Franz Krausz’s “Visit Palestine” poster from 1936, a relic of mandatory Palestine, has become part and parcel of the nostalgic remembrance of Palestine today. The poster depicts an image of Jerusalem taken from nearby Mount Olive, with the Al-Aqsa mosque in the backdrop, which stands surrounded by Versailles-style streets and contained within the walls of the Old City. What Krausz’s poster points to, besides the obvious, is how, from a vantage point so far removed from the space down below, Jerusalem is seen in full sight.
As narrated by both Israelis and Arabs, Jerusalem was split into the Palestinian East and the Israeli West during Israel’s alleged ‘War of Independence.’ Unlike the rest of the Holy Land, Jerusalem’s spatial division is not reified by any solid structure like a separation wall. A stroll through Jerusalem, however, points to how different the urban ecosystem of the East is from that of the West.
Just as Krausz captured such a detailed image of Jerusalem from a hilltop in his renowned poster, Palestinians’ perceptions of Jerusalem can also be altered when they elevate themselves from the streets down below. To be more specific, access to and movement within Jerusalem shifts when Palestinians in East Jerusalem take to rooftops, offering a different urban experience of their city.
Jerusalem From Above
In March of last year, the Knesset passed a bill which restricted the athaan – the Islamic call to prayer – from mosques in Jerusalem on grounds that residents of the city were losing sleep during the dawn call to prayer. When Palestinians heard of the bill’s passing, they furiously climbed (video) to their rooftops and screamed the call to prayer in unison from atop their homes.
Naturally, public space in Jerusalem is limited and even when available, is rarely used as such. Due to the fragmented nature of the city, Palestinians and Israelis rarely interact on the streets of Jerusalem. Krausz’s depiction of the city from the top of Mount Olive suggests the possibility of a space where the social and political tensions of the streets below are suspended.
Further north in Denmark, the idea that elevated urban spaces can be occupied by city dwellers is being expanded on in Copenhagen, where rooftops are being treated as an extension of public space. Although rooftops in Jerusalem can be utilized similarly, Jerusalem’s rooftops cannot be considered “public space” in the same way that they are in Denmark.
They can, however, be considered what Peponis and Wineman call “built space,” which is a structured space of co-presence or encounter. In the wider scheme of Jerusalem’s urban experience, seeing Jerusalem’s rooftops as built space brings to the forefront how Jerusalemites can weave together an encounter with the city from above their homes. The fact that East Jerusalemites stumbled onto their rooftops upon hearing of the anti-athaan bill highlights how rooftops in the Holy City can be ‘built’ in a way to alter interaction with the city. Similarly, Mekudeshet, an Israeli collective, invites Jerusalemites to open their rooftops and engage in dialogue in a space that is removed from the politics ‘down below.’
In Jerusalem, a group of Palestinian teenagers describe in an interview with The Guardian how they practice parkour on Jerusalem’s rooftops. According to 13-year-old Majd Abuattduan, they have ventured up because it “feels so much more free on the rooftops.” “The IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] and the police also bother us a lot less on the roofs,” he adds.
In 2017 alone, 61 homes were demolished in Jerusalem, leaving 155 Palestinians homeless. For those whose homes remain unscathed, rooftops are part and parcel of their everyday. Hamzeh Ghosheh, a 24-year-old business graduate, tells progrss about the role rooftops played in his life growing up in Jerusalem. “A significant number of my friends used to live in the Old City. We would jump or even walk from one rooftop to the other around the city since they are so close together,” he says. “We’d play around with tourists from above and jump down to Bab El Hatta to buy falafel before we played a round of soccer in Al-Aqsa and hurried home so our parents wouldn’t scold us for being out so late.”
In 1980, the State of Israel declared both East and West Jerusalem the country’s unified capital. With that, scores of settlements extended into the East and Palestinians from Eastern Jerusalem were forcibly integrated into Israeli society. As the occupation goes, Palestinians in East Jerusalem do not move comfortably and with ease through the city, despite being residents of Jerusalem, having to experience the brute policing of their streets that restricts their movement throughout the city.
