Ancient cities abound with myths. This is part of their charm for tourists and locals alike. But when present-day management of a city is bounded by an illusionary portrayal of reality the results are detrimental for city and people alike. In Jerusalem, the city's holiness and mythology do not serve to heal the intense conflict surrounding it. Instead, tragically, myth and conflict combine to perpetuate a cycle of discrimination, dispossession and violence.
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The most potent myths of the Israeli leadership – and the mainstream Israeli public – regarding the city can all be found in the taken-for-granted maxim: "Unified Jerusalem is eternal and ours" that the likes of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat are so fond of.
What is this Jerusalem that they claim to be eternal? It never existed prior to 1967. Following the so-called reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, Israel swiftly expanded the city's limits, seizing an area ten times as big as pre-67 East Jerusalem. Thus, large areas of "Eternal Jerusalem" are a recent creation. Perhaps the motivation for this extraordinary expansion of the city can be found in the fact that since 1967 nearly 35% of land in East Jerusalem has been expropriated from Palestinian owners to build neighborhoods for Israeli Jews. This is the case of the 1,500 housing units in Ramat Shlomo, approved recently as part of the Israeli government's retaliation to the UN vote in recognition of Palestine. This huge neighborhood, intended for ultra-Orthodox Jews, will be built on land that was expropriated from Palestinians living in the nearby neighborhood of Shuafat.
"Unification" is a myth as well. A 'unified' city would offer equal and integrated public services in all parts of the single entity. But be it education, transportation, health services or even basic essential services such as water supply and garbage collection, the neglect of the Palestinian neighborhoods is of a staggering magnitude. Simply put, resources are not allocated blind to geographical location. There is a shortage of 1,000 classrooms for Palestinian children of school age, and dropout rates soar between 13% (the municipality's figures) to 40% (according to data gathered by organizations like Ir Amim). In the summer some of the Palestinian neighborhoods such as Beit Hanina do not get a regular water supply. Public transportation in Palestinian neighborhoods doesn't enjoy the same kinds of subsidies it receives in the Jewish neighborhoods, making it much more expensive for Palestinians. These discriminatory policies result in the continuous decline of Jerusalem's Palestinian community. Whereas in the past East Jerusalem led Palestinian society in parameters such as economic strength and the quality of education, today 78% of the city's Palestinian population is below the poverty line, and the educational achievements in East Jerusalem are below-average relative to Palestinians in the rest of the West Bank.
Perhaps the most painful myth is that of Jerusalem being "ours". The demographic threat to Jewish "ownership" of the city is the root cause of the discrimination described above. The city's Palestinian population is rapidly growing, and - despite all the attempts to make life miserable for them – Palestinians now account for more than a third of the city's population. Wary of this growth, the municipality does what is in its power to obstruct building plans for Palestinians. When residents of Isawiya and A-Tur put together an impressive community development plan allocating land for much-needed housing, school buildings and other public service uses, the Jerusalem municipality and its mayor hastily submitted a plan of their own to make the same area a national park where building will be prohibited. This is but one example of a widespread policy.
It is true that dividing Jerusalem will lead to major challenges. But the point is that the Israeli building projects in East Jerusalem only serve to aggravate these future challenges. It is in this sense that these building projects are a major obstacle to peace, and that is why the massive building plans recently approved are a major cause for concern.
Many feel that Jerusalem is at the center of Jewish identity. Personally, Jerusalem is part of my being - emotionally, spiritually and even physically, as I walk the streets and its atmosphere resonates within me. It is a tragedy that many Israeli Jews deny the fact that we share this love and yearning for the city with millions of Palestinians. It would have been dramatic and inspiring had the Israeli establishment been able to create in Jerusalem a City of Nations, where both Israelis and Palestinians prosper. The consequences of Israel's refusal to do so are devastating for its Palestinian residents and heartbreaking for any Jew who has the courage to see reality as it is. Israel's perpetuation of this reality in pursuit of an illusory vision does not and will not justify its artificial sovereignty over Eastern Jerusalem and the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live in it.
Aviv Tatarsky is a field researcher at Ir Amim, an NGO that is dedicated to the establishment of an egalitarian and stable Jerusalem.