Analysis

Jews Fighting Jerusalem Arab Project Will Soon Find They're on the Losing Side

The combination of blatant, covert racism and local politicians who promoted the fight for a third national election have led the plan to its premature doom

Har Homa residents with the site of the proposed commercial center in the background.
Emil Salman

In Jerusalem, which is notorious for environmental and social battles, hardly a week passes without some new struggle erupting against construction plans, new roads, or public transportation. Yet, none have been as successful as the struggle by some residents of the East Jerusalem Israeli settlement of Har Homa against an employment and services center that was supposed to arise between their neighborhood and the Palestinian one of Umm Tuba.

Not a week passed since the plan’s presentation to the public, yet the municipality and the Jerusalem ministry, which lay behind the plan and view it as their flagship, have decided to shelve it. The combination of blatant, covert racism and local politicians who promoted the fight for a third national election have led Mayor Moshe Leon and Jerusalem Minister Zeev Elkin to fold faster than the residents had even expected.

However, the people of Har Homa may discover their victory is a Pyrrhic one – first of all because of the damage to their quality of life, and Second, because Jerusalem is going in exactly the other direction.

Har Homa, one of the most recently built neighborhoods in Jerusalem, was constructed in the 1990s beyond the Green Line on land confiscated from the people of Umm Tuba. The settlement faced fierce international opposition, because it went up after – and in opposition to – the Oslo Accords.

An aerial view of the area.

Despite it being the latest, Jerusalem has not evinced any ability to learn a thing about urban qualities. From many perspectives, Har Homa has more problems than any other neighborhood in the city.

The neighborhood was initially planned to be one for private cars, and the main use of its streets was meant for parking. It has hardly any services, trade or jobs, and is connected to the world by exactly one road -- like a balloon on a string -- while public transportation is sorely lacking.

The upshot is that it’s a commuter neighborhood, whose residents are utterly dependent on cars and spend hours stuck in traffic and looking for parking. Building a big employment and trade center within walking distance could have made their lives significantly better.

Foreseeing objections, the architects planned to separate the commercial centers serving Umm Tuba from the ones serving Har Homa, with a separate access road planned for the Palestinians. But that didn’t cut it among the plan’s opponents in Har Homa: the mere thought of encountering a Palestinian on the line to the cash register or at the clinic superseded the potential to improve their lives.

However, the plan’s suspension is the exception, not the rule. Israelis and Palestinians today are seeing eye to eye more than ever before in the city’s history. The establishment of the separation barrier and relative severance of East Jerusalem and the West Bank - together with the rise in the quality of life and integration of Palestinians in the Israeli labor market - have created a new reality.

New spaces have sprouted in the city as though from nowhere, spaces in which the two populations live alongside one another in relative equality. For instance: the light rail, the Mamila mall, the new Rami Levy mall next to the Qalandiyah check point, the Sacher gardens, hospitals, universities, colleges, and workplaces.

The area between Har Homa and Umm Tuba, in East Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

The malls are guarded by Palestinians from East Jerusalem, Palestinian surgeons operate on Israeli patients, most notably Dr. Abed Khalaileh from Jabal Mukhbar, head of the transplants unit in Hadassah, who operated on Knesset member Yehiel Tropper. And in some stores in the city’s west, special sales take place for the Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha.

So far the change has come from the grassroots level, and shared spaces seem to arise almost all by themselves. Marik Shtern, a political geographer of Jerusalem who has been watching these processes, says the case of the Umm Tuba plan is the first time in which the city and state initiated a plan for a shared space from above.

“This is a highly positive statement of intervention in the physical structure of the city to create shared life,” Shtern says. Perhaps they went wrong in the way people were prepared for it, or they didn’t grasp the political complexity, he suggests. “But the bigger picture is that Jerusalemites realize they can’t go back to the track of ‘separate and unequal.’ The city can’t sustain separation anymore.” if so, even if the residents of Har Homa were celebrating their victory – ultimately, they are on the losing side.