Due to the distinction made between Palestinian-Israelis and non-Palestinian Israelis, the two groups experience the city differently. Free movement in the city becomes a privilege with Israel’s inequitable patrolling of East Jerusalem. Since houses and streets are regular targets for the state, Palestinians in Jerusalem are restricted to the parameters set for them within these spaces.
Rooftops, however, give Palestinians the freedom to remain up and away from these sites of state force. When Palestinians see their city from their rooftops, they claim a vantage point that grants them an alternative experience of their city – one that is not contained within the parameters set by the Israeli state.
Urban Experience in the City of God
For almost 20 years and prior to the annexation of East Jerusalem, Jews were not allowed into the Temple Mount since Jordan controlled it until 1967. Jews who wanted to pray with a view of the Wailing Wall in front of them either climbed to the top of the YMCA on King David Street or ventured into the complex at their own risk. Palestinians in Jerusalem are allowed access into the Al-Aqsa Complex today, however, tightened security at the gate has made access to the mosque increasingly difficult.
Jerusalem is the political, geographical, and cultural heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More often than not, the city is presented as “too holy” to be political, granted that it’s home to the holiest sites of the three Abrahamic religions. The reality of the city is quite the contrary. The configuration of Jerusalem, its spatial divisions and socio-political tensions are all because of the politicization of the holiness of Jerusalem.
The JLR & Inhibited Movement In The World’s Holiest City
The City of Jerusalem is 7,100 square kilometers (2,740 square miles) and is home to more than 800,000 Palestinians and Israelis. More than half of East Jerusalem’s land is excluded from development, with 35 percent of that land allocated to Jewish settlements and 13 percent for Palestinians, most of which is already built on.
Many West Jerusalemites have never even been to East Jerusalem, despite the fact that Jerusalem’s light rail (JLR) partially runs through Eastern Jerusalem. But since many Palestinians do not ride the train, this keeps the Israelis in the West, Palestinians in the East, and interaction between the two groups minimal. Unlike Palestinians in the West Bank, Palestinians in Jerusalem have Israeli-issued IDs, which makes passing through checkpoints slightly easier. This, however, does not preclude area-specific movement in Jerusalem.
Prior to the JLR, which began operation in 2011, there were two bus systems that exclusively served Palestinian and Israeli-majority neighborhoods. The JLR linked commercial and residential areas in the city, fostering increased interaction between Israeli and Palestinian Jerusalemites. Nonetheless, such a space is rarely tapped into in one of the world’s most segregated cities.
The restriction of Palestinian movement is both, as Kwan and Schwanen put it, a reflection and outcome of inequalities. The lack of mobility or not being able to move within the city further purports social exclusion (and in Jerusalem’s case, mixes into an intricate political exclusion). Extending Jerusalem’s municipal border to encompass more land and maintain a Jewish majority makes movement for Palestinians more difficult, exacerbating inequality and their exclusion from the city.
Jerusalemites are left with opposite “enclaves.” In his book Urban Mobility as Meaningful Everyday Life Practice, O.B. Jenson explains that an enclave is a bounded part of a city that forms an isolated territory, which suggests limited movement outside the enclave. How the JLR feeds into movement around Jerusalem, and the fact that Israelis and Palestinians rarely traverse the other side of the city emphasizes the city’s division into two isolated enclaves. This reality is quite contrary to the narrative of a “united” Jerusalem, as it effectively restricts urban mobility in the city rather than facilitating it.
From Hilltop to Rooftop
The Arabic word for a flat plane “musatah” and the word for rooftop “satah” are derived from the same root word. In Jerusalem, rooftops are the highest and flattest places Palestinians can access their city without the hindrances of the occupation interfering. Rooftops in Jerusalem have been repurposed for tourists and Jerusalemites alike as high perches from which the city can be seen in its entirety. For some Palestinians, the city’s rooftops are the closest they can get to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and, for others, it’s the farthest removed from the politics of their everyday they can get.
In a perfect world, the city would remain untouched from the realpolitik that continues to fragment the city and its people – Jewish, Muslim, and Christian alike. But until all Jerusalemites can move freely through their city, scaling the city’s rooftops is the closest the Palestinians of East Jerusalem can come to experiencing their city all at once.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 as “Israel’s War of Independence.” The correct text reads “alleged ‘War of Independence’.”