Breeding Grounds of Despair and Fatigue

Whether the explosion is imminent or not, Jerusalem Palestinians who happen to visit West Bank cities actually get the impression that the situation in many East Jerusalem neighborhoods, including the Old City, is worse in terms of the density and poor quality of housing.

During and after school hours, dozens of school-age children are out on the main streets of East Jerusalem trying to sell all kinds of junk - using sales pitches ranging from pleading to misfortunate aggression. Others accompany their fathers, day laborers, to random jobs in electrical work or welding in the western part of the city. In return for some small sums, there are some children pushing old supermarket wagons loaded with fruits and vegetables from the Flower Gate to the street opposite the post office. Other children play in the narrow streets amid mountains of garbage and foul odors emanating from puddles of sewage. Young boys gather around a group of girls who have just finished school and bother them, until a daring adult scolds and attempts to disperse them.

And many other children, wearing school uniforms and backpacks rush home. Their parents insist that they come home immediately and not tarry because, they warn, "near the Damascus Gate, you'll run into drug dealers and addicts who'll prey on you, or someone on Sultan Suleiman street who'll try to pickpocket you."

And until these kids come home, their parents will worry. Because if they don't come across a drug addict or pickpocket, they may be hit by one of those crazy drivers of Ford Transits who do not obey any traffic laws, or may even wind up in a clash at a roadblock with Border Policemen.

Most of these children will return to very cramped apartments, where they and their parents have no privacy, in dense neighborhoods, where there are no playgrounds or youth clubs and where most of the partly-paved roads have no sidewalks and are flooded with water mixed with sewage after the slightest rain. They will enter very cold, damp-ridden apartments because their fathers have been unemployed for over a year and there is no money for heating gas and the construction is shoddy, usually hastily done because the municipality did not approve construction of another floor on top of the parents' old home or because the permit required paying a fee that was impossible to afford. They and the mothers, primarily, will frequently complain about breathing difficulties and arthritis caused by the dampness.

The houses in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods where most of the Palestinian residents live close in on each other, edge into the streets and make them even narrower, "to the point that there's no room for a funeral cortege to pass through" - as two people, a resident of the Shoefat refugee camp and a resident of the Silwan neighborhood describe them.

Even daylight has trouble penetrating here; but it seems that construction continues so as to keep pace with the demand for housing. In every neighborhood and practically on every street, there are bags of sand and cement mixers and a few workers adding on another floor of exposed gray concrete. Often, the construction is unsafe or dangerous. Building supervisors, as well as Palestinian architects, shudder to think of what would happen if an earthquake were to strike. And when there is nowhere to build, they transform storage rooms and shops into living quarters.

Inside these homes and the poorly-stocked grocery stores, people complain about the rising numbers of robberies and break-ins into homes and shops, the unemployed, the hard drug addicts who squat in empty or half-finished apartments in upstanding neighborhoods and the hungry who receive food packages from charity organizations. They talk about gangs that have taken control of empty lands and others that collect protection money from storeowners.

NIS 1 billion in discrimination

Everywhere in Arab East Jerusalem, the residents who live there and visitors are struck by the disturbing and all-embracing presence of poverty and neglect - physical neglect, social neglect evident in the forgotten children and young wandering boys, the beggars, the numerous peddlers, the simmering and apparent violence, the hooliganism and crime, and the emotional neglect that is evident in so many drawn faces and personal, open comments about despair and fatigue with life.

Is this just the outward impression that is fed primarily by comparisons with the very-nearby Jewish neighborhoods that are well kept, orderly, clean and spacious? Is it an exaggeration on the part of the Palestinian residents of the place?

"The Third World" is how attorney Danny Seidman, who specializes in representing Palestinians from Jerusalem appealing against government and city policies that violate their rights, describes the East Jerusalem neighborhoods.

A group of Palestinian researchers and activists have been warning recently about the slicing up of many Palestinian neighborhoods in Israel's capital. One of these activists is Nazmi Juaba, a historian and archaeologist, native of Silwan and a member of the Jerusalem Task Force set up by Faisal Husseini to handle "behind the scenes" political negotiations with Israel. Juaba gave up what he referred to as the "romance" and life in his birthplace - the very crowded Silwan neighborhood with its dazzling views - and moved with his family to another neighborhood when he first noticed how exposed his children were to drug users and dealers.

"A slum is an urban area with miserable or non-existent infrastructure that encompasses within it a large concentration of low-income people with the same ethnic origin or in conflict with the authorities, usually people who develop an alternative culture - one that doesn't play by the rules of the larger society, has a different religion and in contrast, turns to crime." This is how Ben Gurion University geographer Dr. Oren Yiftahel describes distressed neighborhoods, mentioning neighborhoods on the outskirts of Sao Paolo, Mexico City, Bangkok and some major American cities, as well as in East Jerusalem.

