Israeli Neglect Is Why Jerusalem Is Divided

We talk incessantly about a united city but treat a third of its inhabitants as if they aren't there, unless they throw a rock.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Palestinian protesters taking cover during clashes with Israeli police in East Jerusalem (September 7, 2014).
Palestinian protesters taking cover during clashes with Israeli police in East Jerusalem (September 7, 2014).Credit: Reuters
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Jerusalem conjures up at least three images in most people's minds these days.

The first is the city as Israel's eternal capital, the one proclaimed by politicians and shouted at rallies amid blue-and-white flags aflutter. Never mind that the real business of a capital is the less-than-edifying business of parliament or paper-shuffling by bureaucrats.

The second is the one favored by tourists and religious fanatics – Jerusalem as a place saturated by holiness and divorced from the everyday realities of the world. It's the Jerusalem of yeshivot, Christian pilgrims and mosques. The fact that the great majority of the city, certainly over the last few decades, is more about shopping malls, highways and high-tech parks doesn't seem to have detracted from the divine presence hovering about the city.

The third Jerusalem is an angry city divided by religion and nationality, where mutually distrustful populations sit side by side, avoiding each other as much as is humanly possibly in a tightly confined and crowded area until the tensions erupt in violence. That's the image of Jerusalem favored by Israel's left and, of course, the Palestinians who want to split off the eastern half of the city for their own capital.

Intifada and rhetoric

Divided Jerusalem is the one that has come to the fore over the past months, amid an upsurge of Palestinian unrest. There's even talk of a Third Intifada, or more precisely a Jerusalem Intifada, since the unrest hasn't spread to the West Bank.

On the other hand, it has spread to other Arab communities in Israel in the past week, so maybe it will become "The 1967 Borders with Certain Agreed Adjustments Intifada."

In any case, for now the center and source of unrest seem to be Jerusalem.

Why that should be is a bit of a mystery. After all, if Jerusalem's Palestinians were angry over the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir last July, or the killings of some 2,000 Palestinians during the Gaza war, or the supposed plot by Israel to wrest control of the Temple Mount, or the latest forays by Jews into the city's Palestinian neighborhoods – all reasons that have been proposed for why the city is inflamed – why haven't Palestinians in the West Bank or inside Israel responded the same? To one degree or another, all are shared concerns.

Trying to figure out what sets off mass unrest is a hopeless task. What is more important from Israel's point of view is that the violence -- whether it is lone-wolf drivers careering into pedestrians or hundreds of youths throwing stones or Molotov cocktails -- is that it is happening in Jerusalem. Every declaration by Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders that the city will remain united and under our rule is proven false by angry Palestinians hurling stones and the medics gathered at the site of yet another terror attack.

Creeping takeover in East Jerusalem

Israel's right wing thinks that slowly, steadily moving Jews into the Palestinian neighborhoods of east Jerusalem will ensure that Israeli sovereignty there lasts forever. Peace in Jerusalem will be ensured by making sure everyone is Jewish and the Temple Mount is really in our hands.

For PR purposes, they present their invasions as a benign expression of people's freedom to choose where they live, a view strangely echoed by Netanyahu himself a few weeks ago when he called opposition to the neighborhood invasions - as well as settlement construction - as being "against American values."

This is too ridiculous to devote much time to refuting: The Jewish settlers in Silwan and Ras Al-Amud aren't human right activists, quite the contrary, and they didn't choose their homes for the easy commute, good schools or quality of life. They are there as part of an organized drive to push Palestinians out -- not to live with them as neighbors.

But the neighborhood invasions are achieving exactly the opposite of what the settlers are hoping. If Israel is going to reasonably claim to the world that it should retain control over the city, it will have to show that it can preserve the religious rights of all the faiths with a stake in the city, and that it has made it a home for all of its inhabitants. Have we done that?

Better healthcare in the wild west

The last few years have seen some tangible improvement. Healthcare in the eastern half of the city has been upgraded to the standards of west Jerusalem. Efforts have been made to create a process whereby Palestinians can build legally, and there has been some improvement in the few municipal services east Jerusalem Palestinians receive. Anyone who has shopped and dined in the city center of west Jerusalem or Malha Mall can't help but notice how many Palestinians are there, not cleaning streets but shopping and sitting in cafes.

But the bigger picture hasn't changed: Despite the talk of a united city, Jerusalem is really two cities -- or three if you count the big Haredi population.

Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem remain a wild west, where no municipal garbage truck or meter reader dares to go. The city's Palestinians have a precarious legal status as "permanent residents," rather than full citizens, even though Israel annexed east Jerusalem nearly half a century ago. Only about 10% of the municipal government budget is spent on them, even though they make up more than a third of its population.

Jerusalem's high poverty rate of 48% -- double the national average -- is a stunning 77% for the city's Palestinian population. Only 11% of Jerusalem's Palestinians are qualified to take the Israeli high school matriculation exam (bagrut), compared with 63% of the Arab teens in Haifa, another mixed city. Without matriculating, a student cannot go on to get a higher education or aspire to well-paying west Jerusalem or anywhere else in Israel. Instead, they are consigned to the paucity of schooling and jobs available to them in the eastern half of the city or to the lowest rungs of the employment ladder in the west.

Whether it is something as existential as the hopelessness of the Palestinian cause or as prosaic as the light rail, which has gone some way to bringing the two halves of Jerusalem closer, more and more east-Jerusalem Palestinians have been taking the first steps to becoming "Israeli," as Haaretz itself documented a couple of years ago. Even as many trash light rail stations, many others are taking the bagrut and applying for an Israeli identity card.

Israeli should be encouraging this "Israelization" rather than wasting money and straining relations with the U.S. by encouraging settlers. East Jerusalem's Palestinians aren't going to become flag-waving Zionists, and there is no reason why they should be, but it is enough that they should feel they are a part of the city in a mutually beneficial relationship. Economics doesn't necessarily trump nationalism,but it certainly cools it down. Ask any Zionist living in Scarsdale. Better than all the images Jerusalem is saddled with now, it's in Israel's power to create the reality of a multiethnic, multireligious and prosperous city.

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