmmaker Mohammed Alatar’s disturbing documentary Jerusalem: The East Side Story begins predictably in 1947 with the division of Palestine: 56% of the land was given to the Jews and 44% to the Palestinians.


What not many people know is that once the State of Israel had been declared in 1948, Jerusalem and Bethlehem were declared international zones to be administered by the United Nations.

Of course that was not to be — and once Jerusalem was captured in the Six Day War in 1967, its surrounding areas of East and West Jerusalem were annexed, bringing about what is now called a Judaising of this international hot spot.

Alatar’s 2007 documentary is showing next week as the official film of the upcoming Israeli Apartheid Week. The story of the conquest of Jerusalem by the Jewish state, making it into what it now declares is its “undivided and eternal capital”, starts on a sunny note when a radio DJ declares the weather to be fine and encourages the listeners to “chill out and enjoy your day”.

What follows is a montage of images of a supposedly content multi­cultural public — shopping in the market, playing ball, banging on African drums while cars filter into the historic metropolis.

Gradually we see evidence of the conflict: the mighty, concrete separation barrier, armed soldiers, civilians being searched and tear gas being fired during public disturbances.

While many now know that the normality of Jerusalem seems to subsist alongside the madness, the uniqueness of Alatar’s film is in the narrative of injustice against the Palestinian population of Jerusalem, propelled by opinion from its important Jewish residents.

Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli political scientist who was deputy mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kollek from 1971 to 1978, talks about the displacement of Palestinians from West Jerusalem after the State of Israel was declared in 1948.

Decades later, and in the new century, the film shows ample evidence of displacement by way of the house demolitions currently happening.

While the movie seems to deteriorate into a work of pure propaganda halfway through, it is worth experiencing how the anger of Palestinians has been expressed through the documentary art form.

International Israeli Apartheid Week takes place from March 11 to 17. For programming information visit the website: bdssouthafrica.com

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Matthew Krouse
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