Pragmatism Over Politics in East Jerusalem



When Qusay Muzassar was a teenager in East Jerusalem, growing up in the tense climate of the Second Intifada, he was regularly exposed to demonstrations and riots. Though he tried to avoid them himself, expressions of hatred and frustration by both Arabs and Jews were hard to escape. A few years ago, however, things changed. Tired of the hateful atmosphere in the city and of being constantly labeled, he applied for and received Israeli citizenship. He moved to Tel Aviv and started working for a tech company, while studying for a degree in software engineering. And he has no regrets. Qusay is not alone; in recent years, more and more Arab residents of East Jerusalem, tired of the poor living conditions and the obstacles they face daily, look to improve their lives by integrating into Israeli society.
East Jerusalem, along with the Old City, was conquered by the state of Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967, 19 years after the city was divided in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. After almost two decades under Jordanian rule, the city was declared by Israeli authorities to have been unified, and the Arab neighborhoods, along with several of the surrounding villages, were later incorporated into the municipality of Jerusalem. After a census was held, the Arabs living in the incorporated areas were given the choice either to apply for Israeli citizenship or to accept the status of permanent residence. The large majority, not wishing to recognize Israeli sovereignty in what they believed to be their lands, chose the latter.
Today, there are roughly 284,000 Arabs living in East Jerusalem, and over 90 percent of them are permanent residents. While residents have many rights—they can participate in the municipal elections, they receive health care and social security services, and have freedom of movement in Israel and the Palestinian territories—they are severely limited in certain ways. If they leave their homes for a period of over seven years, for example, their right to return to Jerusalem may be denied and their residency status revoked—even if their families have lived in the city for generations. Since 1967, more than 13,000 residents have lost their status this way. While the crowded living conditions lead some to take the risk and move to the West Bank, where there are fewer restrictions on building and more land available, others build and expand their houses in Jerusalem without official building permits (which are almost never granted). This leads to even greater crowding and is a source of conflict between the residents and the municipal authorities, which claim the culture of building without permits has become an epidemic.
But while there is no doubt that the disregard for urban planning has negatively affected East Jerusalem, the run-down living conditions are mostly the fault of the municipality, which has neglected the needs of the Arab population in the city for years. Despite making up more than a third of the city’s inhabitants, they are allocated only 10 percent of the city’s budget and resources—a gap that has had severe implications. Much of the infrastructure has not been developed since Jordanian rule (pre-1967), resulting in unreliable and faulty sewage and water systems. Education is severely underfunded, with over 1,000 classrooms missing in schools and a very high dropout rate. Similarly, healthcare has also suffered. And although almost 80 percent of the residents of East Jerusalem live under the poverty line, even the welfare budget is relatively small. This is particularly evident when compared with some of the ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, which are similarly poor but receive substantial welfare benefits due to strong representation both in the municipality and in the government.
Interestingly, however, even though permanent residents are granted the right to vote in the municipal elections, they rarely do. In the last round of elections in Jerusalem, held in 2013, there were hopes that Arab voter turnout would be somewhat higher, says Dr. Laura Wharton, a city council member from the left-wing Meretz party. However, when the ballots closed, numbers were even lower than those in previous years—only 1-2 percent of the Arab population had shown up to vote, many of them municipal employees. While it is understandable that voting can be seen as legitimizing Israeli rule—a view reinforced by the Palestinian authorities—there is no doubt that it would also mean gaining a great deal of influence on municipal decision making.
Idealism Aside, Integration is Practical
Despite voter turnout remaining low, there has been an undeniable trend in recent years towards greater integration into Israeli society. In what some say is a generational gap, more and more young Arabs are deciding to take the Bagrut, the high school matriculation tests required to attend Israeli universities. Similarly, deciding to apply for Israeli citizenship is no longer the taboo it used to be. While most applicants are still apprehensive about the process, it is commonly seen as an act of pragmatism, rather than ideological betrayal. “Everyone understands that it is the reasonable thing to do, considering the shut doors you face in Jerusalem with resident status,” says Ahmad Husseini, a student at the Hebrew University.
This trend may also be due in part to geographic changes: The separation barrier constructed during the Second Intifada cut off Jerusalem from the West Bank, forcing many to search for work inside the city, rather than in the Palestinian territories. Similarly, the recently completed Jerusalem light rail has played a role in connecting the Arab neighborhoods to the centers of work and commerce located in West Jerusalem.
What is especially interesting is that, even given a future permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement, more and more Palestinians say they would prefer to live under Israeli sovereignty. A survey conducted in 2011 by Pechter Middle East Polls in partnership with the Council on Foreign Relations showed that when asked about a potential agreement in which Jerusalem is divided, the majority of the Arab residents of the city respond that they would prefer living on the Israeli side of the border. While some have questioned the reliability of the survey—specifically, the ways the questions were phrased—it seems to reflect the growing Palestinian sentiment of pragmatism over politics. Council member Wharton reinforced that impression in an interview, explaining that “while [Arab residents] are still opposed to legitimizing Israeli rule … what would you choose: a modern country with socialized healthcare and functioning government bodies, or a new, fledgling nation, with administrative bodies likely to be both corrupt and dysfunctional for many years to come?”
The current Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, is a right-wing politician who holds strong views of a unified, Jewish Jerusalem. Still, he recently announced a plan to invest 300 million Shekels (roughly $90 million) in East Jerusalem. The money is to be invested over a period of five years, and divided between developing infrastructure, building classrooms, and improving the personal security of the city’s residents. However, current estimates are that the infrastructure alone requires a two-billion-Shekel overhaul. So while the plan is a step in the right direction, the resources that it has allocated are only a fraction of what is required to significantly affect life in East Jerusalem for the better.
Investing for the Future
When I first decided to write this piece, I set up a meeting with Palestinian family friends who live in Shuafat, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem. They have lived in the city for decades, through periods of war and calm, under both Jordanian and Israeli rule, and could thus provide an important perspective on the issue. The interview, however, never took place. On the morning I was supposed to drive to their house, the police had blocked all access to East Jerusalem in response to the violent outbreak that followed the kidnap and murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu-Khdeir. The murder, now known to be a hate crime committed by right-wing Jewish extremists in revenge for the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Palestinian terrorists, again set riots blazing in Jerusalem after a significant period of relative calm.
Just two months after Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative broke down in late April, tensions again rose, and the violence in the region quickly escalated into yet another exchange between Hamas’s rockets and Israel’s air strikes. Muhammed Aweide, a social activist and resident of the city, says it’s no coincidence that the turmoil began in Jerusalem rather than in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. The growing unrest in the city, he feels, is due more to social and economic inequality than to the once-again dashed hopes for Palestinian independence: “We are just tired of feeling like second rate citizens,” he said. The plans to invest in East Jerusalem, he thinks, are not rooted in kindness, but instead in strategic solutions. They show that Israeli decision makers have finally caught on to what experts have been saying for years: that the greatest driver of terrorism is urban poverty
Greater integration into Israeli society may be the only practical course for Arab families looking to live a reasonable life. But with mutual suspicions and distrust again on the rise, both Palestinians and Israelis have a long way to go before they can truly live side by side. In the meantime, financing infrastructure, education and healthcare in Jerusalem more equally is not only the humane thing to do; it may also prove to be an effective investment in the battle against terrorism, hatred and violence.
Image credit: Flickr / Paul Arps 

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