Palestinians such as Juaba and his colleagues on the Task Force, and Israelis like Seidman who work with Palestinians against official Israeli policy, warn of "a socio-political explosive keg" and of a "sure explosion."

"Forget about us," says Juaba. "But don't they understand in Israel that these phenomena, the side effects of our slum, will spread and eventually affect Jewish Jerusalem and Israeli society?"

They all place most of the blame on intentional government neglect of planning, draconian restrictions on construction and development in the eastern part of the city, a continuous preference to Jews over Arabs in government and municipal budgets and support, they say, official Israeli institutions give to criminal elements that assist the Shin Bet security service.

Israeli municipal officials and others do not deny the data on discrimination. There is an NIS 1 billion differential between the Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods, the deputy director-general of the municipality and the director of physical administration, Eitan Meir, relates. In other words, in order to eliminate the gap, it would be necessary to allocate NIS 1 billion more for development in the eastern part of the city than in the western part - an unimaginable sum at this point in time.

However, Meir also wanted to emphasize that this was a holdover from the era of Teddy Kollek, a Labor party man, and that under his successor, Mayor Ehud Olmert, there had been efforts to change the government's priorities and allocate more resources to the eastern part of Jerusalem.

He also notes that there was already a huge gap in infrastructure when the eastern neighborhoods and villages were annexed in 1967. He links some of the neglect and abandonment to a culture that does not respect the public sphere and to the negative influence of the Palestinian Authority, which operated mainly with the help of various hooligans and thugs, as the municipality's Arab affairs adviser, Shalom Goldstein, claims. "Building violations," according to Goldstein, "is a plague and behind it are political motives of the PA."

The municipality and the police also note that the Palestinians are the ones who began the bloody conflict that has led to the current economic deterioration.

In contrast to the municipality and the residents themselves, who complain about rising crime in the eastern part of the city, the police argue it is an incorrect impression. On the contrary, says Shmulik Ben Ruby, the Jerusalem District police spokesman, there has been a drop of approximately 8 percent compared to last year in the crime rate in the Palestinian part of Jerusalem. There are plans to release this data in mid-January.

Police and municipality spokesmen and advisers - such as researcher Yisrael Kimchi of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies - tend to believe that an explosion is unlikely because in a feasibility test, life under Israeli rule is relatively better in socio-economic and security terms and when it comes to freedom of movement and a democratic lifestyle than life under the rule of Yasser Arafat and the PA.

The proof: Except for a few cases, as worrisome as they may be, residents of the eastern part of the city do not participate in the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Number of poor on the rise

Whether the explosion is imminent or not, Jerusalem Palestinians who happen to visit West Bank cities actually get the impression that the situation in many East Jerusalem neighborhoods, including the Old City, is worse in terms of the density and poor quality of housing and as far as social and emotional issues are concerned than it is in the West Bank, even in its refugee camps and even given the difficult situation today.

So says Juaba; so says, for example, M.H., an attorney who spent three days last week in Jenin; so says Mai al-Omri, a psychologist who shuttles between Ramallah, East Jerusalem, Lod and Ramle; and so says Maha Abu Diya, the director of the Jerusalem Center for Social and Legal Counseling for Women, which is approached for help by hundreds of women from both the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Various statistical data confirm that when it comes to poverty, it is not only a matter of "impressions alone." Nevertheless, the main findings published by the National Insurance Institute in November on "the dimensions of poverty and the inequality in income distribution in the economy in 2001" do not have separate statistics for Palestinians who are residents of the capital. NII officials explain that in 2000 and 2001, for security reasons, the Central Bureau of Statistics did not send census takers to Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhoods to survey the incomes of the population there. Consequently, the NII could not calculate the unemployment rate among Palestinians in the city and how many people there were living below the poverty line.

However, the Jerusalem municipality's welfare department, which analyzes the NII data, estimates, based on 1999 figures (a year when the CBS did send surveyors to the eastern part of the city), that 66 percent of Jerusalem's Palestinian residents - 142,700 people - lived below the poverty line in 2001. (The poverty line currently is around NIS 1,720 per month).

In all of Israel, the number of people living below the poverty line in 2001 amounted to 19.6 percent. In Jewish Jerusalem, it reached 27.8 percent. There is solid reason to fear that the poverty rate in both parts of the city increased in 2002.

