The Big Picture

A City Known as a “Holy City”

Jerusalem is known as a “holy city,” an “international city,” and a “city of peace.”

Credit: Shutterstock

But in Fact . . .

The reality on the ground is starkly, darkly, different.

Credit: Ahmad Gharabli AFP / via Getty Images

One City, Two Peoples

In 2019, according to Israeli data, about 39 to 41 percent of Jerusalem’s population were Palestinians. But these data only include Palestinians registered in Israel’s Population Registry; thousands more are believed to live unregistered in the city, meaning they are likely closer to 50 percent of the city’s population.

Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

An Indigenous Community

The Palestinians of Jerusalem, the focus of our story, are an indigenous homeland community that has lived in the city and helped to shape its development and its destiny for centuries. But with the advent of Israel, their place, role, and options in the city were all radically altered. 


Left: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [matpc 18770]

Right: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-DIG-matpc-06568]

Before Israel’s Establishment

The area today called West Jerusalem was full of vibrant Palestinian, Jewish, and mixed neighborhoods before the State of Israel was established in 1948. Palestinians living there were citizens with the same status as Jews and lived and worked alongside and amongst them in relative harmony.


Left: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Right: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division


See The West Side Story.

After Israel’s Establishment—An Emptied, Destroyed City

In 1947–48, almost all the Palestinians in what was then the New City and 40 adjacent Palestinian villages (about 75,000 people) were driven out by Zionist forces or fled to escape to temporary safety. 


See The West Side Story.

Assets Seized; Citizenship Abrogated; Return Outlawed

Even before the war had ended, Israel began passing a series of laws to cancel their citizenship, confiscate their properties—including financial assets in banks—and ban their return.


Many homes that Israel confiscated were stunning, palatial architectural wonders. The magnitude of loss, both individual and collective, is hard to express. The trauma of this rupture is very alive for Palestinian Jerusalemites wherever they are today, but especially so for those who remained in East Jerusalem. Many live just a few minutes’ drive from their former family homes and neighborhoods. 


Left: Alamy Stock Photo

Right: Alamy Stock Photo


See The West Side Story.


Homeless, stateless, and penniless, many Palestinians became refugees, in East Jerusalem and beyond.

Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

A City Divided; A City Denied

For the first time in its history, Jerusalem was divided geographically and ethnically. Large and prosperous West Jerusalem, held and claimed by Israel, became exclusively Jewish. Palestinians were denied return; the state confiscated all their lands and properties. The vastly smaller East Jerusalem, annexed by Jordan, became Arab. The Jewish Quarter in the Old City was severely damaged, and its Jewish residents relocated to the western side. Many Palestinians sought refuge and made new homes on the East side of the city, which was under Jordanian control and was known as Arab Jerusalem (in Arabic, al-Quds al-‘Arabi). The Old City and the holy sites were also on this side of the city.


The city remained divided for the next 19 years by a line arbitrarily drawn on a map by two commanders. The line fractured whatever remained of Palestinian neighborhoods after the mass emptying and destruction inflicted on neighborhoods and villages during the war.


The only access to West Jerusalem was through a single point, and Palestinians living and taking refuge in East Jerusalem were not allowed to cross it.


The East, left without utilities or a municipality, began the arduous process of rebuilding a municipal infrastructure from nothing.


Left: Alamy Stock Photo

Right: Jerusalem Story


See What Is Jerusalem?

A City Conquered and Occupied

Nineteen years later, in 1967, Israel conquered the rest of the city and occupied it, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Immediately thereafter, the state set about to reshape and reengineer the east side of the city—to integrate it with the western, Jewish side by erasing or downplaying its Arab character, past and present, and remaking it as a Jewish urban space in an effort to ensure permanent Israeli sovereignty.


Unlike in 1948, however, the Palestinians had largely stayed put. Israel had to decide how to deal with them. And very quickly, it got down to business. 

Credit: Dan Porges, Getty Images


Israeli soldiers enter the Old City of Jerusalem en masse through the Lions’ Gate/Bab al-Asbat on July 7, 1967, shortly after the end of the 1967 War.

Chaos and Flight

In the chaos of the war that devastated Jerusalem and ravaged the rest of the country, many Jerusalemites fled to safety or were expelled. Shown here are frantic Palestinian refugees trying to escape over the wrecked Allenby Bridge from East Jerusalem to Jordan on June 22, 1967. The Associated Press photo caption, written at the time, notes that “Many of the refugees said they were forced to leave by the Israelis.”

Credit: Bernhard Frye, Associated Press (File Photo) via AP News

Taking the Count

Within days, before the war’s dust had settled and while everything was in chaos, Israel conducted a rushed and flawed census of the Palestinians in the newly occupied areas of the city. Anyone not at home at the time was not allowed to obtain legal status. An estimated 30,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites were permanently banned from their city by virtue of being displaced during the war and not allowed back. [1] 

Credit: Associated Press, June 26, 1967


1. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), The Palestinian Economy in East Jerusalem: Enduring Annexation, Isolation, and Disintegration (NY: United Nations, 2013), 5–6.

