The group of Jerusalemites tumbles off the tour bus onto streets and hilltops where most of them have never set foot. They are in eastern Jerusalem, home to some 150,000 Arabs and, for most on the tour, an entirely new world.
They take in views of Israel’s security barrier, here a hulking concrete wall that divides neighborhoods, and walk the narrow cracked roads lined with piles of uncollected trash. They marvel that this, too, is Jerusalem.
They also make their way through the contrasting scene of paved roads and tidy, stone-faced apartment blocs that make up the wide swath of Jewish neighborhoods in the east of the city, neighborhoods built between Arab ones since 1967, the fruit of efforts by successive Israeli governments to ensure that the city is never divided again.
As Israel prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem — constantly touted in national slogans as “eternally united” — this group of students and professionals came to see for themselves the Arab neighborhoods of the city where Jews rarely venture.
“I see regression, not progress,” said Michal, a psychologist who has lived in the Jerusalem area for 30 years but had not been to the eastern part of the city for nearly as long. “Jerusalem never seemed united for me. The idea that it is is a fiction.”
She’s not alone: A poll of Jerusalem residents by the Dahaf Institute found that 62 percent do not consider the city united.
“They have good reason,” Motti Elmaliah of the local Jerusalem newspaper Yerushalayim wrote of the poll. “When was the last time you enjoyed a stroll on Saladin Street, one of the major arteries in East Jerusalem, and felt at home? Except for a quick trip to eat hummous on Saturday morning in the Old City, and getting a tune-up in Wadi Joz, the Jewish residents of the city try not to go to East Jerusalem. That way they also don’t have to see the di! rt and t he neglect there.”
The 40th anniversary has brought new attention to the question of what Jerusalem’s unity means beyond political sloganeering and what might lie ahead for the city. New statistics show that the city’s Arab population is growing faster than its Jewish one.
According to figures from the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Jerusalem today is 66 percent Jewish and 34 percent Arab. While the Arab growth rate continues to climb each year, an increasing number of Jews, mainly secular ones, are leaving the city, fleeing what they say is an increasingly Orthodox, politically tense and poor city with few economic opportunities.
Jerusalem, these Jews say, is a place that feels less and less like home.
On May 13, Mayor Uri Lupolianski warned the government that the capital could lose its Jewish majority within a decade.
“We won’t be satisfied with crumbs,” he said. “We need a comprehensive plan.”
The vast majority of the public, 92 percent, said it is important or very important to maintain a Jewish majority in the city, the Jerusalem Institute found in a survey published Sunday. However, studies also have found that most Israelis would not choose to live in Jerusalem, which they view as dangerous and impoverished.
“If this trend continues, by 2025 about 50 percent of the city will be Palestinian, and that means Jerusalem will be a binational city,” Hebrew University geographer Shlomo Hasson said. “The capital of a Jewish and democratic state would be a binational city. This is the first step toward a binational state, so the question is: ‘What needs to be done?’
“You can say every city is divided when you look at the deeper issues such as religion and economy. Some are more divided than others,” Hasson said. “We don’t live in a divided city. We live in a polarized city.”
Just as educated, secular Jews are fleeing Jerusalem, many of the city’s Arab elite are leaving! for the nearby West Bank city of Ramallah, which in recent years has replaced eastern Jerusalem as the Palestinians’ economic and cultural hub because of the economic and logistical difficulties of life in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, reflecting a change in recent years, the Jerusalem Institute poll found that 58 percent of Israeli Jews are in favor of concessions on Jerusalem as part of a possible future peace deal with the Palestinians.
Steeped in history and religious significance, Jerusalem is among the most difficult issues in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Palestinians claim the eastern part of the city as their future capital, a claim most Israelis continue to reject, although it reportedly was part of the Israeli government’s offer to Palestinian negotiators during peace talks in 2000.
The group on the recent tour of eastern Jerusalem was guided by Amos Gil, executive director of Ir Amim, an Israeli organization that promotes Israeli-Palestinian coexistence in the city.
Gil distributed maps of Jerusalem, full of color-coded lines marking the course of the city’s various boundaries, including the municipal line along which the security barrier has been built and the border of the Old City. He said his goal was not political but was just to point out the city’s complexity.
