Jerusalem Report

The state of East Jerusalem

Palestinian residents of Jerusalem feel left out of the bid for statehood.

Palestinians in barber shop watch Mahmoud Abbas.
Photo by: BAZ RATNER / REUTERS
Several dozen people, mostly elderly men, sit on plastic chairs in the al-Musrara coffee shop. Their arms crossed over their chests to brace themselves against the first chill winds of autumn, they drink fragrant mint tea as they watch the Al Jazeera satellite TV live broadcast September 23 of Palestinian Authority (PA ) President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech to the UN General Assembly.

A popular coffee shop with a bright green neon sign, al-Musrara is located just outside the Damascus Gate in the walls surrounding the Old City, in the Musrara neighborhood that straddles the Green Line that divided Israeli and Jordanian Jerusalem until 1967.

They sit with their backs to the Old City’s ancient historic walls, watching the events.

“I do not believe that anyone with a shred of conscience can reject our application… and our admission as an independent state,” Abbas proclaims.

Some 15 kilometers north, in downtown Ramallah, thousands gather in Arafat Square, recently renamed in honor of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The PA has set up large screens to broadcast Abbas’s speech and people of all ages wave Palestinian flags excitedly.

Life-sized posters of Abbas are everywhere, and the mood is festive, and free. Officials report that the turnout in Ramallah is the largest it has been since Arafat’s funeral in 2004.

But in Jerusalem the mood is restrained.

In accordance with the Oslo Accords, Israeli authorities have long banned the flying of Palestinian flags and demonstration of other symbols of Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem, so no Palestinian flags flutter here and no life-sized posters of Abbas beam down on the somber citizens.

The beefed-up Israeli police and army presence, deployed throughout the city, only adds to Palestinian Jerusalemites’ subdued enthusiasm and sense of caution.

The men at al-Musrara clap and whistle as Abbas approaches the podium. Soon the atmosphere seems awkward and silence takes over. About halfway through the speech, people begin chatting among themselves, having lost interest in the speech.

Mohammad Basha, 27, from Shuafat in north Jerusalem, tall with sandy blond hair, drops by al-Musrara to pick up a falafel sandwich. He stops to see what the fuss is about. He tells The Jerusalem Report that he didn’t know that Abbas was supposed to be speaking, but he stays to listen as he munches his falafel.

“I’ve lost interest and faith in politics and politicians. They have all lost touch with the truth and with reality,” Basha says between mouthfuls.

Through the loudspeakers, the small crowd listens to Abbas as he declares, “The occupying power also continues to refuse permits for our people to build in occupied East Jerusalem, at the same time that it intensifies its decades-long campaign of demolition and confiscation of homes, displacing Palestinian owners and residents under a longstanding policy of ethnic cleansing.”

This draws a round of applause.

“Finally, the Palestinian Authority acknowledges our suffering instead of guilt-tripping us because of our Israeli ID cards,” says Jamal el-Masri, also 27, a thin and slightly balding man, watching the speech from afar.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, by the end of 2010 some 288,000 Palestinians lived in Jerusalem, comprising about 37 percent of the city’s total population of 789,000.

East Jerusalemites live in a special limbo, neither fully Israeli nor fully Palestinian.

They have residency status, which enables them to live and work in Jerusalem and earn higher salaries, to travel abroad through Israeli ports and airports and, most importantly, to receive Israeli health and social benefits.

Residents of the West Bank, who carry PA issued IDs, are prevented from entering Jerusalem and Israel by the Israeli authorities, and must travel through Jordan in order to go abroad. Even for those who hold permits to enter Jerusalem, the hundreds of checkpoints and the security barrier make Jerusalem essentially off-limits most of the time and confine them to their cities and villages.

But East Jerusalemites are not Israeli citizens.

They may not vote in general elections.

They may vote in municipal elections but have almost universally chosen not to, viewing participation in the elections as a tacit acceptance of the legitimacy of the occupation.

They are regularly subject to security checks by the security authorities, they receive few municipal services in their neighborhoods and, in the past few years, they have been subject to evictions and increasingly strident ideological Jewish settlements in heavily populated Palestinian neighborhoods.

Dr. Ali Qleibo, head of the Department of Fine Arts at Al-Quds University, in Abu Dis, tells The Report that not only are there significant sociological differences between East Jerusalemites and West Bankers – there are also significant misunderstandings.

“The West Bankers think that Jerusalemites live in Israel and have an easy life, but in reality, Jerusalemites are confined to East Jerusalem in much the same way that they are confined to their cities and villages,” Qleibo says. “West Bankers think that Jerusalemites make more money, but they do not take into account that after taxes they end up earning the same and they pay thousands of shekels yearly in arnona [municipal taxes] which is more than they would pay for rent,” he says.

He then adds that East Jerusalemites think that the West Bankers have freer lives than they, but that too is an illusion.

West Bankers view residents of East Jerusalem as ‘sell-outs’ who benefit from the Israeli government. To counter, East Jerusalemite Palestinians point to their high rate of poverty; indeed, according to a report released in 2010 by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), three out of four Palestinians in East Jerusalem live below the poverty line. Due to Israeli limits on housing and public construction, there is a dire shortage of housing and classrooms. Many Palestinian neighborhoods receive no municipal services, such as garbage collection.

