The first thing that strikes you about Jerusalem is its specificity. Tel Aviv could be almost any beachside city in the world. It reminded me of Surfers Paradise or a toned-down version of Venice Beach, while the guidebooks all seem to think that it has something in common with Miami. But Jerusalem calls to mind only Jerusalem: what you’ve read about it, seen of it on television. A city that adheres closely to the popular phantasms. You couldn’t be anywhere else.

I arrive at the Old City’s Damascus Gate amidst a flurry of activity. Drivers lean out the windows of their sheruts, or shared taxis, shouting out the name of cities — “Tel Aviv! Tel Aviv!” — while their passengers sit in the back trying to get some shut-eye and awaiting the quorom that will allow them to leave. Technically, I’m in Arab East Jerusalem — Jewish West Jerusalem is on the other side of the street, along which the 1949 armistice line, the famous Green Line, used to run — and Israeli Arabs, mostly elderly women in hijabs, bustle about buying flatbread, vegetables and huge cuts of meat. I stumble into the New Palm Hotel, which appears to be anything but new, and readily allow myself to be fleeced on the room price. I am desperate for a shower and some decent air-conditioning.

“Is it always so hectic out there?” I ask the manager as he shows me to my room. “No,” he said as he hands me my key. “It is hectic today because it is the first Friday of Ramadan.”

More than that, it’s the first Friday of a very special Ramadan, which will see vastly more West Bank Palestinians visit Jerusalem than at any time in recent memory. This follows the Israeli government’s decision to grant any West Banker over the age of 40 automatic access to the Old City and its Islamic holy sites — the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock — on Fridays during Ramadan. Those between 35 and 40 have been granted the right to apply for a special permit to do so.

Whether this is a genuine gesture of goodwill in this holiest of months or, more likely, one of the country’s semi-regular attempts to release some built-up pressure and steam, the result on the ground will remain about the same: organised chaos every Friday for the next four weeks, at the Kalandia crossing between Israel and the West Bank, in the Islamic Quarter bazaar that leads to the holy sites, and on the streets of the Old City in general.

Later that afternoon, after the muezzin’s call to prayer has been broadcast over the Islamic Quarter’s PA system, forcing the French Catholic pilgrims lugging a crucifix along the Via Dolorosa to sing their hymns even louder and more noticeably out of key, I find myself crushed between leggy blonde Bible scholars from the American south and ecstatic Arab men in traditional white thawbs as the lot of us inch our way back towards the Damascus Gate. Young boys use Coke bottles with punctured caps to spray us with water and to distract us from the fact that it’s 38 in the shade and has taken us the better part of 20 minutes to move almost as many metres.

A South African photojournalist who has lived in Jerusalem for 20 years will later tell me that she has never seen the Old City so busy. “The third Friday of Ramadan is usually the busiest,” she says. “But today was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. If today was this busy, God only knows how crazy things are going to be two weeks from now.”

Having avoided food and water for most of the day, in the interest of not offending those in East Jerusalem and the Islamic Quarter who are in the process of fasting and whose restaurants are in any case closed, I head over to West Jerusalem for something to eat. But I’m too late by about 20 minutes: by the time I’ve arrived, everyone on that side of the city has already shut up shop for Shabbat. This is the second thing that strikes you about Jerusalem: even today, with the Green Line long gone, the place continues to feel bifurcated and its two halves at odds with one another, the one feasting while the other fasts, the one thriving while the other lies low.

“For all the popular phantasms this city adheres to, the image of an ancient ethnic melting pot is not one of them.”

My hungers pains are even worse the next evening, when West Jerusalem shuts up shop entirely, leaving the city, or at least me, famished. Indeed, Ramadan is not the only religious festival under way in the city. Tisha B’Av, or the Ninth of Av, is an annual fast day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Jewish Temples, not to mention other injustices said to have been meted upon the Jews on this day in history, including the official start of the First Crusade and the expulsion of the Jews from England and Spain in 1290 and 1492, respectively.

The Jerusalem Post’s Jonathan Spyer and I head down to the Western Wall, the only remaining trace of the Second Temple, at sundown, to observe the beginning of the festival. Having earlier this year taken advantage of his British accent and ethno-religiously ambiguous features to sneak into Syria, where he spent time with Free Syrian Army forces in Idlib Province on the country’s north-western border, Spyer doesn’t expect anything to go down at the wall but wants to be there in case it does.

As it gets darker, an increasing number of orthodox Jews rock up to pray, and an even higher one of armed IDF soldiers take to standing along the walls of the plaza, picking their fingernails and looking bored. Despite their presence, or perhaps because of it, Spyer says this is the calmest Jerusalem has felt in years.

