Haaretz reporter Nir Hasson reported last week on widespread power outages in East Jerusalem. The harsh cold greatly increased demand for electricity, and the Israel Electric Corporation hasn’t managed to meet demand, forcing it to cut power. Or more precisely, the IEC – which prides itself on being one of the world’s most dependable suppliers of electricity – is meeting demand. It’s the East Jerusalem power company that isn’t; the latter company buys its electricity from the IEC and distributes it to Jerusalem’s Arab residents.
Some 52 years after Jerusalem was ostensibly unified, it turns out that even its electricity isn’t unified – the western side gets its power from the IEC, while the eastern side is supplied by the East Jerusalem power company.
This isn’t the only weird infrastructure disparity between the two sides of the city. Buses on the eastern side are operated by seven private companies. Every neighborhood there has its own bus company, and they share nearly no lines. None of the East Jerusalem bus lines reach West Jerusalem, and there’s essentially no bus connection between the east and west. The private companies are unable to accept payment via Israel’s nationwide digital bus card payment system, the Rav Kav.
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In terms of health, Israel’s health maintenance organizations offer services for residents of the eastern half, but not directly. They work with subcontractors that operate their East Jerusalem clinics.
The difference between the two parts of the city is particularly notable when it comes to education. The East Jerusalem education system is still the Palestinian system. Some 95% of East Jerusalem pupils learn the Palestinian curriculum, even though they’re Jerusalem residents and thus under the responsibility of Israel’s Education Ministry. The Palestinian curriculum’s near complete lack of instruction in Hebrew is one of the factors in the community’s poor socioeconomic standing: Some 30% of pupils drop out before high school graduation, less than 10% go on to higher education, only 25% of women work, and the poverty rate is Israel’s highest, at 75% (Israel’s National Insurance Institute reports that the figure is 59%, but that number is contentious).
In addition, Israeli property laws nearly do not apply to the eastern part of Jerusalem, and apartments there are not registered in Israel’s national property registry system, known as the tabu. Lior Schillat, the director general of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, says that due to the lack of official property registration, East Jerusalem residents are forced to use what’s known as the “mukhtar’s policy” in order to legally buy and sell apartments. The mukhtar is an individual who received government authority to state when an apartment changes hands. This system offers an easy opening to corruption.
Signs of Israeli sovereigty faint
Some 52 years after Israel annexed East Jerusalem, the signs of Israeli sovereignty there are faint. The 340,000 residents of the eastern side – a population that would make them Israel’s third biggest city – have Israeli residency but not citizenship. In theory this difference should be manifested only in terms of the right to vote in Israel’s parliamentary elections and the right to an Israeli passport, but in practice it translates into a massive rights disparity.
As residents, East Jerusalem’s Arab residents are entitled to all the social and economic rights Israel offers its citizens – education, healthcare, welfare, national insurance, law enforcement and more. In practice, aside from national insurance and healthcare, they receive nearly no state services. Because they don’t have passports, they’re forced to make do with a laissez-passer, which makes travel abroad very difficult. Furthermore, even National Insurance benefits are meted out sparingly, following thorough investigation of every East Jerusalem resident’s claim.
The National Insurance investigations focus on the question of “center of life” – whether the individual lives in Jerusalem, or has a home or family in the West Bank. Center-of-life checks are a constant threat to East Jerusalem’s Arab residents. Over the past few decades, the Interior Ministry has been revoking en masse the Israeli residency of East Jerusalem residents who dare buy a home in the West Bank or leave for an extended stay abroad, such as to study.
The center-of-life question forces East Jerusalem residents to constantly prove that they live there: Many moved back into the city’s already overcrowded neighborhoods, where you can’t get a legal building permit, which leads to an abundance of illegal construction; they avoid going abroad; and they swamp the Interior Ministry’s Population Registry in order to check that they’re still registered correctly.
The result is an incredibly overburdened Population Registry, and appointments available only a year ahead. It took a move by the Knesset and the High Court of Justice for the Interior Ministry to take action and open a second office for East Jerusalem residents, which happened only last year.
Permanently temporary status
The permanently temporary status of East Jerusalem residents was worsened when Israel built its separation barrier. Some 200,000 East Jerusalem residents are on the Israeli side, while another 140,000 are on the Palestinian side. Another blow came when Jordan stepped back its authority after the second intifada broke out. Since then, Jordan has stopped renewing Jordanian citizenship for East Jerusalem residents, which leaves them stateless people, a problematic status from an international legal standpoint.
Israel could have given them citizenship, but it’s refused to do so. Amnon Ramon, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, explains how for years, the Interior Ministry dragged its feet in handling citizenship requests from East Jerusalem residents, and rejected requests for minor reasons, such as ownership of a home in the West Bank or not enough Hebrew knowledge. Here, too, it took the High Court of Justice to change things – last year, the Interior Ministry handled 2,500 citizenship requests from East Jerusalem residents, some 3.5 times the volume it had handled in any preceding year. Half the requests were accepted, while half were denied.
The gaps between East and West Jerusalem are so great that sometimes there’s no choice but to ask what signs of sovereignty Israel has indeed instated in East Jerusalem. In total contrast to Israel’s festive declarations, it never did unify the city, and it never extended its sovereignty into the eastern half.
The 1967 annexation of Jerusalem was of the land – and not the people who lived there. Israel continues to regard these people with suspicion, even animosity, and does everything it can to deprive them of services, and not grant them citizenship as equals. Ramon calls this “hollow sovereignty,” and shows how Israel harms itself in the process.
Over the past two years, Israel apparently has started to understand that hollow sovereignty may come back to haunt it. In 2018 the government approved a 2.1 billion-shekel investment in “closing the social and economic gaps and developing East Jerusalem economically.” The plan, which aims to close gaps in a long list of areas, is historic in terms of its understanding that East Jerusalem’s residents cannot be ignored, and have legitimate demands for social (if not civil) equality. The Interior Ministry’s sudden awakening in terms of improving services and reviewing citizenship requests is apparently part of the same trend.
'Deal of the century'
Now, U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” is going to put this to the test. The plan apparently includes offering full citizenship to the 200,000 East Jerusalem residents living on the Israeli side of the separation barrier, and revoking the residency of the 140,000 people on the Palestinian side, and granting them Palestinian citizenship instead.
However, the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Studies predicts that those 140,000 people on the wrong side of the wall will start stampeding into the neighborhoods on the Israeli side and quickly apply for Israeli citizenship before they lose their residency status. In other words, there’s a potential 300,000 new citizens waiting in East Jerusalem. And then there’s another 100,000-200,000 Palestinians who would be granted citizenship under the Trump plan’s proposed annexations.
Given the failure to extend sovereignty into East Jerusalem over the previous 52 years, it’s not clear how Israel thinks it now could manage to extend full sovereignty to over half a million Palestinians.