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Jerusalem the symbol vs. Jerusalem the city


JERUSALEM, July 25 (JTA) — Jerusalem may be a city infused with historical and religious significance to three of the world’s great faiths, but it is also a city with ordinary people who live ordinary lives.

As the fate of Jerusalem was brought to the negotiating table this week in Camp David, pundits tried to determine whether compromise could supersede the passions that have prevented Israelis and Palestinians from discussing the city until now, and lead to a historic peace accord.

But there was little talk about things like garbage collection or social security, issues that would have been affected by any agreement to change the status of parts of the city.

Apparently, passions over the city were too strong for the Camp David negotiators and were primarily the reasons for the summit’s end.

If there ever is any decision on Jerusalem, it would need to take into account both the heavenly aura of a city charged with emotion and faith, as well as the earthly details of how municipal bureaucracy would function in a shared metropolis.

The issues are further complicated by difficult geography, with Arab and Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem situated side by side.

During the negotiations, it was unclear what type of formula for sharing the city — if any — the leaders were discussing. But it would have been the details that determine to what extent the lives of Israelis and Palestinians would be affected.

What is clear is that during the 33 years since Israel captured eastern Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, the unification of the two extremely different sides of the city has created a dynamic that will be hard to reverse.

Many Palestinians work in Jewish parts of Jerusalem and are an integral part of the city’s economic pulse — whether as taxi drivers, car mechanics, cooks in trendy cafes or construction workers. They may work primarily in menial jobs, but at least they have jobs, in contrast to the many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who are unemployed.

Indeed, the economic realities of the city, combined with the mutual need for free access to holy sites, are among the reasons why Israeli and Palestinian leaders knew from the start that any change in the city’s status could not include a physical division of Jerusalem. Neither side wants new masses of unemployed Palestinians or a checkpoint in the center of the city.

Still, the lives of Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem would likely change significantly if an accord is signed that would place control of their affairs under the Palestinian Authority — and not necessarily for the better. An increasing number of Palestinians are putting patriotism aside and speaking out openly about their fears of living under Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s regime, with its well-documented corruption and stagnant economic policy.

Khader Ali, a 50-year-old unemployed resident of the Shuafat refugee camp, which could be transferred to the Palestinians, is not looking forward to Palestinian rule as he watches what he calls “corruption or nepotism” just down the road.

“The truth is we don’t want either side, the status quo is good,” he said. Under that status quo, Ali, who has 12 children, enjoys a standard Israeli per-child social security stipend that totals more than $1,200 a month — more than the typical salary of a Palestinian policeman and a decent sum even for blue-collar Israeli workers.

A few years ago, he worked on the printing press at The Jerusalem Post. When he lost his job, he received $500 a month in unemployment benefits for several months.

“Arafat won’t pay me unemployment benefits or social security,” he said. “We cannot say it openly but we prefer Israel.”

For Israelis, it is unclear what the practical ramifications of any agreements on Jerusalem would be. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who opposes any compromise on the city, has spoken out repeatedly against any compromise in Jerusalem, mostly on historical and religious grounds.

In an op-ed piece in Yediot Achronot, Israel’s largest mass circulation newspaper, Olmert alluded to the potential problems of sharing sovereignty with the Palestinians.

“The Israeli government is constantly talking about separation, but in practice this produces an idea that has no ground in reality, of Israeli sovereignty and Palestinian administration on the ground,” wrote Olmert. “There is no such animal in reality, just as there is no joint sovereignty in any municipal area, and certainly not in a city so complicated and complex like Jerusalem.”

Yet when asked by JTA for more detail, Olmert’s spokesman’s office said the mayor would not comment on the possible practical ramifications of a compromise in the city, and how it could affect the lives of Jewish residents. “The question is irrelevant since the mayor is against any division of Jerusalem,” said an official at Olmert’s spokesman’s office. In any case, said the official, Olmert could not respond in more detail until an accord was announced.

However, the increasing roster of prominent figures now speaking out in favor of a compromise on Jerusalem includes people who say Israelis would feel absolutely no change in their lives if some form of sovereignty is granted to the Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem.

“Practically speaking, there is no problem for Palestinians to officially take over their affairs in Jerusalem,” said Arieh Amit, a businessman who served as Jerusalem police chief between 1994 and 1996 and who has published papers supporting a compromise.

“There will be no change whatsoever for Israelis, since they do not go to those places that would be handed over to the Palestinians.”

Amit argues that the city is already divided in reality because during the past few years the Palestinian Authority has quietly started providing civil services and even begun to take control of security affairs in Arab neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem.

He even predicts improvements in security for Israelis if the city is divided, due to increased cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian forces, and expects Palestinians to continue to work freely with Jews.

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