Four Out of Five East Jerusalemites Live in Poverty, a Sharp Rise Over Past Years

Separation wall cited as key reason for growing impoverishment, along with the upsurge in violence and lack of welfare benefits.

The East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor in 2015.
Emil Salman

Eighty-two percent of East Jerusalem residents lived under the poverty line in 2014, a sharp increase from previous years, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

In comparison, the poverty rate for Israel as a whole is 22 percent, the rate for Jerusalem as a whole is 48 percent. In 2013, the poverty rate recorded in East Jerusalem was 76 percent, JIIS said.

The poverty rate among East Jerusalem children in 2014 was even higher, at 86.6 percent.

The data come from the Central Bureau of Statistics and the National Insurance Institute.

East Jerusalem’s approximately 300,000 residents have long been one of the poorest groups in Israel, but over the past decade their economic situation has worsened drastically. In 2006, the poverty rate in East Jerusalem was only 66 percent – 16 percentage points lower.

Many people familiar with East Jerusalem say the main reason for the deterioration was the construction of the separation fence, which cut Jerusalem off from the West Bank, in the middle of the previous decade. That caused severe harm to businesses that relied on customers from the West Bank, and also raised the cost of living because there were no more cheap imports from the West Bank.

The Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem
Uri Blau

But even compared to the past decade, the jump of 6 percentage points in the poverty rate from 2013 to 2014 is exceptional.

NII officials said the increase may be partly due to a polling artifact: In the Central Bureau of Statistics survey from which poverty rates are calculated, the East Jerusalem sample is relatively small – just 150 families. Moreover, many East Jerusalem residents refuse to cooperate with the survey, a problem exacerbated by the wave of violence that erupted there in summer 2014. Nevertheless, the data presumably reflect a real increase in poverty.

One reason for this increase may be the upsurge in violence that began in 2014, which caused a sharp drop in tourism and therefore the dismissal of many people employed in the tourism industry. Tighter security checks at checkpoints around Jerusalem also played a role by making it harder to import products from the West Bank, which caused a marked rise in food prices.

“A 12-kilogram sack of rice costs 25 shekels in Azzariyeh and 120 shekels here,” said Jabar, 49, who lives in the Old City, referring to a village just outside the separation fence.

“Today, prices in East Jerusalem aren’t any lower than they are in the city’s western part,” agreed Rania Harish, who heads the municipal welfare office in East Jerusalem.

Yet another problem is that one out of every three workers in East Jerusalem lives in a neighborhood outside the separation fence. That makes it very hard for them to work in the city.

Nevertheless, even having a job is no protection against poverty: Fully 89 percent of East Jerusalem families with one breadwinner were earning below the poverty line.

The Workers’ Advice Center said another problem is that many East Jerusalem residents who are eligible for welfare benefits don’t receive them, usually due to bureaucratic obstacles. For instance, it said, only 7 percent of East Jerusalem families receive income support payments, compared to 10 percent of Jewish Israeli families, even though poverty is far more widespread in East Jerusalem than among Jewish Israelis.

Nevertheless, the center added, the gap has decreased slightly over the past two years, as more East Jerusalem families have been able to obtain benefits.

Another problem, which is also related to the security situation, is that over the past two years thousands of East Jerusalem residents have been arrested, the vast majority of them people of working age. Being arrested often leads to dismissal and makes it hard to find another job, since many employers won’t hire someone with a police record.

In 2009, for instance, Khaled, 34, of the A-Tur neighborhood, was caught employing a West Bank Palestinian who was in Israel illegally. Ever since, he has been unable to work. He has four daughters and is severely impoverished.

The Jerusalem municipality says it has launched several projects aimed at improving the situation, including setting up professional training centers and hiring 20 additional social workers to cover East Jerusalem.

“There’s been an improvement in the welfare and education systems, and I hope that within two years, we’ll see results,” said Boni Goldberg, head of the city’s social services department.