The Demographic Imperative

Those remaining totaled nearly 66,000 Palestinians. [1] This was enough to radically alter the city’s demographic balance overnight: from one percent Palestinian in West Jerusalem before the 1967 War to 26 percent Palestinian in West + East Jerusalem after it. [2]


For the state, this posed an existential threat: the possibility of losing political power over the city. From this point on, planning and policy decisions in Jerusalem were driven by a demographic imperative: to keep the Palestinian population contained at 26.5 percent or less. [3]


1. Joel Perlmann, “Volume 6,” in The 1967 Census of the West Bank and Gaza Strip: A Digitized Version (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, November 2011–February 201) [digitized from Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, “Census of Population and Housing, 1967 Conducted in the Areas Administered by the IDF,” vols. 1–5 (1967–70), and “Census of Population and Housing: East Jerusalem, Parts 1 and 2” (1968–70);], xi.

2. Michal Korach and Maya Chosen, Jerusalem Facts and Trends 2021: The State of the City and Changing (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, 2021), 17.

3. Inter-ministerial Committee to Examine the Rate of Development for Jerusalem, Recommendation for a Coordinated and Consolidated Rate of Development, Jerusalem, August, 1973, 3. (Hebrew).

Sweeping Unilateral Measures

Israel extended its own law and jurisdiction over the newly occupied eastern side of the city, and then tripled its size by unilaterally expanding the borders. Many Palestinian neighborhoods were arbitrarily and erratically divided, leaving one part of a close-knit community on the Israeli side; the other, on the West Bank side.

On the other hand, the state compelled 28 Palestinian villages that had lain outside Jerusalem for centuries to suddenly become part of it.

Inferior, Conditional, Revocable Status

After occupying East Jerusalem, Israel quickly decided that the Palestinians in the newly occupied and expanded city would be designated permanent residents, not citizens, a status typically conferred on foreigners moving to a new place. This status is inferior, with limited rights and benefits, and revocable by the Minister of Interior at any time, conditional on whatever requirements the minister decides to set. It is also nontransferable to children or spouses.


Over time, the status was whittled away and diminished to become ever more precarious. Today, Palestinian Jerusalemites must continuously prove that their “center of life” is in Jerusalem or risk deportation. They live in fear of revocation on any pretext. 

Credit: Amjad Murrar (via +972 Magazine)


See Precarious Status.

Changing the City’s Demography

As it had done in West Jerusalem, Israel moved quickly to populate the newly conquered areas with Jews. In heavily populated East Jerusalem, this took the form of settlements. The state confiscated lands from Palestinians and built settlements within, around, and far-outlying the newly occupied eastern Arab side of the city to establish a greater [Jewish] Jerusalem region that would eventually dwarf, engulf, and contain the Palestinian populated areas. Today, there are 14 settlements in East Jerusalem with 227,100 Jews—now 39 percent of the population of that side of the city. [1]


All of these activities are illegal under international law, which prohibits an occupying power from establishing any kind of permanent presence or harming the interests of the occupied population.

Credit: Shutterstock


1. Michal Korach and Maya Chosen, Jerusalem Facts and Trends 2021: The State of the City and Changing Trends (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, 2021), 14.

Urban Planning Designed to Marginalize and Eliminate

The city of Jerusalem uses urban planning as a tool in the service of demographic reengineering. Palestinians cannot obtain permits to build or expand their homes, while Jews enjoy massively subsidized government housing projects. Green spaces are designated across wide swathes of land to block Palestinian neighborhoods from developing; when time comes, they are released for construction of homes for Jews only.

Credit: Muammar Awad/Xinhua via Getty Images

Homes built without permits are subject to forced demolitions . . . leaving families homeless.


Left: Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

Right: Atta Awisat

A Closure that Severed Jerusalem from Its Palestinian Hinterland

In the early 1990s, Israel began imposing a closure on the millions of Palestinians holding West Bank IDs, meaning that they could not enter Jerusalem or Israel without a military permit.


Today, 30 years on, the closure—on a people, not a territory—remains in force. The permits regime it spawned in its wake has metastasized to a vast, unregulated, and corrupt system that controls every move Palestinians with West Bank (today Palestinian Authority) IDs are allowed to make. This system prevents nearly 5 million Palestinians living within historic Palestine from accessing Jerusalem, even to pray at their holy sites, without a military entry permit. The application process for permits is difficult, lengthy, arbitrary, and fraught with possibilities for exploitation and blackmail.


Around 500,000 Palestinians are permanently banned from ever entering Jerusalem, most for unknown (and unknowable) reasons.


Left: ActiveStills


A Separation Wall That Fragments and Asphyxiates

In 2004, Israel began construction of a massive Separation Wall across the entire West Bank. The wall runs right through East Jerusalem and snakes all around the outer region of the city, enveloping areas of Jewish population into the city and excising or encircling areas of Palestinian population. In this way, it effectively dismantles the historic communal fabric of Palestinian Jerusalem, creating a patchwork of enclaves, exclaves, excisions, and ghettoes.


Palestinian neighborhoods that fall within the municipal boundaries are severed, their residents forced to use a single military checkpoint to access their city with all its services including health care, education, workplaces, holy sites, and more.


Once the wall was up, the municipality openly stopped providing even basic services to many of the neighborhoods on the other side of it, leaving them to decline into anarchy. 

Credit: Dreamstime


See The Separation Wall.

Jerusalem Now

Today, Jerusalem is a city with unfixed and overlapping boundaries and liminal zones. Its legal status is contested and uncertain. Nearly half of its population has a precarious legal status and no elected representation. They are targeted by the city and the state for ethnic cleansing, de-development, and erasure—from integration, from sight and mind, and from any toehold on political voice, collective agency, or power.


Despite their surreal current living realities, the Palestinians of Jerusalem remain rooted and entrenched in the city.


These are their stories.