Two Years In, Israeli Plan for East Jerusalem Slowly Brings About Change

While some progress has been made in improving education and infrastructure, the project meant to better the life of 40 percent of Jerusalem’s population failed to meet many of its targets

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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East Jerusalem's Shuafat Refugee Camp, December 2019.
East Jerusalem's Shuafat Refugee Camp, December 2019. Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The Israeli government approved in 2018 a revolutionary five-year plan to deal with the many problems plaguing East Jerusalem. Two years later, it seems the plan has somewhat changed the complex, often violent, relationship between East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents – who now make up 40 percent of the city's population, but are not Israeli citizens – and Israeli authorities.

The plan was designed to address education, transportation, employment and infrastructure. But while the plan relatively meets its targets in the fields of sanitation and education, it has failed in improving transportation and the process of land registration. Its critics say the plan fails to address burning matters like residential planning and other civilian issues.

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Bibi swears in his colossal coalition and readies for a courtroom showdown Credit: Haaretz

The 2 billion shekel ($560 million) project – dubbed Plan 3790 – was the result of an extraordinary combination of circumstances, in which right-wing politicians, as well as former Shin Bet and treasury officials, joined forces to persuade the cabinet to approve and fund it because, “It can’t continue this way.”

The first sign of a change in the government’s attitude came in June 2014, when the cabinet allocated 244 million shekels to improve  personal security and boost socioeconomic development in East Jerusalem after two years of increased stone-throwing there. 

Only two days after that plan was approved, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old East Jerusalem resident, was abducted and burned alive by three Jewish extremists. This sparked a wave of violence that raged across East Jerusalem for a year and a half. Israel's government officially recognized Abu Khdeir as a terror victim.

Dr. Amnon Ramon of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research – who monitored the progress of the 2018 plan for the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry – said that warnings by security officials against right-wing politicians’ intentions to apply sovereignty to parts of the West Bank aligned with the economic perspective of treasury officials, who understood that without addressing the dire situation of 40 percent of its population, Jerusalem won’t move forward. The most significant driving force behind the plan was former Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin, who concluded his term this week.

The five-year plan has made the most progress in the realm of education, mainly investing in informal education, Hebrew and technology studies, and exposing Palestinian students to Israeli academia. The plan partially succeeded in advancing the “Israelization” of East Jerusalem’s educational system, moving it slowly toward studying the Israeli high school curriculum, instead of preparing for the Tawjihi, the Palestinian matriculation exam, which more than 90 percent of East Jerusalem pupils study.

The plan included substantial budgets and benefits to East Jerusalem schools that opened classes preparing students for the Israeli matriculation exam. While some East Jerusalem parents showed willingness to move in that direction, some resisted the initiative, fearing that Israel was trying to impose a new identity on their children.

The plan included opening day care centers and guidance for women who seek to enter the workforce, but encountered difficulties in significantly increasing the number of working women in East Jerusalem.  

A report prepared by the left-wing NGO Ir Amim and the Ma’an workers organization found that while there has been some increase in the number of East Jerusalem women who joined the workforce, the poverty rate has also increased. The lack of efficient public transportation to commercial and industrial areas, the absence of after school framework, in addition to language and education barriers, make it hard for Palestinian women to find work. Those who do work, usually earn very low wages. Poverty rates are likely to rise sharply this year due to the coronavirus crisis, as many East Jerusalem residents work in tourism.

When it comes to infrastructure, the plan sought to build and renovate 15 roads, some of which are already in progress. Water and sewerage projects are in various stages of planning but they are still far from closing the gap between East Jerusalem and the western part of the city.

In addition, the plan has so far failed in integrating the Rav Kav fare card into East Jerusalem’s transportation system. The numerous private companies operating in East Jerusalem and the Transportation Ministry weren’t able to reach an agreement on that matter.

Substantial investments were made to better East Jerusalem resident’s quality of life, like renovating streets and improving sanitation, but a source familiar with the plan said that many initiatives remained on paper only.  

One of the most problematic aspects of the plan as far as the Palestinians are concerned relates to land registration. Since 1967 the state has frozen land registration in East Jerusalem, and 90 percent of the lands are not formally zoned, which makes legal construction there nearly impossible.  According to the plan, the Justice Ministry is supposed to officially register 50 percent of the lands by the end of 2020 and finalize registration for the other 50 percent by the end of 2025, but no progress has been made on the issue.

The Palestinians fear that registration will serve to transfer assets to the Custodian of Absentee Property (in the event that one or more of the heirs of the land are considered “absent,” having moved to an Arab country), and from there straight to the hands of settler organizations. Therefore, the Palestinians are refusing to cooperate with the registration, and Jordan isn’t providing its land records, which prevents the Land Registry from moving forward.

Despite its scope, the plan doesn’t address three significant issues. It barely deals with the neighborhoods that are beyond the separation barrier, where a third of Jerusalem’s Palestinians live, trapped between the barrier and the city’s municipal boundaries, in extremely harsh conditions. Since the barrier was erected, Israeli authorities have basically abandoned those areas, and thousands of apartments were illegally built there.

Another problem is that the plan doesn’t deal with the issue of residential housing and planning in the Palestinian neighborhoods. This makes it impossible to build legally and has forced thousands of families to build illegally, after which they face demolition orders, fines, and endless legal proceedings.

The third issue the plan ignores is the fact that most of East Jerusalem's residents don’t have Israeli citizenship and thus are not entitled to a passport or have the ability to emigrate to the West Bank. Although applications for Israeli citizenship have increased in recent years, only a handful of applicants manage to obtain citizenship due to many bureaucratic obstacles.

Ramon, of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, notes another problem –the plan is meant to be carried out by no less than 27 different government agencies, which often have trouble coordinating their steps. “It’s dependent on the goodwill of the bureaucrats,” he says.

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