Behind the Headlines: 28 Years After Reunification, Jerusalem Still a Divided City
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Behind the Headlines: 28 Years After Reunification, Jerusalem Still a Divided City

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As Israel prepares to mark the 28th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, many here believe that division, not unity, characterizes relations between Jews and Arabs in the nation’s capital.

“Jerusalem is not united,” said Ornan Yekutieli, city council member. “The wall dividing the city is higher than ever.”

Although many Israelis from different parts of the country come each year to celebrate Jerusalem Day, which this year falls on Sunday, less than a third of the city’s residents join the festivities.

The fervently Orthodox residents, who constitute a third of Jerusalem’s population, avoid the secular celebration.

For the other third, the city’s Palestinians, Jerusalem Day is more a time for mourning their loss of the eastern sector of the city, which Israel captured from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israeli-Palestinian tensions in the city came to the fore in recent weeks, when Israel announced plans to expropriate nearly 140 acres of mostly Arab-owned land.

After resisting international criticism of the move, Israel froze its plans this week when two Arab parties in the Knesset vowed to bring down the governing coalition in a no-confidence vote.

Even before the land confiscation plans made headlines, however, the rhetoric over Jerusalem had intensified at home and abroad in recent months.

This, despite an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to delay discussions on Jerusalem until final-status talks, which are scheduled to begin next year.

While Israel has declared that Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of the State of Israel, the Palestinians claim the eastern sector as the capital of their own would-be state.

Whatever arrangements the politicians ultimately work out, Jerusalem’s current residents are living their own reality of separation.

“Most Israelis don’t cross to the other side; they hardly venture into the Old City, let alone into the rest of Arab East Jerusalem,” said Yekutieli, a native of Jerusalem who served as deputy mayor under the city’s longtime leader, Teddy Kollek.

“Why they fear for their safety, and they don’t feel at home there,” said Yekutieli, who heads the city council’s Meretz faction, which currently represent the Arabs’ interests.

There are pockets of coexistence throughout the city, including some hospitals and health centers that serve both Arabs and Jews. And several organizations run programs aimed at improving ties between the city’s Jewish and Arab residents.

But despite the efforts of groups such as the Abraham Fund, Peace Now, the feminist Jerusalem Link and the New Israel Fund, Jerusalem hardly serves as a model for Jewish-Arab coexistence.

For their part, Palestinians venture out from eastern Jerusalem only to satisfy needs that cannot be met in their part of the city, such as employment, business and medical needs.

When Palestinians come to City Hall to register a child for school, seek a business permit, pay or argue over taxes, or lodge a complaint, they find that some municipal personnel speak Arabic, but that very little of the city’s published information or correspondence is written in their language.

Yekutieli blames some of the distance on the Palestinians themselves.

“When Israel brought East Jerusalem under its jurisdiction, it awarded the Palestinians residency and the right to vote and be elected to the council,” he said.

“But they refused the offer, and did not take part in any municipal election,” he said.

He said the problems have become further exacerbated under the current administration of Mayor Ehud Olmert.

Until Olmert, a Likudnik, replaced Kollek as mayor in November 1993, there was a special Arab affairs adviser to the mayor.

But Olmert cancelled the position, and now Meretz represents the concerns of the Arabs, Yekutieli said.

As far as the distribution of services, Yekutieli said Jerusalem is “definitely not” run as a united city.

According to official figures, some 570,000 people live in the extended municipality of Jerusalem. The 160,000 Arab residents comprise 28 percent of the population, but receive only 6 percent of the municipal budget.

“Just walk through the Jewish Quarter and the rest of the Old City, and see the difference. There is a day and night difference in most municipal services, and particularly in development planning and housing permits,” Yekutieli said.

But the most immediate problem facing the city’s Palestinians, according to most experts, is the severe housing shortage for Arabs.

According to Yekutieli, this disparity has resulted from the polices of successive city administrations over the years.

The mayor’s office declined an interview on these issues.

But a spokeswoman for the city council acknowledged the disparity in services, saying the mayor is trying to rectify the situation.

“There is a gap in standard of services which developed over a long period of neglect due to numerous historical and political reasons,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.

“Since Mayor Olmert took office over a year ago, he is committed to ensure that all residents of Jerusalem receive equal municipal services. We are now working towards this goal,” the statement added.

Meanwhile, B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, has just released a report on the lack of parity between Israelis and Arabs living in Jerusalem.

“The predominant problem of Jerusalem is housing,” according to the report’s author, Eitan Felner.

“The housing shortage is intentional, and its goal is to maintain the same demographic balance between Jews and Arabs that existed in JUne 167,” when Israel captured the eastern sector for the city, Felner said in an interview.

“This explains the history of land expropriation for building new housing for Israelis. Simultaneously, development plans and housing permits for Arabs are consistently being turned down or stuck in committees,” he said.

The B’Tselem report found that of the 76,151 housing units that have been built in Jerusalem since 1967, 88 percent have been for Jews and 12 percent for Arabs.

In 1993 alone, the report said, only 3.8 percent of housing units were built in Arab areas.

There is a current shortage shortage of 20,000 homes for Arabs, the reports estimates, adding that while a third of the city’s Arab population lives in overcrowded conditions of three or more persons per room, only 2.7 percent of Jerusalem’s Jews live in similar conditions.

Muhamad Nakhal also views the housing shortage as the main issue facing the city’s Arab population.

Nakhal heads the research department of the Arab Studies Society, which is located in Orient House, the do facto Palestinian headquarters in Jerusalem.

His family has lived in Jerusalem for generations, and some of the family land has been expropriated for residential purposes.

Nakhal asserted that nearly 60,000 Palestinians have already left the city due to the shortage of available homes.

“We’re united only in our taxes,” he said. “A third of the city’s tax revenues come from Palestinians, yet very little is returned in terms of services and development.

“This was a united city in the past, and we believe that it should stay so. But not by driving out the Palestinians,” he said.

Nakhal said he believes that a united Jerusalem and coexistence are still possible, “provided we have two states that live side by side in peace and that we, the Palestinians, have a political presence in East Jerusalem.”

Yekutieli and Felner agreed.

“It is still possible to unify Jerusalem,” Yekutieli said, adding, “The invisible wall that exists now can be lowered by equalizing rights and services between Jews and Arabs.”

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