“After you’ve lived here long enough,” he says, “you can tell when something’s going to happen. You can kind of smell it in the air. Just before the second intifada, you were almost choking on it. Every now and then there will be an incident, but there’s not that overwhelming sense that the place is about to explode.”

This is especially interesting in light of a number of recent opinion pieces stating exactly the opposite — namely, that a third intifada is imminent.

“The problem with those articles,” Spyer says, “is that they’ve been written by people who haven’t really developed that sense. They have to rely on what people are telling them. The result is that they equate access with accuracy. It’s exciting to get an interview with a Hamas spokesman or whatever, especially if he tells you that there’s going to be a third intifada. That’s big news.

“The problem with your Hamas spokesman is that, like most self-styled revolutionaries, he’s a braggart. What’s more, he’s a braggart who wants exposure for his braggadocio, to appear like he has Israel right where he wants it, and who knows that he can get it by giving unsuspecting opinion columnists what they want in turn, which is a good story with some choice quotes. The result is that you have a whole lot of people talking up the case for a third intifada when, walking around on the ground, it’s very difficult to believe that something of that magnitude is about to go down.”

Of course, Spyer concedes that such writers might simply be confusing their terms. “A Palestinian uprising against the corruption and incompetency of their own leaders is a distinct possibility,” he says. “But it would be wrong to consider that a third intifada or even the precursor to one. That would be the Arab Spring coming to the West Bank and that would be a very different thing.” Recent events would appear to vindicate this view.At the same time, Spyer is arguably understating the extent to which a Palestinian Spring could lead to an intifada against Israel. Many Palestinians, not to mention their supporters on the international left, have turned ferociously against the Palestinian Authority precisely because they believe that it is dependent upon and complicit with Israel. That Palestine’s leaders, from Yasir Arafat down, engaged in corrupt and nepotistic behaviour long before Mahmoud Abbas began co-operating with Israel on matters of security doesn’t matter: its the co-operation, not the corruption, that really grates.

For his part, Spyer credits the Palestinian leadership for realising what leaders such as Arafat, who helped to incite the second intifada in the Arab-language press even as he played the Nobel Peace Prize winner elsewhere, never did: that violence, from Munich-style terrorism down to and including throwing stones at soldiers, is ultimately counterproductive. “The thing about terror and intifadas,” he says, “is that they don’t really work. Blowing yourself up isn’t going to bring us to the negotiating table. It’s going to bring our army into your village to ensure that you don’t do it again.”

I suggest that there are many Palestinians who disagree with this assessment. “They would say that violence is the only way of getting your attention,” I say. “It’s easy to forget that the West Bank even exists, let alone that Israel is occupying it, when you’re on a beach in Tel Aviv and no one’s shooting at you.”

For the Palestinians, in other words, precluding revolutionary violence is not popularly perceived as a workable option. It seems telling, I say, that I’ve seen more pictures of Che Guevara in East Jerusalem and the Islamic Quarter of the Old City than I ever saw when I was in Havana. Indeed, in the New Palm’s lobby, hanging above the communal computer, Alberto Korda’s famous Guerrillero Heroico appears incongruously superimposed over the top of a photo-realistic painting of white stallions galloping across the North American prairies. Guevara almost seems more popular here than Arafat.

“There’s a fascination with revolutionary iconography and romanticism here,” Spyer says. “The appeal of the heroic guerilla is obvious, which is why Arafat adopted all the accouterments of that style. But in Latin America, the model of guerrilla warfare patented by Castro and Guevara produced little of any consequence outside of Cuba and, for a little while, Nicaragua. The militaries of the other countries in question defeated the leftist militants. For a people facing the IDF, Guevara seems an odd choice to me. As I say, behaving like Guevara is not going to bring us to the negotiating table, but into your village and homes.”

Like Jake the bartender at Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv, Spyer is a member of Jewish diaspora who decided to claim his birthright at the conclusion of high school, doing time in the IDF, where he served in a tank corps. Over the course of an evening, first at East Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel, at the outside bar where foreign correspondents, diplomats and celebrities have whiled away peace and wartime alike, and then later at his apartment where I leaf through a well-thumbed copy of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, Spyer takes a stab at the question so central to the Israeli identity crisis: what does the term “Jewish state” actually mean?

“It means a Jewish majority state,” he says adamantly. “This is important. It’s crucial.”

I have heard several rather more moderate arguments in my travels and relay some of these to him. Several days before my visit to Jerusalem, Reuven Shalev, a Golan Heights kibbutznik, told me that a Jewish majority was of secondary importance. The “Jewish state” he was interested in was merely one in which the country remained, as its Declaration of Independence proclaimed, “open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles”. Spyer shakes his head.