” ‘Are you sure this is the capital of Israel and not the Third World?’ ” Gil asked, recounting the comments of a diplomat he took on a similar tour as the bus bumped over a rundown patch of road.
The comment, Gil said, goes to one of the essential questions — the neglect of infrastructure in eastern Jerusalem.
“If Israel wants this as part of its capital, it needs to do something with it,” he said.
Much to Ir Amim’s surprise, there has been a huge demand for information and tours: Some 4,000 people have taken its tours of eastern Jerusalem since Ir Amim began offering them three years ago. A! mong tho se they have escorted are Israeli army intelligence officers, delegations from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and diplomats.
Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank, said the essence of the conflict over Jerusalem is more religious than economic or political, but Israeli authorities do have to address the problems of the eastern part of the city.
“We have to invest a lot more in Jerusalem if we want to strengthen our claim,” he said.
Infrastructure is something of a disaster in eastern Jerusalem. There is a shortfall of some 1,000 school classrooms, shortages in most public services and other infrastructure needs ranging from water to sewage lines, proper roads and public transportation.
Living conditions are overcrowded, as the municipality rarely gives building permits to eastern Jerusalem residents. Some say that is part of a policy to restrict development and planning in Arab parts of the city.
Some observers see a policy of deliberate neglect by authorities who want to push Palestinians out of the city. Others say it’s simply a problem of representation: Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem who were brought under Israel control in 1967 do not recognize Israeli sovereignty and, in protest, have elected not to vote in municipal elections.
Arab Jerusalemites have a peculiar political identity — they are neither citizens of Israel nor subjects of the Palestinian Authority. Some say that despite the economic and other discrimination they may face, they are reluctant to relinquish their status as Jerusalem residents since it entitles them to Israeli medical insurance and social-security payments.
Despite their physical separation from other Palestinians, especially since the security barrier went up during the intifada, most eastern Jerusalem Arabs identify strongly as part of the Palestinian people.
Gold, author of the recent book “The Battle ! for Jeru salem,” says the idea that Palestinians might be satisfied with an eastern Jerusalem neighborhood as their future capital is an “Israeli illusion.”
“The real issue in Jerusalem comes down to access to holy sites,” he said. The Palestinians “want the Old City. If you simply pull back from East Jerusalem neighborhoods, the Palestinians will demand the Old City, which is their real goal.”
Hillel Cohen, a historian who just published a book, “The Market Square is Empty: The Rise and Fall of Our Jerusalem,” said the debate is not over whether Jerusalem is a truly unified city of two peoples living in an integrated way. Clearly it isn’t, he said.
“I don’t think there’s any debate on the facts of life in Jerusalem. The debates are what to do with reality,” Cohen said. “Should some neighborhoods be handed to the Palestinian Authority? Should regional municipalities be established? What will happen to the Temple Mount?”
Rami Nasrallah, an urban planner who heads the board of the International Peace and Cooperation Center in eastern Jerusalem, said efforts were never made to truly unite the city, with equal resources given to the Jewish and Arab sectors.
Meanwhile, he said, as the security barrier makes life increasingly restrictive for Jerusalem Arabs and as an entire generation of Palestinians living outside the city limits grows up without being able to visit the city and its holy sites, the situation becomes increasingly volatile.
“Symbols become more important, and it becomes more of a religious conflict than a national conflict,” Nasrallah said. “This is a situation that you cannot control.”
Both the Israeli and Palestinian governments are weak, and even with the best of intentions, the political force needed to broker a peace deal is lacking, he said.
Hasson, the geographer, said that in the absence of a permanent resolution of Jerusalem’s status, interim solutions are neede! d. He su ggested three options.
The first is based on the Brussels example, where one overarching municipality deals with larger issues of infrastructure and planning and two separate municipalities oversee cultural, religious and social issues.
A second option could be a unilateral separation, with Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli control and Arab ones under Palestinian Authority control.
Acknowledging that the city is almost equally divided among Arabs, Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews, Hasson said a third option would be to create separate boroughs for each sector. The Old City itself could be a fourth borough.
Each of these possibilities has its shortcomings, Hasson acknowledged, but suggested, “These could be the first steps to a permanent-state solution and could change the frame of mind of both sides.”