In 1999, 58.6 percent of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem lived below the poverty line (a total of 112,700 individuals). In 2000, the rate of poor Palestinians in Jerusalem dropped to 57.7 percent (102,000 people), compared to 27.7 percent of Jewish Jerusalemites living below the poverty line. The same year, 68 percent of Palestinian children in Jerusalem (or 95,000) lived below the poverty line (compared to 28.9 percent of Jewish children).

Dorit Biran of the Jerusalem municipality's welfare department estimates - based on the overall increase in the poverty rate - that the number of poor Palestinian children will hit 70 percent this year.

According to the CBS (on which the Jerusalem municipality welfare department relies to calculate its poverty figures), at the end of 2001, Jerusalem had 670,000 residents, of them 454,600 Jews and those defined as "others" (i.e., non-Jewish relatives of immigrants and foreign laborers). The number of Palestinians, therefore, totaled 215,400. According to the CBS, on September 31, 2002, the number of residents of the city amounted to 678,500, but the CBS has yet to report how many of them are Jews and "others."

The Interior Ministry's population registry indicates that the numbers are higher. On June 30, 2002, there were 740,366 people registered with addresses in Jerusalem; of them, 486,480 were Jewish, 240,721 were Arabs and 13,165 were classified as "unknown."

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics' estimate (which uses, among other things, Israeli CBS figures and not the Interior Ministry's population registry), the number of Palestinians living in Jerusalem is higher. As early as 2000, according to the Palestinian estimate, there were 231,597 Palestinians in Jerusalem. The Palestinians estimate that this number is even higher today. In their assessment, Palestinians married to Jerusalem men/women who did not receive residency in the city, other Palestinians from the West Bank who settled in the city over two decades ago and the children of these people or other Jerusalem Palestinians who lost their residency continue to live in the city.

To each Israeli figure, therefore, they will add around 20-30,000 people at least. Thus, according to the Interior Ministry figures and the Palestinian figures, the absolute number of poor Palestinians is even larger than the Jerusalem municipality welfare department's estimate.

Absentee rule

In every slum in the world, the alienation and hostility between residents and the authorities is a typical feature. But it seems that in the Palestinian slum in East Jerusalem, this feature is particularly dominant and bears a clear political slant.

At least to the Palestinian residents of the slum, Israeli rule is absent in any matter related to repairing the situation and improving the quality of life or combating crime, which directly affects the residents. In the eyes of the residents, in the best case, representatives of the government and legal authorities are not familiar with their society or are limited by political-budgetary reasons in their ability to help. In the worst case, they are perceived as people who are indifferent to the fate of the Palestinians and also eyeing their lands in order to expand construction for Jews only.

They are perceived as having intentionally brought about social and economic deterioration and as those whose sole interest lies in imposing fines and taxes, confiscating property for delinquent payments, security checks and detaining young people in the middle of the street. The police, Border Police and municipality inspectors are seen by many as evil-thinkers, who are a priori aggressive and hostile to the entire population (even if the police and municipality profess that many people contact them and have faith in the official bodies).

However, the PA, Palestinians in Jerusalem complain, has also neglected the city, both in budgetary and in political-practical terms. In response to the municipality's claim, for example, that the PA is behind a wave of building violations, many say: "If only the PA would help."

On the one hand, in every speech he makes, Yasser Arafat mentions that soon Palestinian flags will fly over every church and mosque in the city; on the other hand, he was careful to send conflicting messages about the man he designated to be responsible for the city (Faisal Husseini or Ziyad Abu Zayad; Sari Nusseibeh, who has since been deposed, Samir Ghoshe, who lives in Ramallah and is not even allowed to enter the city; the PA or the PLO) - in line with his well-known tactic of not allowing a single man in the Palestinian political establishment to become powerful and, thereby, perhaps threaten his own position.

In the poor Palestinian neighborhoods, many today recall how Husseini was interested in their plight and tried to help them, like a compassionate father. After his death, these people feel orphaned. Orient House had social organizations that provided an address the Palestinian population of Jerusalem could contact. Husseini associates and Orient House officials claim that these organizations provided legal and financial aid and that their closure by the Israeli authorities effectively eliminated an important channel for social support.

Left-wing Palestinian activists, on the other hand, claim that the activities of Husseini and Orient House did not stray from the method instituted by Arafat (distributing charity, according to the requests of associates, while he controlled the budget) and that, as one described it, as clean and concerned as Husseini was, he was compelled to serve as a courier between Ramallah and Jerusalem. When he tried to obtain funds from independent sources, Arafat stopped him.

But even if that were not the case, it is hard to believe that any Palestinian institution, more organized than Orient House, more sophisticated and with freedom of action, could have changed the conditions of poverty without a change in the policy of the sovereign in the area, i.e., the State of Israel. The change must come from the government of Israel, even officials in the Jerusalem Municipality agree.