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Six Day War: The East Jerusalem Controversy

Abid EhSheik at the ruins of his former home in Issawiya, East Jerusalem.
Eric Westervelt, NPR
Abid EhSheik at the ruins of his former home in Issawiya, East Jerusalem.
Lindsay Mangum, NPR /
Lindsay Mangum, NPR /
Abid EhSheik surveys his land in Anata.
Eric Westerverlt, NPR /
Abid EhSheik surveys his land in Anata.

In the Six Day War of June 1967, Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, capturing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. For Israel, it was a stunning triumph; for Arabs, a humiliating defeat.

Israel no longer occupies the Sinai or Gaza, but its continued hold over the other territories has stymied efforts to bring comprehensive peace to the Middle East.

The second part of a five-part series on the Six-Day War follows.

Shortly after the Six Day War ended, Israel annexed East Jerusalem in a highly controversial move that is still not recognized internationally.

Yet while East Jerusalem's Palestinian residents abhor Israeli rule, many prefer Israeli medical and other services and remain wary of the Palestinian Authority.

When war broke out on June 5, 1967, the authorities in Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem had made no emergency provisions for war. No medical or food supplies had been stockpiled and no bomb shelters had been built for civilians.

Howla Daoud, who was 11, lived in the same place she does now, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of the city. Her rented house sits right next to what used to be the fence line dividing Israeli West Jerusalem from the Jordanian-controlled East.

"I remember when the war started, all the shooting," Daoud said. "Our family didn't have a shelter. We didn't know where to go or what to do. The neighbors started talking about hiding in a cave in the orchard that was right over there, not far from our house."

Afraid and hungry, Daoud's family and six other families jammed into the tiny cave, while the fighting raged around them. Jordanian soldiers retreated — as Israeli paratroopers swept through the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

"We only had bread and water in the cave," Daoud said. "We came out after eight days and I went to see what was inside the Jordanian army barracks nearby. It was quiet, I'll never forget, I saw two dead Jordanian soldiers inside the barracks."

After the War

By the end of June 1967, just three weeks after the war, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and offered citizenship rights to Palestinians. Most refused. Today virtually all of the Palestinians living East Jerusalem have residency rights, but cannot vote in parliamentary elections that determine Israel's national government. Back in 1967, many Palestinians were unsure what to do, Daoud said.

"Some of the neighbors fled to Jordan. But I remember very well my father and mother saying, 'No way. Nothing will push us out of Jerusalem," she said.

In many ways, the Daoud family's struggles are emblematic of the problems faced by many Palestinians in the city since the war.

Howla Doaud and her husband, Abid AhSheikh, 60, currently pay rent to the Custodian for Absentee Properties, a division of the Israeli Finance Ministry, for their modest home. That's because their rented house is caught up in a long-running ownership dispute between Jewish and Palestinian families.

As the land dispute ricocheted through the Israeli courts, the Daoud family grew increasingly worried about the precarious status of their rental. So in the late 1990s, family members pooled their money and began to build a place of their own in Issawiya, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, closer to the West Bank.

One year after the Issawiya home was built, the Israeli authorities declared the house illegal. The Daouds had not gotten the proper building permits, they were told. Israeli bulldozers flattened the home.

"My sons and I worked five years in order to save money to save this house," AhSheikh said. "And they came and demolished it in a minute. They crushed our future in a minute."

AhSheikh works in construction, and many of his jobs are in the city's Jewish neighborhoods. He was renovating the home of an Israeli police officer when the demolition order came.

"He said, 'I'm sorry — I have to implement the orders.' He could do nothing," AhSheikh said. "This place was my insurance in case we ever get evicted. Now what do I do?"

According to a recent World Bank report, Israel demolished 157 Palestinian-owned buildings in East Jerusalem after declaring them illegal between 1999 and 2003. The World Bank called it a discriminatory practice that has led to housing shortages — and stymied business and employment opportunities — in East Jerusalem.

After their home in Issawiya was demolished, the Daouds were disillusioned about their future in East Jerusalem. So, they pooled what little money they had left and bought a small piece of land in Anata, a village next to Jerusalem just inside the West Bank.

"You see it's just a few meters from the wall," AhSheikh said, pointing through a barbed-wire fence to a cement foundation on a small grassy hill.

Israeli construction equipment sits nearby. His land is about to be cut off from East Jerusalem – and he isn't allowed to build there. The property, it turns out, is too close to the separation barrier, a 460-mile-long mix of fencing and cement walls that Israel is building in and around the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel says the fence is necessary to stop suicide bombers and other Palestinian attacks in Israel. For AhSheikh, the barrier was his family's final setback.

"Nothing. The land is useless now. It's too close to the wall. They won't let me build," he said.

Access to Jerusalem

AhSheikh's daughter, Fahtin, said that even if the Israelis allowed them to build in Anata, the family can't risk getting cut off from Jerusalem or losing their Jerusalem residency permits. Her mother needs dialysis three times a week for her kidney disease. Fathin says her mother prefers the Israeli medical care she gets in Jerusalem.

"If we build that house behind the wall it will be very difficult to get to the hospital or get to our work. We will lose those rights," she said.

In 2006, Israel granted more than 81,000 entry permits for Palestinians to receive medial care in Israel. Asked if her family would prefer to be under the Palestinian Authority, Fahtin mostly dodged the question.

"We are troubled by all the political confusion in the Palestinian Authority," she said.

Those conflicting feelings are widespread among East Jerusalemites, who are living under "occupation deluxe," said Israeli writer Gershom Gorenberg.

"They are very resentful of their inequality — of harassment by the Israeli bureaucracy," Gorenberg said. "At the same time, they are terrified very often of being under the rule of the Palestinian Authority because PA is so corrupt. It's much poorer and their lives are already so dependent on the Israeli economy."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

United States & World Morning Edition
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.