“I’m so sick of hearing about all these so-called benefits we get,” Faiza Amr, 53, a resident of the Old City with short, brown curly hair says. Amr, who has come to al-Musrara to listen to Abbas, tells The Report that she doesn’t get much in return for the high taxes she pays. “What about… the arnona, the higher cost of living. And with all that, our streets are dirty, and our children go to overcrowded schools.”

Jerusalem, which once was the commercial, political and social hub for Palestinians, has been replaced by Ramallah where all the governmental buildings are located, and where all the money is.

“All the donations and money go to the West Bank and specifically to Ramallah and not one shekel comes to Jerusalem,” says Fadwa Hazem, a woman with stylish glasses who stops to put down the bags of fruit and vegetables she is carrying to talk to The Report.

“Where is all the money going?” asks Hazem, 34. “What about East Jerusalemites? Do we not deserve any help?” “Every day is a battle,” says Munira Zeitun, a 42-year-old mother of six who lives in Silwan, a neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem, where a small group of settlers has taken up residence. In the past two years, her neighborhood has been the site of almost constant violence. “Every day, we have to live with the constant harassment of the settlers, and the vengeance of the army on us and on our children,” she says, adjusting her headscarf.

“They have arrested three of my children on suspicion of rock throwing.”

Her son Mohammad, 13, was arrested twice, once on his way back from school, the other when he went to the nearby grocery store and was caught between youths hurling stones and Israeli soldiers.

“Our house permanently reeks of tear gas,” Zeitun says. Their house, located next to the village mosque, is a flash point between soldiers and stone-throwing youth. “No one will come visit us, everyone is afraid,” she complains.

Adnan al-Husseini, the PA-appointed governor of Jerusalem tells The Report, “Jerusalem highlights the very problem facing Palestinians today. Jerusalem is under siege where prayers, celebrations, expressions, everything is subject to Israeli control.”

“The battle for freedom and sovereignty in Jerusalem has not been easy, and is not going to be easy, but Palestinians, and the PA will not give up on their claims for Jerusalem,” al- Husseini says.

But reflecting the prevailing view that East Jerusalemites have been abandoned by the Palestinian Authority, which would rather promote Ramallah as its social and economic capital and pays little more than lip service to the centrality of Jerusalem, Amr says sadly, “We are all alone against an Israeli government that mistreats us and a Palestinian Authority that ignores us.”

“East Jerusalemites are spectators,” Qleibo says. “Governments make decisions on their behalf but no one truly represents them.”

Hundreds of East Jerusalemites have moved to the West Bank, especially to Ramallah, over the years. And though they receive lower wages, they have cheaper housing, lower taxes and less Israeli control.

“Since I moved out of Jerusalem I feel so much more relaxed, so much more at ease,” says Ahmad, a young man with dark hair and hazel eyes, who refuses to give his last name.

“I don’t have to worry about Israeli police or army harassing me or heavy taxes that eat away at me… My salary is much lower, but I have a beautiful house and a much calmer life.” He adds, “It would be a shame to lose my ID and my right to live in my ancestral city, but life in Jerusalem is nearly impossible to handle.”

Young people feel that Jerusalem is ‘boring’ and are attracted to the better night life in Ramallah and Bethlehem, with their coffee shops, bars and nightclubs. Businessmen are reluctant to open businesses in East Jerusalem, a place that no one can get to, apart from other East Jerusalemites and the few Israelis that venture there.

“Jerusalem used to have three cinemas, it was the center for shopping and entertainment,” says Anwar Zayda, 73, the owner of a store on Saladdin Street, the main thoroughfare.

“Now it’s a ghost town, with no people and no prospects… Apart from the Old City where people walk around, shop during the day, East Jerusalem is ‘dead’ after 6 p.m.

Everybody goes home and locks the door,” Zayda says.

Yet East Jerusalemites also say that they enjoy their proximity to West Jerusalem and have reservations about becoming part of a Palestinian state.

“Every Thursday I go to downtown West Jerusalem to party with my friends,” says Raed Joulany, a school teacher. “I go to one of the dozens of bars to let out some steam after a week of hard work.”

“I go with a group of friends, and we have a great time, drinking and socializing,” he says.

He adds that sometimes there are drunken Jewish youth who harass them, but most of the time, provided they don’t speak Arabic loudly, they have a good time.

With regard to a future Palestinian state, Majdi Murad, 32, a clothes salesman in a store on Saladdin Street, tells The Report, “If living in East Jerusalem under the PA rule means not being able to access West Jerusalem and Israel, I wouldn’t support that.”

Handing change back to a customer he adds, “I don’t think any Palestinian in East Jerusalem would support that. A big chunk of our lives and livelihood depends on having access to Israel.”

Two days after his historical speech Abbas returned to Ramallah for a hero’s welcome. “The people want a Palestinian state,” they chanted.

His speech was interrupted several times by the thousands of cheering Palestinians.

But in Jerusalem, it was just another Sunday.

Israeli police were heavily deployed in the city, and Palestinians went about their daily business, cautiously.


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