JERUSALEM — Saying he wants to save Jewish lives, the leader of the Israeli opposition is proposing to divide Jerusalem with more high walls and checkpoints, effectively banishing 200,000 Palestinian residents from the city.
The proposal by Isaac Herzog, formally adopted last month by the Labor Party, imagines building miles of new concrete barriers and smart fences to separate 28 Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem from Jewish neighborhoods and Jewish settlements in the city.
Even a discussion of carving up Jerusalem can stir apocalyptic warnings — illustrating the explosive potential of floating plans to change a status quo in an ancient city to which three of the world’s major religions lay claim.
Yet Herzog, who describes his plan as “we’re here and they’re there,” says the walls must be built inside the city to stop Palestinians from killing Israeli Jews in knife, gun and car attacks.
The plan would transform vast stretches of Jerusalem from a demographically divided but physically contiguous metropolis into an archipelago of sectarian cantons served by roads and tunnels designed for either Israelis or Palestinians.
If the Herzog plan were to be implemented, Israel would reduce the Muslim population of Jerusalem from more than a third of the city to about 10 percent.
“They will put us behind a wall and say that 200,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem need a special permit to visit al-Aqsa mosque? That is a religious war,” said Aziz Oubid, co-owner of an auto parts store in the Palestinian neighborhood of Issawiya just a few miles from the Old City.
“They can’t be that crazy,” he said.
Palestinians complain that the Herzog plan is impractical, radical and racist — that it amounts to the “collective punishment” of hundreds of thousands of Arabs for the actions of a few dozen assailants and would separate lifelong residents of Jerusalem, both Muslim and Christian, from their jobs, schools, hospitals and holy places.
“We are more than suspicious. Even talking like this increases the frustration, increases the anger,” said Darwish Darwish, the traditional leader, known as mukhtar, of the Issawiya neighborhood.
Darwish agreed that if the Palestinians someday were given their own state, his village would probably end up on the Palestinian side of a new border — and he said he supports that. What he doesn’t support is being pushed out of Jerusalem before he has a state.
“Herzog is telling Palestinians of East Jerusalem that we don’t give a damn about them,” said Daniel Seidemann, founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, a group that tracks development in the city.
“The threat to Jewish Jerusalem isn’t the Palestinians,” Seidemann said. “It’s the occupation.”
Herzog’s plan would face many obstacles, not the least of which is that the Labor Party leader would have to be in the government, which he failed to achieve in the last election.
Herzog says his plan is part of a broader effort to preserve the viability of a two-state solution, whereby Palestinians might be awarded their own country in the future. He said a lack of Palestinian leadership and the ongoing violence mean that peace talks must wait.
Herzog said the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that were taken over from Jordan after the 1967 war were never intended to remain part of Israel.
“They’re Palestinians, they’re not Israelis,” he said, describing East Jerusalem as “a no man’s land.”
Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem are immediately recognizable. In Issawiya, for example, there are flags flying for Palestinian political factions and the walls are covered with graffiti celebrating Palestinian martyrs — assailants who were shot and killed while attacking Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Palestinians here hold Jerusalem residency cards, which allow them to work anywhere in Israel; they pay taxes and receive Israeli social security benefits and medical care.
“But we’re not Israelis,” said Montaz Alian, a shopkeeper. He complained that just last month, Israeli soldiers pounded on his door at 3 a.m. and demanded to know how many people lived in the house.
The proposal to divide the city stands in stark contrast to almost 50 years of assertions by Israelis that Jerusalem must not be carved up again — that it should stand as a solemn promise as “the eternal, undivided capital” of the Jewish people.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said anyone who thinks it possible to divide Jerusalem is suffering from delusions. He said the infrastructure, transport and economy are too intertwined to make dividing the city possible.
Yet many Israelis say Barkat’s “united Jerusalem” is a myth, though they are divided over whether the Palestinians in East Jerusalem should be pushed into the West Bank to areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, as Herzog advocates.
In a poll released Sunday, more than 60 percent of Israelis described Jerusalem as a divided city rather than a unified capital, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.
Herzog, a veteran lawmaker who lost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the last election, told The Washington Post that the 28 Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem include “villages that most Israelis have never heard of.”
“The new wave of terror exposed the growth of a young Palestinian generation that has nothing to do with Israel,” he said. “They are brainwashed by the Palestinian Authority and its teachers, and what shocked many Israelis is a situation where young Palestinians from those villages come over and stab Israelis with no reason and no justification, and there should be no mercy on terror.”
Herzog charged that Palestinian youths “have their fun in the afternoon” killing Jews.
Twenty-nine Israelis, along with an American and three others, have been killed by Palestinian attackers in the past five months. About 116 Palestinians have been shot dead during attacks and an additional 52 have been killed in clashes with Israeli troops.
About a third of the Palestinian attackers have come from East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Israel’s domestic security service has arrested more than 1,900 Palestinians from East Jerusalem during the current wave of violence; Israeli forces erected checkpoints into neighborhoods such as Issawiya and also blocked Palestinians from praying at the al-Aqsa mosque.
Herzog said, “To cool off, you need to separate, and that means putting up a barrier.”
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.