“The Green Line’s checkpoints and rolls of barbed wire may only exist in Jerusalem’s collective consciousness, but that’s where they continue to do the most damage.”

“It’s a nice idea,” he says. “It’s compassionate. It’s generous. But it’s also suicidal. The moment the Jewish people become the minority, it’s over. Forget the Ingathering of the Exiles. The Jews who already live here will be marked. Let’s put it to a vote and — yes, the ayes have it, the Jews are to go into the sea. This is what those who support a one-state solution fail to foresee: that they are paving the way for the destruction of the Jewish people by democratic means.”

If Spyer’s claims seem overstated — and I will later hear arguments from Israelis and Palestinians alike who think they are — I can’t help but feel there’s a little truth to them when I sit down at the New Palm the next evening and set about reading the newspaper.

I’m not exactly sure what Isa’s job at the New Palm is. The 60-year-old Israeli Arab seems to spend most of his time walking around in a singlet looking for the television remote. He sits down next to me on the common room couch, fans himself with a rag, and introduces himself.

“Isa,” says Isa, “means ‘Jesus’ in Arabic. Like Jesus Christ, peace be upon him.”

“I didn’t know that,” I say. Coincidentally, I have just been to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City’s Christian Quarter, which is said to be built on the site of Golgotha, where Eastern Orthodox pilgrims from the former Soviet Union jostle with Catholics from Western Europe for the opportunity to lie prostrate before the stone on which the great redeemer’s body was supposedly anointed following its removal from the cross. In fact, the stone was installed in 1810 and today serves primarily to give the pilgrims something on which to sanctify the candles and handkerchiefs they have purchased at unholy mark-ups in the souk outside. I mention my visit to my interlocutor.

“Yes, I have been there,” Isa says nodding. “We Muslims like Jesus Christ, peace be upon him.” And then: “You know who killed him, of course? The Jews.”

My silence is evidently taken, incorrectly, as an invitation to go on. What follows is a rambling, invective-fuelled description of a one-state solution that sounds rather more like a final one. “There can be no Jew in Palestine,” Isa says finally, rubbing the sweat from his palms into the fabric of his pants. “From the river to the sea. You have heard this saying?”

“Yes,” I say. “But I don’t think it’s very likely.”

“It is extremely likely!” Isa says. “The war is coming. Very soon, you know. We will have it back. You will see.”

This sounds less like the braggadocio Spyer was talking about, which requires some element of conscious exaggeration, a certain will to deceive, than it does like wishful thinking at best and self-delusion at worst. Either way, it contains no sense of scale: the IDF is not Batista’s army, and in any case the Palestinians have no Guevara. It occurs to me that the old man isn’t trying to convince me that the Jews will leave Palestine. He’s trying to convince himself. He seems to hope that by speaking the words, he will conjure up the reality.

That the reality he wishes to conjure up is an extreme one is hardly a surprise. Not only is Jerusalem the issue on which neither side seems willing to give an inch — even the most moderate people I speak to, on both sides of the conflict and on both sides of the separation barrier, draw the line at sharing the city with the other — it is the only place I visit during my three weeks in the region, with the sole and extraordinary exception of Hebron, where people seem unwilling to give an inch on any issue at all.

More than its specificity and more than its bifurcation, this is the single most striking thing about the city: not only is it divided in two, but its halves are here at their most irreconcilable, its people united only in disunity and their uncompromising position concerning the other. At first I wonder if this professed intractability is a form of braggadocio, too. After all, as one walks around the Old City, ducking from one quarter to the next, its residents appear knee-deep in compromise even as they assure you that no compromise is possible.

But then you see two groups of boys, one Jewish and one Arab, spitting obscenities at each other outside the Damascus Gate. An Arab man tells you to get out of the Islamic Quarter until you tell him that you’re an Australian Gentile — probably best not to say an Australian atheist — at which point he invites you in for tea. You read about an Arab man whose death at the hands of Jews is described by the Israeli police as a “lynching”. An Israeli man tells you that his country will retain its Jewish majority at any cost and despite the demographic data to the contrary and an Arab man tells you that it’s only a matter of time until there aren’t any Jews left in Palestine at all.

And what you slowly come to realise is that Michael J. Totten’s observation on the Israel-Lebanese border holds true here, too: calm is not peace, no matter how long a period of it a city is enjoying. For all the popular phantasms this city adheres to, the image of an ancient ethnic melting pot is not one of them. Indeed, the phantasms it does adhere to are more recent, and the most dominant of these remains the line that once cleaved this city in two.

The Green Line’s checkpoints and rolls of barbed wire may only exist in Jerusalem’s collective consciousness, but that’s where they continue to do the most damage: the city may not have not been officially divided by the line for some time, but it continues, slowly, inexorably, to be strangled by it.