Decades after ‘reunification’ a divided Jerusalem remains


Israelis this week mark Jerusalem Day, celebrating the “reunification” of the Holy City, but 45 years on, the contrast between quality of life in the Jewish west and the Arab east remain stark.

The status of Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel captured the eastern sector of the city during the 1967 war and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.

It considers the whole city as its “eternal, undivided capital,” but the Palestinians want east Jerusalem for the capital of their future state.

No wall divides the city, but Palestinian residents of the east say they are living under much worse conditions than their Israeli neighbors.

In the west, the public buses run by Egged, with their electronic ticketing system, drive along well-kept roads. There are tended green spaces and public benches, recycling bins and regular rubbish collections.

In the east, residents burn the rubbish that builds up at communal dumpsters to ward off the pests and smells that come with rotting waste.

Overcrowded schools mean some students have to learn in shifts, and so children can be seen playing in the often-unpaved streets much of the day.

“If anyone just goes for a walk for 10 minutes in east Jerusalem and 10 minutes in west Jerusalem, or 10 minutes in these settlements in Jerusalem, you can see the difference,” says Ziad Hammouri, a lawyer and head of the Jerusalem Centre for Social and Economic Rights.

Mahmud Khweis, 39, lives on the Mount of Olives and says he had never seen a street sweeper in his neighborhood -- until settlers moved in nearby.

“The roads are fine, compared to a refugee camp. But if I want to compare it to Rehavia in west Jerusalem, with which we share the same rate of arnona, the municipal tax, it is way below standards.”

Life is also far more crowded, with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) saying Palestinians are allowed to build on just 17 percent of the land in east Jerusalem, where vast tracts are set aside for national parks and settlements.

And even where building is allowable, permission is rarely granted, ACRI says, noting that just 13 percent of all municipal building permits issued between 2005 and 2009 went to Palestinians.

There are now an estimated 20,000 homes in east Jerusalem built without a permit, which creates additional infrastructure and service problems, says ACRI’s Ronit Sela.

“They are at risk of demolition, many of them are not connected to the sewage system, so they use septic tanks that are dangerous. Many do not have legal electricity connections.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat acknowledges the problems, and says his administration is the first which is trying to address the situation.

His deputy Naomi Tsur touts a program to spend some 500 million shekels ($130 million/103 million euros) on roads in east Jerusalem, and on the new light rail system, which serves both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods.

Jerusalem, she says, has fallen “victim to its own geopolitics” but insists that Barkat’s administration is trying to get past that.

“We’re trying to look at the city through a prism of municipal responsibility,” she told AFP.

“We have to get away from the way the world looks at Jerusalem and treat it as a city where people want to live and send their children to school.

“It has nothing to do with what the eventual status of Jerusalem will be.”

But Tsur says the city council has faced problems in trying to better the situation, with residents of the east accusing them of trying to extend Israeli control over the Arab east.

“Here you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” she says.

And she points out that Jerusalem’s Arab residents boycott municipal elections.

“Where a population doesn’t get onboard and get itself represented, it’s liable not to do well in the budget distribution.”

But Meir Margalit, a city council member from the left-wing Meretz party, dismisses that argument as an “excuse,” and accuses the municipality of discrimination, pointing to continuing disparities in the budget.

“The total amount of money the municipality invested in east Jerusalem last year is 477 million shekels ($124 million, 98 million euros),” he told AFP.

“It’s a huge amount, but when you put it in the right context, the total budget is 4.7 billion shekels ($1.2 billion, 965 million euros), meaning the municipality invests around 10 percent of the budget in east Jerusalem.

“This is a policy of discrimination,” he charged.

“The municipality tries to make Palestinian life so hard so that they will decide voluntarily to leave the city.”

While Margalit acknowledges the tension between providing needed services and the perception of extending Israeli control, he says there is a clear solution.

“The answer is very easy, the answer is to divide the city. It’s something we’ve been saying for more than 45 years,” he told AFP.

“This is the only way to solve the problem of Jerusalem.”